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This is the archive for November 2006

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Last night I watched my favorite new show of the season, Heroes. It is an NBC show about people who all of a sudden discover they have special abilities – at least that is the official version, I like to call it Super Powers (flying, telekinesis, time travel, super healing). Really, at the core of the show, it is a comic book on TV. More specifically, it is what comic book readers like to call an origin story, the story of how they came to be.

It is also a show of many stars. The show revolves around a good 10 people and multiple minor characters around most of the main characters. It can be hard to keep track but the writing and acting are all good. It helps that the show feels real, filmed in combination of stages and outside spots. And to top it off, because there are Super Powers, there has to be special effects, which also come out really well.

According to one article from October it costs $2.7 million an episode to produce and recoups $171,000 for each 30 second ad and since the show is doing well, it looks like the prices were going to go up.

This is state of modern entertainment.

And as much as I like it, I was happy to view “Legends of the Lowcountry – Folk Tales of Historic Charleston, SC” a DVD from Storyteller Tim Lowry. It is an experience that harks back to a different era of entertainment, when one person would act as all the players and the special effects where props that sat around the storyteller or sounds and expressions coming from the storyteller.

Too be honest, I was surprised at how entertaining and engrossing this “lost art” is. My middle child could not stop talking about Mr. Lowry’s presentations that he had seen at school. So together with my oldest child we sat down and watched Mr. Lowry work his magic.

Mr. Lowry had no extra cast; it was just him telling eight stories from the past of Coastal South Carolina. It was divided into three groups, Colonial Tavern Tales, Gullah Folk Tales and Civil War Ghost Stories. With each telling, he became the story. From the story itself, the costume, the body language, the sound effects to his amazing facial expressions, they all combined to tell a story so much better than our modern fare and for so much less.

I was very impressed with the Gullah Folk Tales. For those of you that are unaware of Gullah, it is a culture that was created from the combination of slaves from different areas, forced to exist in a new land – striving to keep something from home be it food, art, music, framing or stories.

Their language is a mixture of different African languages and English. As time went by it became more and more ingrained in the area of Georgia, North and South Carolina. You may have heard it without even knowing it, if you ever watched the 1990’s Nickelodeon show “Gullah Gullah Island”.

As a teenager I worked in a tomato packing plant and for a landscape maintenance operation, both on St Helena Island, outside of Beaufort. At both places most of my coworkers spoke Gullah. Although it took awhile for this transplanted Yankee to understand them, it truly is a beautiful language to hear. Mr. Lowry took the stories and spoke in a wonderful accent that gave the viewer a chance to hear the old language and the stories that were told to generations of children here in the South.

The two Civil War tales, one of them, Soldier Jack, the longest of the DVD – clocking in at 12 minutes will not expand your knowledge of Civil War History but any fan of the Civil War will truly enjoy them. It is interesting to see how the war affected the story telling and how soldiers would continue being heroes, long after the war is finished.

How good is the DVD? It is beyond excellent.

It is rare that I can sit with my kids and all of us truly enjoy entertainment, too often I am finding myself wishing that time will speed up so I don’t have to sit through a show any longer but with this DVD, I was sorry to see it end. I know my children liked it for two reasons. The first, they have watched it several times, laughing and jumping at all the right times. Second, they walk around singing one of the tales, Peter Parker’s Pants – fighting over who has it right or wrong.

Recently, I told them that they were both wrong, just so we could watch it again. Something I would strongly suggest that you do too.

Legends of the Lowcountry – Folk Tales of Historic Charleston, SC” along with 5 Storytelling CDs and a book, How to be a Super Storyteller, can be purchased directly from Storyteller Tim Lowry at http://www.storytellertimlowry.com/buystuffhere.html

Monday, November 20, 2006

Devotion by Julia Oliver

Devotion
By Julia Oliver
The University of Georgia Press
$24.95 - 209 pages


When I first started the blog, one of the things I thought I would do was post links to Civil War related news. No one else seemed to be doing it and it seemed like a niche that would bring people to the blog. What I didn’t realize was just how much work that would be – there are about 100 news stories each week and then I found that Civil War Interactive already does it. So I decided to just drop it unless there is a story that interests me.

Out of that time came an article about an upcoming book, Devotion, that would deal with the life story of Winnie Davis, daughter of Jefferson Davis and known as “The Daughter of the Confederacy” and would do so in a fictionalized manner.

This intrigued me as I can’t just read history book after history book – I need to take breaks and normally do so with a fiction book or two. Devotion seemed like it would make a great “break book” and I was looking forward to it.

I don’t know what I was expecting but it was not the book I read. That is not to say that this was a bad book, it just was a bit different than I thought it would be.

Taking a step back, it is well written and that is where we should to start. Ms Oliver does an excellent job of writing from different perspectives, starting with a sick and delirious Winnie, then moving to her friend Kate Pulitzer, a not so delirious Winnie, her mother’s maid Margaret Connelly, back to Winnie, to her sister Maggie Hayes, and finally her one time fiancé and northerner Alfred Wilkinson.

The delirious Winnie threw me at first, not quite knowing what Ms. Oliver was trying to do and then going to Kate made an even harder transition then was probably intended. The saving grace of this was Ms Oliver’s ability to write in the different voices of the characters and make the reader believe that they are listening to the wife of the famous newspaper publisher one moment and an Irish Catholic maid the next.

The book itself is less about Winnie and more about a dysfunctional family and the roles the different members fill throughout the years. Winnie just seems to be the focal point that tells the story of the rest of the family, its place in the country after the war and her lost love. Her mother, believing that her fiancé is not good enough for her, while the South cannot believe that she would dare marry a Yankee, cause the termination of the engagement – the only one she would have. In the end, it is the love that is never fulfilled that seems to be an analogy to a country that never seemed to have a chance, destroyed by both internal and external forces.

Overall Devotion is a decent book and if I was a member of the target audience, I would probably say it was a great book. I normally judge books on whether I would reread them at a future date. Although I do not feel it was a waste of my time, it does not quite fit into my normal reading habits and would not reread it. So it falls into the “it's an OK book" standard. That being said, if you like these types of fictionalized books, it is worth a read. If instead you are looking for a more “warlike approach” or historical study, this one is just not for you.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

“One of the most obvious and striking facts is the utter falsehood of those who inaugurated this terrible reign of anarchy and misrule. When they told us the Northern men were a race of cowards, and would not fight, they probably believed it; when they assured us that one Southern man was the equal in a fight of five Yankees, or abolitionists…they may have believed that…. Indeed the ignorance of this lordly and insolent oligarchy is equaled only by its ineffable baseness. I say oligarchy, for it is known that the men who concocted…the Southern Confederacy, are not as numerous… as the figures on a chessboard. It is eminently a closed corporation, and was so intended to be. The men who compose it are…the same clique well known for years…as claiming exclusive jurisdiction over the Democratic party, and assuming such absolute authority over ‘the South,’ that even now a great many people suppose there are other persons of consequence…
“There are those…who can testify to their utter perfidy, who have been the victims of their want of principle, and whose self-respect has suffered from their insolent and overbearing demeanor…. To hesitate, to doubt, to hold back, to stop, was to call down a storm of wrath that few men had the nerve to encounter, and still fewer the strength to withstand. Not only in political circles, but in social life, their rule was inexorable, their tyranny, absolute.”

Using these words of Horace Maynard, a legislator from Tennessee, Erik Calonius writes his conclusion and epitaph for the Confederate cause in his book "The Wanderer, the Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set its Sails."

This is not simply a book about a luxury racing yacht that was built in East Setauket,New York for the sinister purpose of refitting it as a slave runner with the ability to outsail the combined British and American fleets of the African squadron patrolling the coast of the Dark Continent. Nor is it entirely about efforts to try the owners and members of the crew in a Federal courtroom in Savannah, Georgia after 400 slaves unloaded on Jekyll Island in November 1858 became public knowledge. Rather it is a book about a powerful few who railed against the North and who perceived their native Southern land being strangled both economically and politically. And it is a story that hints of what might have been had the Confederacy succeeded with their revolt; a slave holding empire that would have stretched from Charleston to San Diego and from Richmond to Del Fuego on the tip of South America; an empire that would have claimed the Caribbean Ocean as its own lilly pond.

Prior to 1858 the “Fire-eaters,” so called because of their militancy and outspoken views on their God given right to enslave the peoples of Africa, were in a decided political minority throughout the South. The importation of slaves had been banned by Constitutional amendment effective in 1818 and violation of this law became punishable by death in 1820. South Carolina was, in fact, one of the leading proponents for passage of the amendment. All seemed to be in agreement that, while the ownership of slaves was an accepted fact of life in the southern United States, the further forcible removal of men, women, and children from their homelands in Africa and transport of them to America was repugnant. Fears abounded that the resumption of slave trafficking would cause an unbalance to the Southern way of life, that new slaves would be less accepting of their bondage, more prone to rebel. The Fire-eaters saw it as a matter of economics. The cost of purchasing slaves was escalating, zooming out of sight. Too, if slavery was to be expanded westward there simply weren’t enough slaves to make large-scale plantations viable.

The Fire-eaters saw it as a matter of political representation, too. With European emigrants flooding northern cities, supplying the workforce, and thereby helping to fuel the industrial boom, the South lagged behind badly. It had no industry to speak of and what few goods it could produce found little demand when those same goods could be had from the North in greater abundance and at cheaper cost. But the North, too, was filled with social experiments, with fornicators, with those who defiled the Holy word of God, and those who would claim the white man was not superior to all other races of this planet, so said the Fire-eaters. It was time, said the Fire-eaters, to challenge Northern supremacy through a society based on chivalry and a moral code, led by men of their aristocratic breeding, courage, and intellect.

Talk, political rallies, and newspaper editorials were all well and good, but the movement also needed men of action like Charles Lamar. To this end Calonius sets out to document Charles Lamar’s start in life as a blue-eyed child of fortune, how a tragic maritime accident apparently warps his psyche, and finally, under the spell of the Fire-eaters, declares his open defiance of the U.S. Constitution. After a number of failed attempts to smuggle slaves into the U.S. he finally throws down the gauntlet, by publicly announcing the African Squadron would have to catch his boat The Wanderer before they could dream of placing a noose around his neck. Insulated, wealthy, and powerful, he calculated those qualities alone would be sufficient to forestall conviction in a Southern courtroom. When the Wanderer was found out and criminal trials began, it was evident Lamar had read the political climate well. Federal efforts to bring he or his co-conspirators to justice were thwarted through kidnapping, evidence tampering, and intimidation of prosecution witnesses, all under his direction, as well as juries predisposed to acquit the defendants.

As Calonius points out, slave trading was alive and well not only in the Caribbean, and Cuba in particular, but the hub for making arrangements for ships and men lay in New York City. A small fortune could be made by those willing to risk their money on the crossing to and from Africa. In Cuba, for example, one slave could fetch the trader between eight and twenty times the cost paid in Africa. The average seaman could earn $1.50 for each slave safely landed. For the plantations on the island, one slave equaled one ton of increased sugar production. Against a flagging Southern economy, a growing consensus that slavery should be contained where it was already established, the dreamers of a slave holding empire were prepared to strike.

Contrary to popular belief, the Fire-eaters welcomed the election of Abraham Lincoln. He was the lightning rod that furthered their cause and rallied those who previously lacked the same convictions to their sides. The prospect of Stephen Douglass occupying the White House would have hindered their cause, would have continued the union of North and South. Instead, here was the “Laughing President,” the man who believed slavery should continue, but would not agree to its expansion; the man who would stand in the way of empire building. In the words of Charles Lamar, “We shall have disunion, certain if Lincoln is elected. I hope Lincoln is elected. I want dissolution and have, I think, contributed more than any man South for it.” Lamar’s was not a view shared by all. As Calonius states, a modern analysis of Georgia’s vote for secession indicates the motion carried by a margin of 1,000 votes out of over 80,000 cast and there is reason to suspect fraud influenced the outcome.

In many ways the Wanderer itself, Charles Lamar, and the Confederacy are parables to one another. Fast, defiant, and proud at their start. At the end each a shell of its former self, stripped of pride while approaching the decay of death’s door, and finally sinking beneath the waves of defeat.

Calonius’ book stands out for a history. Most historians can write fairly well, but what they lack are the skills “a writer” can bring to that same event. This is a beautifully written book full of imagery that fills the reader’s mind with those images, of historical characters that have been fully breathed to life. Even without the pictures which accompany the book we can visualize Charles Lamar, the city of Savannah, the Congo River, the boat Wanderer and its miserable human cargo confined in a space that allowed four feet by one foot for each of them.

I have an eclectic taste when reading history and have reacted as positively and enthuiastically only one time before, that being to Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea.” Neither Calonius or Philbrook are historians, but what they do have in common is an ability to do meticulous research and weave those documents into a story that can and will appeal to even a casual reader. To those who focus on the Civil War, this St. Martin’s Press release will add to their knowledge of the swirl of events that brought this nation closer to the precipice of war. I would add too, that an excellent companion book to "The Wanderer," is Don Fehrenbacher's "The Slaveholding Republic," a book which examines constitutional issues and the Federal government's relations to slavery.

In sum, "The Wanderer" is a highly recommended and fascinating read.