Community Values

So, it looks like Alexandria legislators have decided to leave a famous statue of a Confederate soldier in historic Old Town at the intersection of Prince and Washington streets, opting to keep their powder dry for other issues.

Theoretically, communities’ actions reflect their values. That being the case, it’s worth exploring why the Appomattox statue is at that intersection in the first place, along with some parties’ concerns of whether “moving” was (and still might be) simply a first step to “removing.”

Today, the statue is largely ignored as cars zoom past. It’s unlikely many people hazard the traffic to get close enough to read the inscriptions on its base. The north side reads, “They died in the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.” The south side reads, “Erected to the memory of Confederate dead of Alexandria, Va. by their Surviving Comrades, May 24th 1889.” The east and west sides bear lists of Alexandrians who died during the war.

The lists probably don’t mean much to the average passerby, even one motivated to get close enough to read them—just unfamiliar names to skim through, perhaps finding one’s own surname in coincidence or connection.  But each name represents a person, someone who—at some point—was cherished and sorely missed.

One name blends in with the others: Hayden Fewell of Company H. He wasn’t famous, even in his day. He was, in fact, a 17-year-old boy. Chances are, he wasn’t worried about holding on to his family’s slaves or particularly well versed in tariff issues. He was probably more interested in girls than politics and went to war because his contemporaries expected him to—it would have been extremely difficult to do otherwise. He and his twin, Lucien, both enlisted as privates on April 6, 1862.

If you’ve read my book, you know that Lucien made it home and Hayden didn’t. Less than three months after enlisting, before turning 18, Hayden would be dead, killed at the battle of Glendale (or Frayser’s Farm, as the Confederates called it). His family received $87.16 for his service, about $2,000 today. A tally sheet of his effects at time of death lists the boy as “17, gray eyes, brown hair, 5 feet 8 inches tall; student.”

Edgar Warfield, also a private in the 17th, likewise lost his brother in that battle—George Warfield and Hayden Fewell shared a mass grave at the site, buried by another Alexandria native, Dr. Harold Snowden, who would return home and serve as editor of the Alexandria Gazette for decades. Warfield would run a drugstore in Alexandria for 40 years after the war and become the city’s oldest living Confederate veteran.

Many, if not most, of these stories are forgotten, or they suffer for being interpreted through a modern sensibility. The community of Alexandria is not what it was in 1861, nor even in 1961, and it is fair to discuss whether the monument represents current values. But in doing so, it is also fair to bear in mind what the monument originally represented—honor for those who made the greatest sacrifice for their community and did what their families and friends expected of them. Although it may be perceived as such now, the statue was not erected as a paean to an offensive (and lost) cause, it was a marker of grief still felt for lost souls 20 years after their passing.

In April 1885, Warfield proposed to the United Confederate Veterans that a monument be erected to the Confederate dead of Alexandria. In November 1888, the group approached the City Council about placing the statue at the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets, the point from which Alexandria troops left the city, and the Council quickly granted permission. Even then, the United Confederate Veterans foresaw that controversy might arise and petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates “that such monument shall remain in its present position as a perpetual and lasting testimonial to the courage, fidelity and patriotism of the heroes in whose memory it was erected” and that “its erection shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed by any future Council or other municipal power or authority.”

The area around the monument at one point measured 40 feet by 60 feet, bounded by a fence. As traffic increased, the island dwindled. Attempts were made in the 1980s to remove the statue altogether for much the same reasons cited today: Its presence was an offensive reminder of slavery, its location impractical. The emotional argument then reflected a larger debate: In its efforts to move toward greater equality and understanding, is the community better served by acknowledging its history and upholding free speech—even offensive free speech? Or is it more effective to eradicate markers and memorials that are, for many, offensive and painful reminders of the worst kind of oppression?

That time, like this time, the statue remained at its location. But the ongoing fate of this monument—now and 100 years on—will speak volumes about the community and its values.

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My First Lecture

If you manage to get a book published, and then you manage to land a gig where people are willing to sit and listen to you talk about that book, I highly recommend working it so that you have a small and friendly audience for that first outing.

I also highly recommend that you arrange to give that first lecture in the dark, with only a heavy-duty Mag-Lite illuminating the room. It hides the anxiety in your own eyes from your audience while also making it hard for you to see if your audience is falling asleep, thereby removing a source of said anxiety.

I had the absolutely wonderful opportunity to do just this last Friday, at a fund-raising overnight event for the Brentsville jail, where people got to actually spend the night in the jail and learn a little bit more about it.  People got to be a part of the jail renovation by driving nails into the floorboards (my son may have a future as a carpenter’s assistant, based on his performance), and then a mock trial was held to offer up some of the finer points of slave law and how legal representation has changed entirely for the better in the past 150 years.

Then we all trooped into the jail, which had no electricity, and I did my spiel while my kid aimed our industrial flashlight at the ceiling  so that the room was bright enough that nobody tripped but dim enough that I did not experience the aforementioned anxiety. Then the site manager escorted us all outside for s’mores and s’more stories about the jail and its history—and then we all went to bed. The site manager is an absolutely lovely man who went above and beyond and made sure that my son and I got to sleep in the room where James Clark died. I was so flattered and excited by this, I can’t even tell you. It almost made me wish I believed in ghosts so that I’d see Clark’s. (I didn’t. I flopped onto that wooden floor, buried myself in a sleeping bag and immediately zonked out til sunrise.)

Next morning I signed a few books, had a doughnut, and raced home to share the whole experience with my husband, who is far too intelligent to ever sleep on a wooden floor in an unheated building with no bathroom.  He totally missed out!

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When Your Dreamboat Turns Out to Be a Footnote…

I had a dream last night that Elvis Costello wanted to write a song about my book—he was talking about Lucien Fewell and how he had a great musical hook for the name Pistol Johnny. I didn’t get to hear the song in my dream, but I bet it was awesome.

This is particularly funny to me because back when I was first researching the book and looking for material on “Pistol Johnny” and his New Mexico exploits (which also sounds like a band name), I kept getting hits for “Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten.”  I don’t think I would like his song about my book nearly as much.

All this got me thinking about playlists. I don’t listen to music when I write. I like it quiet. That, or some kind of sporting event on TV. That’s become almost white noise for me, in that I can ignore most of it but know to look up for the replay when there’s a big commotion.

However, I do love music when I’m not writing, and I like to think about music as it relates to people I know. When I was writing fiction, one of the things I used to determine who my characters were was what I thought they would have on their iPod. It was a fun exercise and it helped me keep the tone and rhythm of different character voices in my head.

It’s a little harder to do that when writing nonfiction. I mean, the only songs I’m absolutely certain that the folks in my book were listening to were Dixie and the Bonnie Blue Flag, and I would assume some hymns and religious tunes. I don’t know a lot about the music of Reconstruction or of 1872 Virginia. And even if I were familiar with that music, I’m not sure it would really help me all that much with these guys.

But it is kind of fun to speculate about what they might listen to if they were alive today, so I’ll do that.

I suspect that James Clark would mostly be a talk radio kind of guy — lots of news, lots of keeping his finger on the pulse of public opinion. But he also liked dances and flirting, so there’d have to be some time devoted to Top 40 so he could be up to speed on that, too, and able to impress the ladies. His daddy was a Primitive Baptist elder, so odds are he’d get a lot of personal mileage out of that Dusty Springfield song when putting the moves on someone.

Fannie Fewell was 16 and from everything I can tell, smart but not very serious—the Billboard Top 40 Target Audience. To me, this means she’d either be really into angry ovaries like Sara Bareilles or she’d be all about the Katy Perry bouncy fun. Because I  had to spend a lot of time with Fannie and didn’t want to hate her, I chose to believe she fell into the Katy Perry camp, with a side of Adele. (Go ahead and hate me now: I think Sara Bareilles has an amazing voice and a horribly bratty outlook about life.)

Lucien Fewell was my favorite to wonder about. He was raised to be a Southern gentleman, but he was a mean drunk. I don’t think he was really a redneck, per se, but he wasn’t totally distinguished and confined to a drawing room. So maybe Hank Williams but not necessarily Lynyrd Skynyrd.  He took off for a new life in the wild West when it was still wild, so he was up for some rough stuff. Maybe he’d be a thrash metal kind of guy.  I finally decided he would have let Sturgill Simpson play on the jukebox without smashing a bottle into it. But I also kinda think that, like me when I’m writing, he’d probably be more inclined to settle in with the sports broadcast du jour rather than any particular music.

I really do wish my dream would have let me hear Elvis Costello’s song about him, though.

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In Which My Feminist Card Is Revoked

A friend sent me an article last week that said women undermine themselves by using the word “just” — that it is a “permission word” and makes one look weak. Hoo, boy.

This is one in a long series of “empowering” things women have been told to start or stop doing. Stop saying sorry. Don’t use qualifiers. Don’t ask “does that make sense.” Be sure to shoulder-check men walking toward you, because stepping aside shows weakness and they’re jerks if they don’t move.  But don’t let them open the door for you, because that means they think you’re weak and can’t do it yourself.

Let me get this straight. According to the zeitgeist or whoever is calling the shots out there, I—as a woman—am entitled to wear whatever I want, walk in any violent area I please, and drink myself into a stupor in any situation without any consequences or repercussions whatsoever, but I’m simply Asking For It if I am not hyperconscious about policing my words and actions to be more aggressive and abrasive in the workplace?

Frankly, all this reminds me of the convo I overheard in a ladies room a few years ago, wherein two women were laughing about a third (absent) woman who peed so loudly that it was impossible to converse over. Really? Of all the things I’m screwing up in life, now I have to worry about that, too? Jeezopete.  I’ll be too paralyzed and bewildered to speak or move at all.

I’ve read that women are culturally conditioned to be sympathetic and empathetic, like that’s a bad thing. I’ve read that women in management must worry about being perceived as a bitch or a nag if they tell employees what to do.  I’ve read that women can’t get into management because men don’t listen to them and steal their ideas.

Well, I know women make it into management.  Maybe not enough, but they are there. Every job I ever had, there was at least one woman in position as publisher, executive editor, vice president, board member. Women are CEOs, politicians, doctors, you name it. A woman is front-runner for president.

I really don’t think it’s possible that all these women got where they are because they lucked out and didn’t get their ideas stolen or because they all made conscious decisions to Stop Apologizing. I know for a fact that the women I knew in management were not considered bitches or nags because they expected people to do their jobs.

Now, they might have been considered bitches or nags because they were—surprise!—bitchy or naggy.  The same way a man would be called a dick if he pulls a dick move. There’s a difference between the woman who calls you into her office and tells you, “Look. You’re not stupid. Don’t do stupid shit, and you’ll be fine,”   and the woman who stomps out into the middle of the office and screeches at top volume, “I can’t believe this happened! WHO DID THIS?”  and stands there tapping her foot waiting for someone to step up (when nobody else even knows what “this” might be.) What would you call the person who took the latter approach?  There’s a difference between the man who takes you aside and tells you “you really fucked up,” and the guy who kicks a chair across the room demanding to know “who let this happen” (because, you know, we all LET mistakes happen.)

I have been witness to all four of those scenarios.  Guess who I thought the bitch and the dick were. Here’s a hint: It wasn’t the ones who swore. Language was not the problem.

And I think that’s really the issue, here. Language isn’t women’s problem, either. Behavior is.

Look, if you have a boss who steals your ideas, or who appears not to listen and then hijacks your comments, the problem is not that your boss is a misogynist or a woman who keeps other women down. The problem is that your boss is a jerk, gender-neutral.

And if your boss steals your idea more than once?  SORRY, but your problem is not that you’re a woman, it’s that you’re a doormat, gender-neutral. JUST to let you know, changing your vocabulary won’t fix that.

Deeds, not words. Someone who steals your idea isn’t going to care if you started that idea with “sorry” or qualified it with “just.” Working the problem is what solves the problem.

If you have ideas worth stealing, you’re obviously not stupid. Use that brain power to your advantage. Don’t do stupid shit, and you’ll be fine. Keep those ideas to yourself until you figure out how to get credit for them. Confront your boss. Confront his or her boss. Find another chain of command to advance your ideas. Go to HR. Find a new job. Start your own business.

Ever heard the phrase “talk is cheap?” That’s because it is. Being hyperconscious about trying to talk like a badass will not make you a badass. If  a badass is what you really want to be, then work on actually BEING a badass, and you will naturally talk like one. Amelia Earhart learned to fly.  Hatshepsut grabbed that crown for her own.

But why do we all have to be aggressive badasses?  I suspect Mother Teresa spent great gobs of her time saying she was sorry. Does that diminish her work? (Although now she’s being demonized for being canonized, so maybe that’s a poor example.)  Katherine Hepburn probably never yelled at anyone for opening a door for her, does that make her a sellout? How about we all start trying a little harder to operate in a way that benefits everyone?

I just don’t buy the idea that women need to “be more like men” to make it in business. Bashing into someone in the hallway because he didn’t move first doesn’t make you management material. And despite the fact that we seem to be training men to act more like women, I think that’s an equally poor choice.  I tend to agree with Almina Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon: “In the dark ages, which are not very far behind us, we used to be call the weaker sex … we are neither inferior nor superior, but only very different, and I am convinced that we shall do most good to our country and her cause if instead of imitating men we endeavour to widen and perhaps enrich the spirit of public life by simply being ourselves.”

There’s nothing wrong with saying “sorry” if you truly regret having to upset people by telling them to improve their performance.

There’s nothing wrong with saying “just” if you are merely conveying information or imparting a warning.

If the person you’re talking to has a inch-thick glaze on both eyes, PLEASE ask them “does that make sense,” —and maybe ask them to say everything back to you—because heaven knows what result you’re likely to get otherwise.

There’s nothing wrong with letting a man hold the door if your hands are full or he happened to get to the door first, and there’s nothing wrong with stepping aside and saving yourself a bruise if the guy coming toward you is more intent on his phone screen than the traffic in front of him. If he’s looking right at you and doesn’t move — again, he’s a jerk, and probably not just to women. That’s when you be a badass, chuckle, and warn him, “I’ll turn sideways if you do!”

But one can’t really control jerks, much as one might wish to; one can only control one’s self. So how about we all try being a little more human? That might even solve problems beyond one’s own personal advancement.

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Weekends of Fun

… but without the leather straps (at least, so far). Sorry, Whit Stillman.

My calendar has blown up with book events.  Two weekends ago, I was in St. Louis for an extremely enjoyable Living History weekend that included a straw poll for the Grant-Greeley election. (Spoiler: Grant won.)

Last weekend, I was up before dawn to set up my booth at Haymarket Day, a local event we’ve been going to as consumers since we moved here. One benefit of having a booth? Not having to jockey for a place to sit and watch the parade.  Plus having a canopy so the sun wasn’t beating down in my eyes.  I also got to talk to a lot of really interesting people and was pleasantly surprised when I sold more than three books, some of them even to actual strangers.  It’s funny; I don’t really enjoy being “on” and having to be convivial and engaging, but once the conversation starts, I have been known to catch myself actually enjoying the exchange.

This weekend, I’ll be doing a signing at a local bookstore. It will be interesting to see if I get more or less interest at a book-based venue.

I already have three events lined up for October and another one in December.  Plus Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.

And yet, I feel like I probably ought to be doing more, and faster. Like if I don’t reach out immediately to This Bookstore and That Library in neighboring counties, they will reject me. But I only have so many hours in a day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Every new sale is a sale I didn’t have yesterday.  And all the other platitudes and bromides.

Meanwhile, I’m still dithering over whether I’ll follow this whole mishegas up with some other project or just consider this my victory and depart the field. The answer you get will depend on what moment of what day you happen to ask me, what the weather is like, if the house is a mess, etc., etc.  Part of me wants to embark on a long-term something; another part of me wonders if I should direct that energy toward volunteering at the local archives or museum instead, since the research is the part I really love doing.  I only have so many hours in a day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint … Wait, did I already say that?

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We Are the Goon Squad …

… and we’re coming to town…

I’ve been thinking a lot about fashion over the last couple of days. Not modern fashion, however. Next weekend is DragonCon, and the kid considered his outfit. (He’s going as a Stargate army dude, with his dad’s old Air Guard shirt as the basis.) I don’t dress up for DragonCon; I actually try to wear as little as possible given that it’s Atlanta in August/September. I did give half a thought to dressing up as Linden Avery from the Thomas Covenant series — all I’d need to do is wear a red flannel shirt and some marked-up blue jeans, wear a ring around my neck, and carry a big walking stick.

But then I was invited to go sign books at an 1872 event in St. Louis next month, and they asked if I could show up in period dress.

What, me? Play dress-up? With a possible tax deduction!? Twist my arm.

I am not, in fact, going to be strictly period. I’m going to be a few years behind the times. I figure this is OK; I tend to run a few years behind the trends in my current life, who’s to say I wouldn’t have in the 1860s? I’ll be wearing a big ol’ crinoline (I can’t bring myself to do hoops) and maybe a bonnet; I’ll have a fan and a parasol.

But in reality, the early 1870s had moved past hoop skirts and flared jackets. In 1872, the Dolly Varden was all the rage.

Dolly Varden got her start in life as a Dickens character. Barnaby Rudge, set in the 1780s, was written by Dickens in 1839. For whatever reason,  century-old retro became chic after the war.  The Dolly Varden fashion was a really fussy look with a lot of layers and gathers and frills. This was generally accompanied by a foofy hat with a lot of flowers and ribbons.


While I realize people ran around like this in the 1870s, I don’t think I have it in me to sit outside for two days covered up in this much fabric. Imagine if it rains!

The Dolly Varden craze went beyond clothing, however. It inspired songs and the label got slapped on just about everything from trout to cigars. There was a Dolly Varden sewing machine. A Dolly Varden cocktail. There was also a Dolly Varden cake—this was originally just a multicolored layer cake, but evolved to be the one we see today with the fake Barbie doll on top of a giant billowing skirt.


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Finally Bona Fide

“Certainly not, I gather, the world’s greatest living expert on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg . . .”

But I am, I think, maybe the world’s greatest living expert on Lucien Fewell and James Francis Clark.

This was the big week. The book is in print and available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. It’s even near the top of the hit list when you search for the title.

Click and share and retweet this link:

It is exciting stuff. I can officially call myself an author. I have a lot of fun stuff to look forward to, and I’m happy and hopeful the story will find an audience.

But the funny thing is, I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel relief or satisfaction or successful, per se. In fact, I feel like it might be  to start working on something else.  This is funny when you consider the fact that the coming months should see me talking more than ever about Brentsville and 1872. Maybe these guys have been in my head for so long now that I take them for granted?

Still, I’m glad they are there and I’m glad I got them on the page. And I’m beyond grateful to the 50 berzillion people who helped me with the project. That was probably the best part.  Well, one of the best parts. The other best part was when people whose writing and knowledge I love and respect told me I’d done a good job. Those were some over-the-moon compliments, believe me.

So now I will intersperse 1872 history tidbits with scheduled appearances and plugs for purchase. And maybe some updates on new projects, who knows?!

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