Happy Holidays/Looking Forward to 2019


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I hope everyone has been enjoying the holiday season.

2018 was a big year: retirement, selling a house and moving, signing two book contracts.

TWO book contracts?! It’s not something I ever thought would happen, but it did.

The first contract was the result of long-term planning. I’d started on a biography of mega-star Dale Evans about ten years ago, then set it aside to work on Angels of the Underground. About a year or so ago, I began working with my agent to draft a proposal for the Evans book, which was picked up by Lyons Press. Right now it has the working title of Queen of the West.

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The second contract was a matter of serendipity. A book editor had an idea and approached my agent about having me take on the project. This book is about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was a physician with the Union army during the Civil War and spent some time as a prisoner of the Confederacy. Plus she was a major figure in the women’s rights movement, but other prominent women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton tried to erase her from the movement’s history because of her radical views.

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I love both of these book projects. Through the first half of 2019, there will be more here about Mary Walker and her exploits, as well as about my own writing and publishing journey. Then Walker will gradually be replaced by updates about Dale Evans.

First, though, I will be posting about my favorite books from 2018, both fiction and nonfiction. Look for those entries over the next week or so.

And a reminder for those of you who can’t get enough of narrative nonfiction, I co-administer a great group on Facebook called Nonfiction Fans. Come join us. You can also follow the group on Twitter @nonfictionfans.




Well I have been & gone & have done it!


For me, this isn’t an unusual occurrence. I vote. I couldn’t wait until I turned eighteen so I could vote. While I was growing up, my mother served as an election judge. For several years our house was a polling place. I majored in political science and history as an undergrad, so I studied elections. As a history professor, I taught about voting rights and elections.

I retired last spring and moved to a new town this summer, which meant I had to register to vote again. I decided to wait until Wisconsin began early voting for this election cycle so I could take care of the registration and voting at the Municipal Building.

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I made sure I had my driver’s license and a couple of documents with my new address on them. I was aware of how easy the process was for me. It was no problem to gather the forms of i.d. required by the state. I had the time to go when the office was open. I know this isn’t the case for many eligible voters across the country.

So I was once again reminded of the long struggle for voting rights in the United States. The 14th and 15th Amendments were supposed to guarantee voting rights for African American men, but Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan violence effectively prevented that until the federal government finally stepped in during the 20th century.

And those amendments ignored women’s voting rights, which weren’t secured until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. That amendment, too, didn’t guarantee that black women could vote.

Every time I vote, I think of Alice Paul and all the other suffragists who went on hunger strikes in 1917, risking their lives, for the suffrage cause.

Yesterday, I also thought about Susan B. Anthony, who tested the limits of the 14th Amendment, a strategy known as the New Departure. Suffragists argued that the amendment’s gender-neutral citizenship definition automatically conveyed voting rights to women. So in 1872, Anthony and several other women in Rochester, New York went out and voted.* With great enthusiasm she wrote to her political partner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Well I have been & gone & have done it!”

I keep thinking about the exuberance of Anthony’s words as I remember the risks she and all the other suffragists took. The least we can do to honor them is to go out and vote.


*Two weeks later, Anthony was arrested and put on trial for illegal voting. She was quickly found guilty but never paid the fine.


150 Years of Little Women

One hundred fifty years ago, Louisa May Alcott published a charming, heartfelt story about four sisters growing up in the mid-1800s.

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Alcott was one of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women who put pen to paper in an attempt to earn a living. In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to them as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” He worried about the competition from popular female novelists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Catharine Sedgwick, and E.D.E.N. Southworth.

Yet, with the possible exception of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, none of the works of these authors remains as relevant or as well known as Little Women.

Literary scholar Anne Boyd Rioux’s new book explains, in clear and accessible prose, exactly why.

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Published earlier this month by W.W. Norton in advance of the anniversary, it has been widely reviewed and highly praised, and deservedly so. Rioux begins with the history of Little Women, explaining how Alcott came to write it and how readers reacted to it in 1868. (Spoiler alert: it was extremely popular.) In the second part of the book, Rioux discusses the various stage and screen (both large and small) adaptations. It was also dramatized several times on radio.  The third part covers Little Women‘s continuing importance today. Two of my favorite chapters in the book come from this section, where Rioux examines girlhood and character types, then compares the novel to contemporary stories aimed at girls, like Gilmore Girls.

So treat yourself. Reread (or experience for the first time) Alcott’s classic. But don’t forget to pair it with Anne Boyd Rioux’s thoughtful and entertaining analysis of 150 years of Little Women.


Touring Pearl Harbor and the Complexities of History

A week ago I was enjoying my final hours of a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Hawaii. I spent a week on Kauai, known as the Garden Island for its abundant natural beauty, with my husband, my siblings, and their spouses. I’d read up on places like Waimea Canyon (which is breathtaking), but didn’t know anything about the feral chickens until I arrived on the island. This hen flew up on our lanai to escape the attentions of a persistent rooster. Kauai chicken

Instead of flying straight home, we opted to spend a day on Oahu so we could visit the Pearl Harbor sites. We only had about five hours, so we couldn’t see everything. We started at the USS Missouri.

We had a very knowledgeable tour guide who told us a lot about the battleship and its role in World War II. There was just enough time to get immersed in that history before taking the shuttle back to the Pearl Harbor Memorial for our abbreviated tour of the USS Arizona Memorial.

USS Arizona Memorial, watery grave of Pearl Harbor sailors, remains closed as officials mull repairs

Abbreviated because now it consists of an introductory film followed by a boat ride that takes visitors around the memorial. The building is closed for repairs. We knew that before we arrived; still, it was a disappointment that detracts from the power of the memorial.

The USS Arizona was bombed and sunk by Japanese planes on the morning of December 7, 1941. Over eleven hundred crew members died. The memorial sits on top of its wreckage, with some nine hundred bodies that couldn’t be recovered.

What I’ve been thinking about the most since that visit is Army Air Corps First Lieutenant Kermit Tyler. He was on temporary duty at the radar station at Fort Shafter on the morning of December 7, 1941. A fighter pilot, Tyler had only brief instructions on radar operations as an observer-trainee before taking his seat in that station on that fateful morning. Tyler received a communication from another radio operator at the northern end of Oahu at the Opana Radar Station. There were some fast approaching aircraft lighting up his screen.

“Don’t worry about it,” Tyler responded. He knew a batch of B-17 bombers were due in from the the mainland. The message didn’t include a crucial piece of information: the sheer number of planes causing all those radar blips.

The rest, as we know, is history. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that morning, drawing the United States into World War II. Numerous inquiries exonerated Tyler of any wrongdoing on December 7. He went on to fly combat missions in the Pacific theater during the war, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1961.

Perhaps it’s only human to want to be able to trace the blame for a catastrophic event back to one person. But lots of mistakes were made leading up to December 7. Kermit Tyler wasn’t responsible for Pearl Harbor, but for the rest of his life he had to live with those words he uttered that morning.

The Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu has an exhibit panel about the events of that morning. It includes a sidebar on Tyler’s role that poses the pertinent question: “His assessment was based on deductive reasoning with limited information and two days’ experience. Would you have acted differently?”

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It is important to know what Kermit Tyler did on the morning of December 7, 1941 not so we can point fingers and assess blame, but to understand how incredibly complex history is.

For various views on why Pearl Harbor happened, read:



A Star is Born and the Promise of 1970s Feminism

In December 1976, Warner Brothers released the third film version of A Star is Born. This time the story was set in the world of rock music instead of Hollywood. The movie starred Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard, the rocker headed for a flame-out and Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman, the struggling songstress on her way up. Ahead of yet another music-industry based version due out later this year with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, the 1976 film is now streaming on Netflix.


The movie itself didn’t receive much critical acclaim when it was released. Roger Ebert gave it a reluctant two-and-a-half star review. He didn’t buy–not for a single minute–Streisand as a struggling singer, but he loved her voice. Movie-goers flocked to see it, though. A Star is Born grossed $80 million at the box office, which made it the third highest earner of 1976. The movie’s theme song, “Evergreen,” topped the pop charts, and won an Oscar for best original song.

I watched the movie last night on Netflix, probably the first time I’ve seen it in 20 or 30 years. I saw the movie in the theater at least once when it came out, maybe more. I bought a cassette of the soundtrack, and I still have it (and play it). I’ve probably seen the movie on video, too.

I’ve never been sure why I like the movie so much. I’d never been a huge fan of the music of Kristofferson or Streisand. I think it has much more to do with that particular time–the mid-1970s–and the movie roles Streisand chose. I’d enjoyed her foray into screwball comedies with What’s Up, Doc? and For Pete’s Sake. (Of course, there was The Way We Were, but I found the heavy drama annoying.) I liked Streisand’s quirky characters, the strong women who knew their own minds.

As Esther Hoffman in A Star is Born, Barbra Streisand portrayed a very modern woman, talented and driven, who assumed she could have both a great career and a satisfying personal life. She didn’t intend to compromise on either. The best thing: she was totally confident in her abilities. She knew who she was, with or without John Norman Howard.

Esther Hoffman personified the goals of 1970s feminism. During that decade, gender equality seemed achievable. The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966, provided support for challenging legal inequalities. Women’s liberation groups offered consciousness raising and other tools for addressing more personal concerns. And after decades of languishing in various congressional committees, the Equal Rights Amendment finally passed through both houses of Congress and was sent on to the states for ratification in 1972. By 1977, the year after A Star is Born was released, 35 of the required 38 states ratified it.

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In the first musical number featuring Streisand in A Star is Born, she sang “Queen Bee,” a song that blatantly trumpets women’s sexual desire as it calls for new ways of looking at women. And it includes some pretty great lines:

The queen bee, no way, and even tho’ they think they’re the kings
(escatological things)
Who are they foolin’? Playin’ at rulin’
It’s the queen behind the scene who pulls the strings
So, in conclusion, it’s an optical illusion
If you think that we’re the weaker race
Men got the muscle, but the ladies got the hustle
And the truth is staring in your face.

And tucked in near the end:  “Write me a sequel; Give me an equal.”

The feminist/equality theme of the movie continued with Streisand’s next big number, “The Woman in the Moon.”

Those opening lines:

I was warned as a child of thirteen
Not to act too strong
Try to look like you belong but don’t push girl
Save your time and trouble
Don’t misbehave
I was raised in a “no you don’t world”
Overrun with rules
Memorize your lines and move as directed

And notice Streisand’s wardrobe choice for that scene. The suit. The power suit. As more and more women headed into careers in the 1970s and 1980s, suits were their work uniforms of choice, signalling their insistence on an equal footing with men in the workplace.

What A Star is Born signals to me, then, is all the promise of 1970s feminism. It was a heady time of possibilities for women, with gender equality within reach. I’m reminded of that each time I watch the movie, every time I hear one of its songs (well, maybe except for “Evergreen,” which quickly turns into an ear worm).

And the movie’s ending is a stark reminder that big change doesn’t come easily. There are setbacks and tragedies. But maybe, in the end, “they can hold back the tide, but they can never hold the woman in the moon.”