Thanks for visiting my site. I’m Bette Bono, author of the historical fiction, time travel novels The Better Angels and Fear Itself, and the short story collection Neighbors and Other Stories.
What’s this blog about? My writing mixes many things I love, and so does this blog. Here you can find posts on history, books, writing, mystery, time travel, adventure, romance, senior citizens, and superheroes. (Those last two or three topics are not mutually exclusive.) So check out the categories listed to the side. (If you’re on your phone, the categories may appear at the bottom.) I hope you find something to interest and intrigue you. Enjoy!
What are my novels about? In The Better Angels, retired teacher Aggie May fears dementia when she begins to see visions from the past. Then she gets a recruitment visit from Abe Irving of the American Association of Remarkable Persons (“the other AARP”) who explains she has developed the ability to travel through time. Soon Aggie joins other “Remarkables” on a mission to 19th century New York City in an effort to locate a missing photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln created by the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. While learning the rules and limits of time travel, Aggie faces the possibility that she may have both extraordinary power and extraordinary vulnerability.
Aggie, Abe, and the other senior time travelers reconnect in Fear Itself. This time, in a bid to understand what was happening in America as Hitler rose to power, they investigate America First and the pro-fascist German American Bund, two groups active in the United States in the 1930s. As Aggie and Abe explore this dark history, they grow closer. But when unexpected danger appears, they are forced to confront their obligation to act against evil.
What about the short stories? We think of neighbors as those that live nearby. But we’re all linked to other people, places, and time periods. Sometimes those connections reflect love and joy, sometimes danger and darkness. Neighbors includes stories about coal mining, vaudeville, the Nazi’s exhibition of “degenerate art,” the Coney Island ride A Trip to the Moon, tightrope walking, wasps, poisonous plants, space debris falling from the sky, old people falling in love, young people falling in love, Grand Central Station, Munich in 1937, Central Park in 1873, synesthesia, Picasso’s Bust of Francoise, the Wright brothers, affordable housing, and the meaning of life. Neighbors explores relationships we have with other people, with ideas, with history, and with ourselves.
People’s stories play out against a backdrop of history. Here’s a love story that took place in a world affected by the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Vesta Coal Company, and World War II. Don’t worry. This story has a happy ending. The people in the story are Jack and Bette. They were my parents.
Jack was born into an Italian-American family in 1925. His childhood was spent in a Pennsylvania coal mine “company town” operated by the Vesta Coal Company. His father, older brother, and sister’s husband all worked in the mine. In the 1940’s, Vesta’s No. 4 mine was the largest bituminous coal mine in the world.
Jack was bright and loved school. In high school, he did well in math and English, wrote stories, played basketball, and was quarterback on the football team. In the summer, he worked in the mine to help his family, but he hated it. Hated the hours of darkness, the danger, the claustrophobic world deep inside the earth.
In early 1943, the spring of his senior year in high school, Jack made the decision to enlist in the Navy immediately after graduation. World War II was raging, and he wanted to help the war effort on the oceans rather than in the mine. He spoke with a Navy recruiter who told him FDR had just approved a new initiative called the V-12 Program to expand the number of officers with training in certain technical fields such as engineering. A nationwide standardized test would be given in April. If he did well, he might be sent to one of the more than one hundred universities slated to participate in the V-12 program.
Jack sat for the test and scored well. By the fall of 1943, he was on the beautiful campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, right on the shore of Lake Michigan. He had likely never before traveled outside Washington County, Pennsylvania. Neither his parents nor his siblings had had much formal education. Now he was at college.
Bette was also born in 1925, a few months after Jack. Her home was in a suburb north of the city of Chicago. Her mother had grown up on a poor farm in Indiana, the tenth child of German-American parents with barely any schooling. Bette’s father’s family had come to the United States from Canada. He’d worked for a Y.M.C.A. then landed a job as an athletic coach and drill instructor at New Trier, a giant township high school serving Winnetka and other communities.
The Great Depression hit the family hard. They lost their home when they had medical bills to pay and missed a single mortgage payment. Bette remembered sitting at the top of the stairs at night, listening to her parents argue about how they would make ends meet. In most of the photographs taken of her as a child, she was unsmiling and solemn.
As Roosevelt’s New Deal programs began to spread money into local communities, Bette’s father convinced New Trier to fund the construction of a giant indoor swimming pool. He soon added the title of Swim Coach to his job description and initiated a wide range of swimming programs for both students and the wider community. Things steadied, and the family’s welfare improved, but hard times had left their mark. Bette was quiet and studious in high school. She earned good grades but did not have a boyfriend and rarely went out to parties or other gatherings, unlike her much more sociable younger sister.
In the fall of ’43, Bette started her freshman year at Northwestern University. She was considering becoming a nurse. Somehow, she summoned the courage to visit a few of the sororities on campus, and was invited to join Alpha Xi Delta. Bette was convinced the only reason she was selected was because a few quiet studious girls were needed to increase the sorority’s grade point average.
As the semester began, the sororities at Northwestern decided to sponsor a dance to welcome their new Navy classmates from the V-12 program. Bette was disinclined to go, but her sorority sisters insisted. Jack had expected to miss the dance because it was his turn to be the V-12 “duty officer” for that Saturday night, charged with signing his V-12 classmates in and out for the evening and making sure all returned by curfew. But then a V-12 classmate asked to switch duty officer dates with him, so he was free to go to the dance.
Jack was standing at the edge of the dance floor when he saw Bette arrive and start down the stairs into the ballroom. Decades later, he could still describe the dress she was wearing—a navy blue frock with tiny white polka-dots. He walked right up to her and asked her to dance. And they danced, and danced again, and didn’t dance with anyone else, just like in a fairy tale.
Before the night was over he had her phone number. Before the week was over, they had seen each other again. Before the month was over, they were in love.
On the morning of February 28, 1946, Jack graduated from his V-12 engineering program. That evening, Jack and Bette were married. Were they as happy as they look in these photographs? Yes. They lived happily ever after. Just like in a fairy tale.
In my historical fiction, time travel novel, Fear Itself, the characters go back to 1939 to observe a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden. The building where that rally took place no longer exists. As many know, the current Garden is the fourth building to bear that name. Here’s a short history of the first three Gardens:
The first Garden was an open-air structure located near Madison Square, at the northeast corner of East 26th Street and Madison Avenue. P.T. Barnum and others leased it for exhibitions and sporting events such as boxing and bicycle racing. It was not a financial success and only lasted for eleven years, from 1879 to 1890.
The second Garden, built on the same site, was designed by Stanford White and financed by wealthy investors like J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. It had Moorish elements including a 32-story tower. Inside was a huge main hall, a theater, and a rooftop restaurant.
In 1906, White met his end at the Garden’s restaurant. While dining with friends, White was confronted and shot by Harry Thaw. Thaw was a multimillionaire with mental problems who was angry over an exploitative relationship White had had with Thaw’s wife when she was a teenager. White was known to be a predator. Mark Twain stated that White “eagerly and diligently and ravenously and remorselessly hunted young girls to their destruction.”
Although the second Garden was a far more elaborate structure, able to host more types of events, it was a failure financially like the first Garden. It closed in 1925 and was demolished to make way for the New York Life Building.
The third Garden was built by a boxing promoter and went up in 1925. It was built on the west side of 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets and had room for almost 20,000 spectators. Many different kinds of shows, sporting events, and political gatherings took place in the third Garden.
One of the most controversial events—and one which I included in my novel—was the February 20, 1939, rally of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization active in the United States in the 1930s. During the rally, approximately 100,000 anti-Nazi protestors gathered outside. Mayor LaGuardia arranged for more than 1,500 uniformed police officers to maintain order.
Footage from this event was used to create the 2017 seven-minute documentary film “Night at the Garden” which garnered an Oscar nomination. In the photo of this rally, you can see American symbols—George Washington’s portrait and the American flag—displayed alongside antisemitic slogans and the Bund flag which featured a gold swastika on a red-and-white background. The third Garden was taken down in 1968. One Worldwide Plaza now stands on that site.
Writers of all kinds yearn for the blissful experience of writing a great line, a line that will reach readers, a line that will be remembered. Readers often have favorite lines from literature, lines they can quote from memory. Here’s a story about the gods that created “great lines in literature.”
The two gods had been hanging about, not doing much of anything. There had been some desultory conversation, then a look in on the human world where things, as might be expected, were going to hell in a handbasket. Nothing new. They had played a few hands of cards but soon lost interest and threw them down on the table.
“What are some of our greatest creations?”
“Hmmm. Our greatest creations?” The older of the two gods considered. “I’m rather fond of our creation of ‘the great line in a work of literature.’”
“Yes! Bro! Wasn’t that fun? There were so many details to work out. It’s not easy to create something that both inspires and confounds. It was rather brilliant of you to add in the point about misquoting great lines. What was the ratio you used?”
“Three out of ten. Three out of ten humans who attempt to quote a great line from literature will misquote it. And one of those three misquoted lines will carry with it an unintentionally humorous or erotic interpretation.”
The younger god grinned in appreciation. “Nice touch.”
“Your contributions deserve accolades as well,” the older god continued. “Very clever to add in the bit about quoting accurately but misusing the line in a totally inappropriate way. A lot of pols and celebrities embarrass themselves royally doing that.”
“Do you think we got a little cruel with our invention?” The younger god took a sip from his wine. “When we directed the muses to put our brainchild to use, they added a few tricks of their own, like giving great lines to writers whose works will never see the light of day. Or giving great lines to writers then having editors delete them.”
“Yes. And I suspect muses might be even more cruel than gods. Maybe because they’ve spent eons giving great lines to male writers who then take all the credit, only giving lip service to the muse that actually planted the line in their brain in the first place. Muses seem to have a better relationship with women writers. I suspect women writers and muses understand each other.”
“But it’s a beautiful creation, isn’t it? Look at Shakespeare: Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. And Dostoevsky: If there is no god, everything is permitted. And Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ….
“Don’t forget Melville. Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. That’s a great line, you gotta admit.”
“A little bleak, perhaps.”
“Bleak lines are appropriate when you’re dealing with nature. No, let me amend that—when you’re dealing with humans thinking they are the masters of nature.”
“So true. But balancing the bleak lines are the ones that express joy or optimism or strength. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
“Ah, Maya Angelou. That one kind of sticks with you, doesn’t it? Do you know this one? He did not belong with himself any more.”
“Jack London, right? ‘To Build a Fire.’”
“Yes. Always been one of my favorites. Great lines needn’t be elaborate or lengthy. Think Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers.”
The older of the two gods picked up the cards again, studied them briefly, then tossed them back on the table. “I like lines that exhibit self-awareness and show how humans screw things up.”
“Here’s one you’ll appreciate then, a classic from the 1920s, a follow up to the Great War, handed out to Fitzgerald who shared it with the world: They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
“Ouch. Lines like that make me really glad I’m not human.” He paused to reflect. “You know, now that there’s another pandemic, there are bound to be some great lines written.”
“That’s so. But remember when we put in that provision messing around with the element of time? Some great lines will be written long before they are needed or understood or appreciated. Some lines will be written at the moment of utmost urgency, when they could make a difference, but will be ignored nonetheless. Here’s a prime example.”
He started to recite, but his companion chimed in. He, too, knew the line: “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
“Edgar Allan Poe. ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ Do you know when that was written?”
“Of course I know when it was written. I keep track of our creations—well, I try to, anyway, with authors I love. That story was written in 1842. Before this pandemic. Before the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I loved the 1964 Vincent Price movie adaptation. A total mash-up, but loads of fun. I took human form for a day, so I could watch it in a real movie theater holding a bucket of popcorn.”
The older god shook his head reflectively. “I haven’t taken human form since the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park. There were a lot of writers there: Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray. Charles Dickens, too, of course. The muses complained about all the extra work they were doing handing out great lines, and there were rumblings of a strike to earn time-and-a-half, but nothing came of it.”
“Is that when the muses bequeathed that Dickens line?”
“No, it was a few years later. The muses were in a good mood that day. The line they gave him was the most glorious run-on. Let me see if I can remember the whole thing.”
He cleared his throat and began: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
“That’s a good one, all right,” the younger god said.
“He was gifted that line in 1859. Could have been yesterday.”
From somewhere outside, they heard a gentle tintinnabulation – the signal that supper was ready.
They looked at each other with complete understanding. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
“Did you know the original was slightly different?” the younger god asked. “We gave it to Donne differently but it got changed in 1936. Long story. But I’ll fill you in later. Let’s eat.”
What are some of your favorite lines from literature? I’ll bet you can quote them by heart. If you’re a writer, go back and reread some of your best lines. I’ll bet you know exactly where they are.
The Titanic sank 108 years ago on its maiden voyage. It had set sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. After picking up additional passengers in Cherbourg and Queenstown, it headed for New York. At 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14—a calm, frigid, and moonless night—it struck an iceberg. By 2:20 a.m., Monday, April 15, it had disappeared beneath the waves. There were more than 2,200 aboard. There were lifeboats for only a fraction of this number.
Over the years, the Titanic disaster became a metaphor for many human failings including imprudence and hubris. It also spawned countless books and movies, especially after oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck on the ocean floor in 1985.
One of the best books on this event is Walter Lord’s classic, A Night to Remember. It was first published in 1955 and has never been out of print. As a child, Lord had traveled on the Olympic, one of Titanic’s sister ships, and became fascinated with the famous disaster. In the process of writing his book, Lord interviewed over sixty survivors, and those firsthand accounts are what make his narrative unforgettable.
Stanley Walker, who reviewed A Night to Remember for The New York Herald Tribune, said Lord’s writing was a kind of literary pointillism that arranged “contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader.” If pointillism in art is the application of dots of color to create an image, in Lord’s book, the points are distinct images created by the individuals he interviewed.
Here are some of the passengers’ descriptions of what they saw and felt just as the Titanic brushed against the iceberg:
Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe, standing on the after bridge first noticed how cold it was. There were what sailors called “whiskers ‘round the light.” These were “tiny splinters of ice in the air, fine as dust, that gave off myriads of bright colors whenever caught in the glow of the deck lights.” Then Rowe detected a break in the rhythm of the engines, and, glancing forward, saw what appeared to be a windjammer, sails set, passing by the side of the ship. Then he realized it was an iceberg, “towering perhaps 100 feet above the water.”
In the first class dining saloon, the passengers were long gone, but the tables had been set for breakfast. A small group of stewards were sitting together in the giant room, gossiping about the passengers, when the ship brushed against the iceberg. There was no large jolt, but suddenly the silverware on all the tables around them began to rattle.
Mrs. E. D. Appleton heard an “unpleasant ripping sound” like someone tearing a long long strip of fabric.
Mrs. J. Stuart White was about to turn off her light for the night when it seemed like the ship was rolling over “a thousand marbles.”
Mr. James B. McGough, a Gimbel’s buyer (remember Gimbel’s?) had his porthole open, and as the berg brushed by “chunks of ice fell into the cabin.”
Stockbroker Hugh Woolner was playing cards and drinking a hot whiskey and water in the smoking room. When the men in the room felt the “grinding jar” produced by the berg, Woolner raced outside and saw “a mountain of ice standing black against the starlit sky.” Then it vanished into the dark behind them. It seemed like a momentary bit of excitement. Woolner and the others returned to the smoking room and resumed their card game.
Down in the boiler rooms, things were quite different, of course. Fireman Fred Barrett heard an ear-splitting crash “and the whole starboard side of the ship seemed to give way” as the sea cascaded in, “swirling about the pipes and valves.”
Just over 700 people survived. Approximately 1,500 perished. George Rowe would serve aboard a hospital ship in World War I and die in 1974 at the age of 92. Mrs. Appleton was on the ship with her two sisters. All three women survived. Mrs. White survived and later testified that the Titanic broke in two before sinking—a view that was disputed at the time, though verified decades later when the wreck was discovered. When she died in 1942, Mrs. White was living at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. James McGough returned to work as a department store buyer. He died of cancer in 1937. Hugh Woolner helped some of the women passengers into lifeboats. As the ship was about to sink, he and a friend jumped into one of the last of the lifeboats that had been lowered to the water when they noticed there was a bit of space. Fred Barrett survived in Lifeboat 13. He later married and had several children.
One of the most interesting stories is that of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior member of the crew to survive. He oversaw the loading of the lifeboats, then dove into the water from the roof of the officer’s quarters as the ship began its final plunge. He was able to swim to an overturned lifeboat and climb aboard along with about thirty other men. Lightoller served in World War I, and was retired by the time World War II began. He owned a boat, the Sundowner, which was licensed to carry 21 passengers. When a call went out for private citizens to rescue English servicemen at Dunkirk, Lightoller, one of his sons, and a Sea Scout crossed the English Channel and brought back 127 servicemen.
A film adaptation of Lord’s book was made in 1958. It followed the book closely, and is considered quite accurate in its presentation of the sinking. It does not, however, show the ship breaking in half because, prior to Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, the accepted view was that Titanic went down in one piece. After the wreck was discovered in 1985, Walter Lord wrote a follow-up book called The Night Lives On.
What do writers say about the process of writing? What advice can we find from novelists, poets, and writers of narrative history? Here are a few voices with something to say:
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. Jack London
If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I’d type a little faster. Isaac Asimov
You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.Ray Bradbury
My youngest child asked me the other day, “Mummy, if you had to choose between us and writing, what would you choose?” And I said, “Well I would choose you but I would be very, very grumpy.” J.K. Rowling
It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little – or not at all in some cases – should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write. Simple as that. Stephen King
Nothing turns out quite in the way that you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter, or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll. Agatha Christie
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. Robert Frost
I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being—what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other. Maya Angelou
The revision for me is the exciting part; it’s the part that I can’t wait for—getting the whole dumb thing done so that I can do the real work, which is making it better and better and better. Toni Morrison
Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…. Michael Crichton
I write to understand as much as to be understood. Elie Wiesel
I think all writers should take a drawing or painting class to learn how to paint with words. As Charles Dickens said, ‘Make me see.’ I try to make you see what’s happening and smell it and hear it. I want you to know what they had for dinner. I want you to know how long it took to walk from where to where. David McCullough
Telling stories is so important…Stories keep people alive. Doris Kearns Goodwin
It is impossible to avoid this question if you look at pre-World War II history. I have been researching this era for my current writing project, a sequel to The Better Angels. In the case of Germany, the loss of democratic norms and structures happened step-by-step, and it happened fast. For this post, I decided a list would suffice. Here it is: Ten months in Germany, 1933.
January 30: Hitler is appointed chancellor.
February 27: The Reichstag is set afire giving Hitler an excuse to arrest opponents without charges, dissolve political parties, and limit the press.
February 28: Hitler prevails on President Hindenburg to sign a decree suspending seven sections of the constitution guaranteeing individual and civil liberties including free expression, freedom of the press, rights of assembly and association, and privacy of postal, telegraph, and telephone communications. The decree also allows the Reich government to take power in the states.
March 5: The last democratic elections until after Hitler’s death are held. The Nazis win only 44 percent but carry on with a coalition government.
March 13: Joseph Goebbels is brought into the cabinet as “Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda.”
March 20: The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, is completed under the direction of Heinrich Himmler.
March 21: “Special Courts” take over cases of “political crime.” These courts consist of three judges, who are Nazi party members, and no jury. Hitler and Hermann Goering interfere in the judicial branch, quashing criminal proceedings against their friends and allies.
March 23: The Reichstag passes the Enabling Act giving Hitler absolute power, including the power of legislation, the approval of treaties, and the initiation of constitutional amendments. The Act passes 441 to 84. In the words of journalist William Shirer, the parliament “turned over its constitutional authority to Hitler and thereby committed suicide.”
April 1: Hitler proclaims a national boycott of Jewish shops.
April 7: The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service excludes Jews and political opponents of Nazis from civil service positions. This law will lay the foundation for the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935.
April 11: By decree, Nazis define who is “non-Aryan.”
April 25: The Law Against Overcrowding in Schools limits the number of Jewish students in public schools. It is followed up by legislation curtailing “Jewish activity” in the medical and legal professions.
April 26: The Gestapo is established in Prussia.
May 2: Hitler outlaws trade unions. Their offices are raided, leaders arrested, and funds confiscated.
May 10: Organized book burnings are carried out throughout Germany.
July 14: All non-Nazi political parties are banned by law.
July 14: The Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases mandates sterilization of individuals with certain physical or mental disabilities.
July 14: The Citizenship and Denaturalization Law allows the Reich government to take away citizenship from “undesirables.”
August 30: The 5th Party Congress “Rally of Victory” kicks off in Nuremberg. Leni Riefenstahl directs her first propaganda film, The Victory of Faith, documenting the rally. At the following year’s rally she will film Triumph of the Will.
September 29: The Hereditary Farm law prohibits Jews from owning farmland or engaging in agriculture.
September 29: The establishment of the Chambers of Culture under Joseph Goebbels allows regulation of cultural activities and the exclusion of Jews from film, theater, music, fine arts, literature, broadcasting and the press.
October 4: The Reich Press Law makes journalism a “public vocation” regulated by law. All editors must be “Aryan.” Editors must not allow anything in the newspapers which is “misleading” to the public or tends to weaken the German Reich.
November 24: The Law against “Dangerous Habitual Criminals” allows courts to order indefinite imprisonment.
In 299 days—slightly less than ten months—all these events occurred. These events and more. For so many, their individual stories were never told. Whose shop was destroyed? How many Jewish doctors and lawyers were barred from their professions? Who was sent to Dachau in its early months? Who stood in the public square in Berlin and watched 25,000 books burning in a massive bonfire?
One of the characters in my novel, explains that he was raised by his grandpa because his parents died in New York City from the Spanish flu. According to my own family history, my grandmother lost her oldest daughter, a child of ten, when the Spanish flu spread to their tiny village in northern Italy. Here’s what I discovered when I researched this terrible illness.
Some historians have called Spanish flu—which swept around the world in 1918—the “forgotten pandemic.” Why forgotten? Some say it was overshadowed by the events of World War I. Others note that epidemiologists of the time were unaware of the true number of disease victims.
But it was a true pandemic, one of the worst in recorded history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four years of the Bubonic Plague (“the Black Death”) which occurred in the 1300s. World War I killed approximately 9 million combatants. By most estimates the Spanish flu killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. In New York City, the setting for much of my novel, 20,000 to 24,000 deaths—out of a 1918 population of 6,000,000—were attributable to the flu.
The effect of the Spanish flu was so severe that the average life span in the US fell by more than 10 years. The virus had a mortality rate that was much higher than previous strains of the flu. Another striking thing about Spanish flu was that its victims were primarily healthy young adults rather than children or the elderly. The death rates for 15 to 34-year-olds of influenza and pneumonia (often brought on by the flu) were 20 times higher in 1918 than in previous years.
People struck with the illness often died rapid deaths. One physician wrote that patients with seemingly ordinary influenza would quickly develop pneumonia and struggle for air until they died. An anecdote shared in 1918 was of four women playing bridge together late into the night. They all felt fine. Overnight, three of the women died from influenza. Other stories told of people on their way to work suddenly developing the flu and dying within hours.
The unusual severity of the strain of virus that became known as Spanish flu contributed to the huge number of deaths. And the time period did as well. There were no flu vaccines and no antibiotics to treat secondary infections. This meant the flu had to be fought in other ways. In many communities, police officers, mail carriers, and other workers began wearing masks in public in an effort to avoid infection. In some cities, street car passengers were required to wear masks. Boy Scouts reminded people not to spit. Cartoon drawings told people to use handkerchiefs. Posters warning about the disease were placed in public areas. Schools, gyms, and military tents were used for extra hospital space. In New York City, the health commissioner established shifts for different types of businesses in order to avoid overcrowding on the subways. Fear of the flu affected all aspects of life. Children would jump rope to the following rhyme: I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.
In my novel, The Better Angels, a group of time travelers journey back to Civil War-era New York City to solve a mystery. One of the locations they explore is 209 Broadway in lower Manhattan. Let’s pretend you, like my characters, can time travel. What will you see when you journey 160 years into the past and arrive in 1860?
At 209 Broadway you’ll find St. Paul’s Chapel. It was built in 1766. George Washington worshipped there on his inauguration day. Many years later, on 9/11 it will be given the name “the little chapel that stood.” Exhausted rescue workers and first responders will use it as a place of rest and refuge.
Looking to your right you see the studio of Mathew Brady, the city’s most famous photographer. Here, Brady takes many of his most famous portraits, including those of Dolley Madison, Daniel Webster, Winfield Scott, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Walt Whitman, and John Audubon.
Now look to your left to see the Astor House, the most fashionable hotel in the city. It was built by John Jacob Astor and opened in 1836. Brady has lodgings at the Astor House which allows him to rub elbows with many of the political and cultural leaders of the time. In February 1860, Brady will take the first ever photograph of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln will return to the Astor House a year later on the way to his first inauguration. One sad footnote to the Astor House is that John Jacob Astor’s great grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, will die on the Titanic in April 1912.
Now look directly across the street. If you have 25 cents, you can visit the most famous tourist attraction of the time: Barnum’s American Museum. It opened in 1841 and attracted thousands of visitors who wandered among the fabulous exhibits of animals, inventions, archaeological artifacts, and oddities on display. In 1865, the museum will be destroyed by fire.
Once you return to present-day New York, what do you see? To your left you see a Staples where the Astor House stood. Barnum’s has been replaced by a bank and a clothing store. On the site of Brady’s studio is an early twentieth-century building whose tenants include media and publishing firms. But turn around. St. Paul’s Chapel, now more than 250 years old, still stands. It is the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan.
In one scene in my novel, The Better Angels, an old man talks about his childhood in the 1920s and the grandfather that raised him: “At night we sat at the kitchen table and he read to me—Dr. Dolittle and the Hardy Boys, those were my favorites.” The early part of the 20th century was a great time for children’s literature. As printing costs decreased and more families had access to books, writers began to produce children’s books series with the same characters appearing in different adventures. Here are some notable series that appeared between 1900 and 1920.
The first book in the Oz series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by author L. Frank Baum, was published in 1900. The series would eventually stretch to fourteen novels. Its phenomenal popularity continued to grow for decades, especially after the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy.
Anne of Green Gables, the first book in a series by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, arrived in 1908. Anne, an 11-year-old orphan, is adopted by siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who thought they were getting a boy to help on their farm on Prince Edward Island. Anne is unconventional, always finding herself in scrapes, and bemoans her bright red hair. Montgomery eventually wrote six books about Anne, tracing her adventures into adulthood, and several books about Anne’s children and friends.
Connecticut can take pride in a series that began with Norwalk author Johnny Gruelle’s 1918 publication of Raggedy Ann Stories. Gruelle had received a patent for a rag doll design in 1915, and decided to write stories about her and her friends. Ann’s brother Andy arrived in a 1920 book, and dozens of books and stories about the dolls were written in the twenties and thirties.
In 1920, another children’s book series began with the publication of the first Dr. Dolittle book by the British author Hugh Lofting. The first book had the impressive title The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts. The main character, John Dolittle, is a physician who learns how to talk to animals and becomes a naturalist. The first book was based on letters and pictures that Lofting sent to his children while serving in World War I. The series grew to number thirteen books and two volumes of short stories.
In the following decade, there was another new development in children’s literature: the adventure/mystery series written by ghostwriters all using the same pseudonym. The Hardy Boys were first on the scene, with three books published in 1927, all supposedly written by “Franklin W. Dixon.” Nancy Drew followed in 1930, with all titles published under the author name “Carolyn Keene.”
What are your favorite children’s book series? The Goodreads website has wonderful lists of children’s and young adult series in many genres. Children’s librarians are another fabulous resource for anyone looking for books to engage, captivate, and delight young readers.
The cover of my novel, The Better Angels, features a photo of the Angel of the Waters statue which rises above Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. Let me tell you a bit about the statue’s history, and how one woman’s vision was validated and embraced by generations of park visitors despite a sharply critical negative review published in the New York Times at the statue’s unveiling.
The angel was New York’s first major public art commission awarded to a woman. The sculptor, Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), was from a prominent New York family. Her brother, Henry, was chairman of the park’s Committee on Statuary, Fountains and Architectural Structure, and many assumed that was how Emma received the commission. This is not to say that Emma was untrained or untalented. She had shown promise from an early age and had studied sculpting in Rome. While in Rome, she also met and fell in love with the American actress Charlotte Cushman, and the two exchanged “unofficial vows.”
The angel is the only sculpture commissioned as a part of the park’s original design. It was intended to embody the idea of love. As the Central Park Conservancy puts it, Emma “put her own spin on the work, interpreting the statue’s directive, that it be dedicated to ‘Love,’ liberally by adding several layers of meaning.”
One of the meanings invested in the statue was healing, particularly the healing power of water. The design referenced the biblical story in which an angel gives healing powers to the waters of Bethesda. The fountain was also meant to celebrate the new Croton Aqueduct (a water distribution system built between 1837 and 1842) which supplied clean drinking water to the city.
The angel herself is eight feet tall and made of bronze. She carries a lily, the symbol of purity. The four cherubs that support her represent health, purity, temperance, and peace. Construction of the terrace and fountain occurred during the American Civil War, but the angel did not appear until 1873.
Now here’s the part of the angel’s story that had me shaking my head. I found the June 1873 New York Times review of the statue’s unveiling, and, reading it now, it is clearly wrong in every respect—completely, inarguably, laughably wrong. The unnamed reviewer hated just about everything about the statue and even disagreed with the placement of the fountain itself. (Placing a fountain directly beside a lake was described as “ill-chosen” because it was like adding “sugar to sweetmeats or carrying coals to Newcastle.”)
He (I’m assuming the reviewer was male) began by saying everyone had expected “something great” and experienced “a revulsion of feeling” at the “feebly-pretty … thing of bronze.” He goes on to opine that the head is male, the breasts female, and the rest of the body a combination of male and female. He compares the figure to a servant girl doing a polka in the back kitchen and a dancing girl jumping over stepping stones. He apparently doesn’t like the fact that the angel seems to be wearing “voluminous folds” of petticoats that are nonetheless diaphanous and reveal the angel’s figure. The wings come in for criticism as well, as do the four cherubs (“hopelessly nondescript”).
All who have seen the angel, know how wrong the reviewer was. I found myself wondering how he could fail to fathom—to truly see—the beauty and the love embodied in that sculpture. If you would like to see the angel yourself, she can be found mid park, at about 72nd. Street.