Understanding the Elephant

Does anyone remember the story of the blind men and the elephant?  Six blind scholars all try to discover what an elephant looks like by touching one part of the animal.  Because an elephant is composed of many shapes (trunk, ears, legs, tail, etc.,) running your hands over one part of it doesn’t give you an accurate picture of the animal, but it does show what a limited perception can discover.  And, when it comes to some episodes of history, we’re all blind folks trying to survey an elephant.
Val McDermid tackles this idea in her mystery novel, The Grave Tattoo.  On the surface, it’s a modern day story about the discovery of a body near the Lake District of England.  Although the corpse has been underground for awhile, it’s easy to see this is neither a recent death nor the discovery of an ancient caveman.  What’s interesting are the number of complicated tattoos still discernable on the decedent’s skin.  And therein hangs the link to a historical debate and the mysterious elephant in the room.

The debate is who was at fault for the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty, Fletcher Christian or Captain Bligh?  The popular opinion has switched back and forth, from Bligh’s exoneration to Nordhoff and Hall’s pro-Fletcher Christian novel, (that served as the basis for at least three Hollywood movies) and back to Bligh with Caroline Anderson’s history of the Bounty that I wrote about last year.  The mystery is the ultimate fate of Fletcher Christian: did he die on Pitcairn Island or did he find his back to England?

Wordsworth – Poet and
Christian’s Defender?

There are rumors that not only did Christian return to England but that he looked up an old grade school chum while he was there: the poet, William Wordsworth. And it’s rumored Wordsworth turned Christian’s account of what happened into an epic poem to be published after both of them were dead. But Wordsworth’s work and the sailor both disappeared.

Enter into this historical/literary mystery, one Jane Gresham, a Wordsworth Scholar who waits tables and teaches part-time while trying to break into an academic career. Because she grew up in the area where Wordsworth and Christian once lived, she knows the rumors and starts hunting for clues, but she isn’t the only one. Wordsworth’s manuscript, if it exists, is worth millions and not everyone is as honest as Jane. Pretty soon twenty-first-century corpses are turning up to keep company with the tattooed man in the pathologist’s waiting room. Pretty soon Jane is racing known and unknown enemies to save a piece of literary history and the lives of innocent people.

We may never really know who was the “bad guy” on the HMS Bounty or what happened to Fletcher Christian.  Val McDermid has given us a guess with The Grave Tattoo along with a  satisfying thriller. As guesses go, her book’s more fun than trying to figure out what an elephant looks like by touch.

The Best of People, the Worst of Times: Number the Stars

Nobody likes to think about kids being in the middle of war. Kids are a vulnerable population in the cross-fire of that adult insanity, and when they get wounded or killed, innocent lives have been taken. So, those of us lucky enough to live in peaceful countries try to raise our kids in a cotton-wool world where everyone is kind, and children are never in danger. Still, it’s good for kids to know about those who have been brave, even in the worst of times. That’s one reason to read and share Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars.

Number the Stars documents the Danish Resistance’s effort to save the Jewish citizens of Denmark after Nazi Germany invaded their country.  Officially, Denmark’s ruling government agreed to collaborate with the Nazi invaders; this allowed them to stay (nominally) in control so they could protect the citizens as much as possible.  Unofficially, Danish citizens all over the country developed resistance cells to spy on and sabotage the invaders.  After three years of fending off Resistance attacks, the Nazis decided to crack down Denmark.  First, they took over Denmark’s government and policing authority; then they issued orders to deport all of Denmark’s Jews.

In the middle of this political conflagration are two ten-year-old girls, Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen. To Annemarie, Ellen is her neighbor and lifelong best friend; to the Nazis, Ellen’s one of the Jews.  Annemarie and her family decide to protect the Rosens and smuggle them into neutral/free Sweden.  That action puts the Johansens in danger as well as the Nazi search comes closer and closer.  Eventually, everyone over the age of 9 takes part in a desperate deception to spirit the Rosens to safety and Annemarie learns enough to understand there are times when even 10-year-old girls must be brave.

Kim Malthe-Brunn

Lest you think this novel is a complete fantasy, Lois Lowry appends an essay at the end about her research at the end of the story.  She discusses how the actions of ordinary people saved almost all of Denmark’s Jewish population and Kim Malthe-Brunn, one of the young Danish Resistance fighters executed by the Nazis. Taken together, her research shows that brave individuals don’t always prevail, but great things can happen when brave people band together.

If you have any lingering doubts, Number the Stars is a Newbery award-winning book, the American Library Association’s personal gold seal of approval.  Instead of being a book about “the best of times; the worst of times,” Number the Stars is about the worst of times and the best in people.

Getting Rid of an Ugly, Dead Tree

There’s an ugly, dead tree at the bottom of my yard and I want it gone.
One very ugly,
dead tree
Now, before you decide I’m some nut who wants to ruin the environment, let me admit the tree is dead. Also, I live in a place where Mother Nature needs editing more than encouragement. So, I’m not some terrible industrialist laying waste to the earth.  But I am someone who lost control of my world.  And I’m fighting to get it back.
Our house sits at the back of 4/3s of an acre on the crest of a low-lying hill. Because we live on a slope and my husband does not love lawn care, much of our yard belongs to the wild things.  Trees and brush grow at the corners of the lot where birds and small animals make their homes.  As long as the foliage didn’t obscure the view or road to our house, that’s fine.  But then the ugly tree came along.
It came up during one of our 48-hour springs that seem to launch straight into summer. In March, it was a straight little sapling that hugged the edge of the road.  By fall, it was too big for my loppers to cut down. Soon, insidious vines twisted around the tree, warping the trunk and obscuring the view of the house. Still, I never seemed to find the right moment to cut it back. Either I was dealing with some career or personal issue, or working on something for school, going to or recovering from my full-time job, taking care of the house, or writing.  All of that is hard to do, especially when you’re carrying an extra 130 pounds in weight. So, every year, I missed my chance to cut back the tree and its vines during the dormant season.  And every year, I gained more weight and my health got worse.
Why won’t this thing
fall down??
I finally realised the tree and my weight both belong to me: they are my problems, my responsibility. I started losing weight, not all the weight I need to lose, but enough to go after that ugly, dead tree.
And I can tell you ugly dead trees don’t give up without a fight. First off, the vines around it are still living and fibrous and it takes work just to get them away.  Also, the tree is surrounded by a ton of kudzu, stickle-briar and urushiol-bearing plants, all equipped with their own thorny defense systems.  And the tree itself is a particularly dense hardwood. Yes, this would have been easier if I had a chainsaw but powered tools aren’t good for klutzes like me.  Instead, I brought my small hatchet, a hand mitre saw and my inadequate 2″ loppers to the job, as well as a pair of gloves and 911 programmed into my cell phone. (I am very accident prone.) I hacked away with the hatchet until I quit making headway and then swapped to the saw and loppers, trying to slice through the trunk of that tree. Twenty-five minutes after starting, I was sweating, breathless, blistered and the ugly tree was still standing. (I’d also picked up a winter case of poison ivy but I didn’t know that at the time.) I was ready to quit. Then I realised the tree was more than a tree and I was working on two problems at once.
I’m not lying when I say my unhealthy weight is a problem that I’ve fought for decades. Decades. Like the vines on the sapling, it’s grown and tightened a grip on my life until I was almost as bad off as that tree.  Over the last nine months, I’ve whittled away a lot of pounds through exercise, healthier choices, and even surgery, but, like the tree, the rest of my extra weight hasn’t fallen yet. My unhealthy life patterns aren’t giving up without a fight.  And, if I turn my back on them now, those unhealthy vines will start creeping back.  So,  in spite of the cold, the rain and the poison ivy, I’m determined to keep hacking until the tree is down and the vines are ground up for mulch.  It’s become a symbol of something else I want gone from my life.

Yes, the tree isn’t giving up easily.  Then again, neither am I.