Why On Earth Did I Choose Neanderthals?

Kaye George author photoRelevant History welcomes national best-selling and multiple-award-winning mystery author Kaye George, who writes several series: Imogene Duckworthy, Cressa Carraway (Barking Rain Press), People of the Wind (Untreed Reads), and, as Janet Cantrell, Fat Cat (Berkley Prime Crime cozies). Her short stories appear in anthologies and magazines as well as her own collection, A Patchwork of Stories. Her reviews run in Suspense Magazine. She lives in Knoxville, TN. For more information, check her web site and blog, and look for her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


One day I decided I wanted to write about something in the past. I rejected a few periods, mostly because I had studied them in history class. It seemed to me, at the time, that history consisted of memorizing dates and wars, with a few kings and queens. Boring! It was only after I left high school and started reading historical fiction that I realized some of those periods were interesting, even fascinating.

What else was there?
However, lots of people were writing about those times. What was there that no one had done before? Here’s where my interest in anthropology kicked in. I was an avid fossil hunter at one time and used to have a terrific trilobite—wish I knew what happened to that!

Add in the fact that Neanderthals, long thought to be low-browed savages, were turning out to be misunderstood. As scientists sequenced one of their genomes, startling discoveries were made. One that they sequenced was red-headed and probably freckled! When you considered how many thousands of years they thrived, then factored in the climates they survived, everyone had to drastically change their opinions of their intelligence.

Conflicting theories
I ordered a few textbooks and heavily underlined and post-it-noted the pages. I found that, for every theory, there’s a conflicting one. Perfect for a fiction writer! Some said it was unlikely they could speak. Others said that of course they could. Some said they buried their dead with ceremony, others said probably not. So I was able to pick and choose what fit my fiction.

No one knows how their society was ordered, so I ordered it to suit myself. My tribe, the Hamapa, is matriarchal with the wise old woman as the leader, advised by two of her male partners. In order to be able to describe things to the reader from outside, I chose one main character, Enga Dancing Flower, who was adopted into the tribe with her twin, Ung Strong Arm. It is assumed that her tribe abandoned her and her sister, as very small children and near to the Hamapa tribe, because they could no longer feed everyone. I chose another main character to be a young male of the tribe, Jeek, still a child, and younger than Enga Dancing Flower.

I had the most fun inventing their language, since at one time I considered majoring in linguistics in college. Going from a French major to Russian, I sort of gathered some linguistics. Putting together knowledge about how babies learn to speak, how disabled people manage, and early language studies, I used only the sounds easiest to make, just in case it was hard for them to speak. Also, they save the spoken language for ceremonial announcements and communicate mostly by telepathy. (Not a theory by anyone but me. But, hey, if the Australian Aborigines can do it, Neanderthals might have.)

Where to put them
One problem was setting. I knew I wanted to use the end of their time on this planet as a separate people, about 38-40,000 years ago, but I didn’t know much about Europe or Asia then, which was just before the last Ice Age. I did know something about North America (and learned a lot more!). Then it came to my attention that the theory of peopling the Americas was being called into question. So I decided it was people much, much earlier than the main theory (and now that theory is almost totally debunked in favor of earlier migrations). Why not let the Neanderthals go just a bit farther east and come on over?

The advantage of doing that is that I can use the mega-fauna that existed on this continent in those days: mammoth, mastodons, saber-tooth tigers, dire wolves, flat-faced bears, giant beavers and sloths. Everything was gigantic! And presented challenges as food sources for my tribe. The approaching glaciers from the north were also driving the game south as the story opens. Some neighboring tribes were having a hard time feeding themselves.

Other prehistory fiction!
I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a group of prehistory fiction writers who write the gamut, from fairly recent times, just before the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans, to 70,000 years ago. It’s fun to share our interests in primitive peoples. If you’d like to know more about them, visit the group. Some of the other writers (all fiction—I’m the only mystery writer) are Mary Black, Kathleen Rollins, Bonnye Matthew, Ron Fritsch, Michael Gear (of W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear), Simon Townley, Sandra Saidak, Gary McCarthy, and Sharman Russell. (Though I might call the Gear books at least part mystery). If you like prehistory fiction, look up all of these!

More respect for the Neanderthals
By the way, one marker of progress is that I read, in a textbook published well after 2000, that scientists all agreed that Homo neanderthalensis didn’t interbreed with Homo sapiens. Today, I know that I’m 2.9 percent Neanderthal from a simple DNA test I took a couple of years ago. The old myths about these long-misunderstood people are falling day by day! They were added to the genus Homo only very recently. I’m so gratified that some of my theories about them are being added as new discoveries. I love writing about my Neanderthals!


Death in the Time of Ice book coverA big thanks to Kaye George. She’ll give away a trade paperback copy of her book, Death in the Time of Ice, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Boys with Whips

Flogging as a form of punishment was dispensed by company drummers during the American Revolution. In my recent post on flogging, I included the following statement:

…the desired outcome of flogging wasn’t usually the recipient’s death. That meant that often the flogging was delivered by a boy who didn’t have the upper body strength of a man.

A history buff queried me about the statement, said that all drummers were adults, and wanted to know where I’d gotten the rationale about using boys to go easy on the punishment.

One place I’d seen it was in Dr. Tony Scotti’s 2002 book Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton. Here’s the quote from his book:

Starting in 1740, some restraints appeared during floggings. Soldiers lived through large numbers of lashes, say one thousand for desertion, because they were administered at intervals over several weeks and supervised by a surgeon. Furthermore, drummers now carried out the punishment. The rationale for all this is simple. Aside from being more humane, it saved a valuable if momentarily wayward soldier for future service. In addition, a drummer boy of thirteen or fourteen years of age did not have the upper body strength of an adult corporal or sergeant. The youth could not last long at full tilt when whipping his comrade.

I bolded the portion of the quote most pertinent to this post and will get to the issue of drummers’ ages in a moment. This bolded part supplies a rationale that drummer boys administered floggings because they didn’t have an adult’s upper body strength and could thus go easier on the prisoner. Documentation exists to support the points about the flogging intervals, surgeon supervision, and duty of drummers. But the rationale itself doesn’t appear to have primary documentation supporting it. (If you find such a source, please send it to me.)

Years after the Revolution was over, that rationale may have been acquired to supply a motive or reason for why boys were involved in the business of floggings. How would a rationale be attributed? Unfortunately, people have “embellished” pieces of history all along to support personal and organizational agendas. If you don’t believe in these agendas, take a look at “Molly Pitcher.”

Here’s where matters get murkier. It’s a fact that units enlisted boys as young as twelve years of age. I checked into some primary sources—pension applications and, via a fellow researcher, muster rolls—to see what they could tell me about the ages of drummers. In both the British and Continental armies, there were plenty of adult drummers. However, boy drummers also became members of units as early as twelve years old. So were all drummers adults? No.

George W Joy"s "An English Drummer Boy"Life on a campaign trail was obviously harsher than that in garrison. Any boy who could endure the rigors of battle as a drummer and march all day carrying a heavy drum would have to be strong and stout. Such a boy would be expected to perform all the duties of a drummer. Most likely he’d be older than twelve—but that doesn’t mean he’d necessarily be a man. One pension application I read included a direct reference to the drummer flogging someone, and when he did it, he might have been fifteen years old. Tantalizing data.

We don’t yet know why drummers were chosen to administer floggings. Nor do we know if there was a minimum age requirement to perform the duty. In a unit, drummers were rotated through the task of flogging. If a prisoner was to receive a great number of lashes, several drummers could be assigned to carry out the sentence. Thus some boys may have been included in the duty rotation and wielded the cat-o’-nine-tails. Such circumstances don’t support the rationale that armies used drummer boys for a light touch with the whip.

Why would this rationale be attributed in the first place? For Americans living in the past century, the ideas of enlisting children as combatants, whipping a man’s back to shreds as corporal punishment, and using children to dispense such floggings are alien, horrific, and repulsive. But that level of social consciousness didn’t exist in the 18th century. The notion that boys were assigned to deliver floggings because they didn’t have the upper body strength of a man sounds like a very modern attribution. Maybe it’s an “agenda” to soften some grim realities: that “childhood” looked very different during the American Revolution, and that corporal punishment was brutal business in the British and Continental armies.


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The Winner of Bluffing is Murder

Kaye George has won a copy of Bluffing is Murder by Edith Maxwell. Congrats to Kaye George!

Thanks to Edith Maxwell for her insights into Quakers, midwifery in the 1800s, and abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


12 November 2014 NEWS FLASH! Kaye George has generously offered her giveaway, an ARC of Bluffing is Murder, to another commenter. The new winner is Nancy Whitt. Congrats, Nancy, and thank you, Kaye!


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Taking Liberties with John Greenleaf Whittier

Edith Maxwell author photoRelevant History welcomes Edith Maxwell, who writes the Local Foods Mysteries. The latest, ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, was released in May 2014. As Tace Baker, she also writes a modern Quaker series, the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries; book 2, Bluffing is Murder, will be released 11 November 2014. Under the pen name Maddie Day, she writes the Country Store Mysteries. Her historical Carriagetown Mysteries series is in development. Maxwell has also published award-winning short stories of murderous revenge. She lives in an antique house north of Boston and blogs every weekday with the Wicked Cozy Authors. For more information, check her web site, and look for her on Facebook and Twitter.


No, not that kind of liberties! But John Greenleaf Whittier is a secondary character in my new historical Carriagetown Mysteries series, and I’m having fun bringing him back to life.

Meetinghouse in the snow, photo credit Edward MairI’ve been a Quaker for a long time, and I worship at the same Friends Meetinghouse in northeastern Massachusetts where Whittier worshiped. He lived down the street (Friend Street, felicitously enough) and was on the building committee for the lovely simple light-filled structure that was completed in 1851.

I also live in a house built in 1880 for the mill workers who wove cotton cloth in the tall brick buildings only a block away. And I worked as a childbirth educator and doula many years ago, stopping just short of being a midwife.

Amesbury in the 1890's, a bird's eye viewSo I’ve put all these experiences together in a completed novel called Breaking the Silence, in which Quaker midwife Rose Carroll hears secrets and keeps confidences as she attends births of the rich and poor alike in 1888 Amesbury. When the town’s world-famed carriage industry is threatened by the work of an arsonist, and a carriage factory owner’s adult son is stabbed to death, Rose is drawn into solving the mystery. Things get dicey after the same man’s mistress is also murdered, leaving her one-week old baby without a mother. While struggling with being less than the perfect Friend, Rose draws on her strengths as a problem solver to bring two murderers to justice.

What did being a Friend in 1888 mean? And what was it like to deliver babies at home without advanced medical assistance, antibiotics, or sterile procedure?

Quakers have always followed several testimonies: simplicity, integrity, peace, equality, community. For a couple of centuries they wore plain dress—simple clothes in muted colors—as a way to demonstrate simplicity and equality. They refused to go to war. They did not doff hats to those of higher class and did not use titles. They refused to swear an oath in court, because integrity guided their lives and they considered that they always told the truth. Friends of 1888 might still have used “plain speech,” using “thee” and “thy” to both familiars and strangers, which originally was to avoid distinguishing between two classes of people when “you” was used in a more honorific way. But by the late 1800s “theeing” and ”thying” only set Quakers apart, since the language had regularized to “you” for all second-person usage.
The testimonies haven’t changed for modern Quakers, although the manifestations have. Many Friends have been conscientious objectors, and simplicity might be now expressed by living in a modest-sized dwelling, owning a used car, and wearing a jacket from the consignment shop. Many modern Friends still refuse to swear an oath in court, instead requesting to affirm the truth.

John Greenleaf WhittierMy protagonist, 27-year old Rose, is happy in her calling as a midwife, but she’s also being courted by a young doctor whose family is in high society one town over. When she’s invited to a fancy dinner dance, Rose consults with Whittier about wearing a party frock, and he gives his blessing. I’ve greatly enjoyed joining the Whittier Home Association and immersing myself in his life, and was gratified when one of the docents read my completed manuscript and said he thought I had captured the famous poet and abolitionist’s appearance and essence. And Rose lives in my house with her late sister’s widower and his five children, so I can imagine the story as I walk through not only my own home but the streets of my town.

Pinard hornAs for attending births, Rose uses a Pinard horn to listen to a baby’s heartbeat, and struggles with infections and the common diseases of the day, sometimes losing a baby to prematurity or a fever. But germ theory was already known, and she practices hand washing and sterilizing what she uses to cut the umbilical cord. She encourages her pregnant mothers to eat well and take fresh air and exercise, and helps postpartum women with both breastfeeding and depression. She’s had experience, as most modern independent midwives have, with difficult births like breech, twins, or when a baby’s shoulder gets stuck. These are skills that are falling out of many modern obstetricians’ tool boxes, because of the relative ease of surgical births, despite its still real risks to both mother and newborn.

A Time of Change
Women on safety bicyclesIt’s a fascinating period to write about, just before the electric trolley replaced the horse-drawn system. When rich people might have electric lights indoors but most still used gas lamps. When the telephone existed but wasn’t common. When women wanting to ride the safety bicycle, with its equal-sized wheels, started to wear bloomers and cycling costumes and developed a less restrictive style of dress so they could move about more freely.

I piloted the premise of the Carriagetown Mysteries in an award-winning short story, also called “Breaking the Silence,” that was published in the anthology Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold from Level Best Books. The series is not yet under contract, but I’m determined that it will be somewhere, sometime. “A Questionable Death,” a short story featuring Rose and her friend Bertie Winslow, will appear in History and Mystery, Oh My from Mystery and Horror, LLC. Stay tuned for news in this space, as they say!


Bluffing is Murder book coverA big thanks to Edith Maxwell. She’ll give away an uncorrected proof (ARC) of her soon-to-be released book, Bluffing is Murder, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available within the United States only.


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The Winner of Cherish

Tracy Smith has won a copy of Cherish by Norma Huss. Congrats to Tracy Smith!

Thanks to Norma Huss for discussing her memories of Pearl Harbor and Japanese internment. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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The Blacksmith’s Daughter: On Sale for the First Time

The Blacksmith's Daughter book cover“A ripping good read!” — Ann Parker, author of The Silver Rush Mystery Series

The Blacksmith’s Daughter, stand-alone second book of my “Mysteries of the American Revolution” trilogy, is on sale for the first time through 26 October in the Kindle Store for 99 cents. Regular price $5.99. Please spread the word.

The patriots wanted her husband dead. So did the redcoats. She took issue with both.

In the blistering Georgia summer of 1780, Betsy Sheridan uncovers evidence that her shoemaker husband, known for his loyalty to King George, is smuggling messages to a patriot-sympathizing, multinational spy ring based in the Carolinas. When he vanishes into the heart of military activity, in Camden, South Carolina, Betsy follows him, as much in search of him as she is in search of who she is and where she belongs. But battle looms between Continental and Crown forces. The spy ring is plotting multiple assassinations. And Betsy and her unborn child become entangled in murder and chaos.


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Civilians and Internees During World War II

Norma Huss author photoRelevant History welcomes Norma Huss, who calls herself “The Grandma Moses of Mystery.” She’s a wife, mother, grandmother, (soon to be great-grandmother), and author. Her mysteries for adult readers are set along Chesapeake Bay, where she and her husband sailed for many years. Her non-fiction is a telling of her father’s youthful adventures in Alaska. YA fiction Cherish is a blend of generations, and needed a lot of input from the younger generation to ever appear. It’s a Halloween book that grandma and grandchild can enjoy together—each will learn something about the other’s teen life and “social media.” For more information, check her web site and blog.


A young teen’s view of World War II
I had just turned twelve a month before that Sunday afternoon when we heard the news. My family sat in the living room around the wood stove, listening to the radio while my mother and I cleaned eggs with sandpaper brushes before they would be sold to city folks. My father relaxed before milking cows. My younger brother and sister played. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Over the days ahead, we heard our president tell us we were at war. Since I lived close to the west coast, we feared the Japanese. (My husband, as a child in Pennsylvania, feared the Germans.) We had air raid drills at school, we covered our windows so light wouldn’t seep out, we bought savings stamps. My father took a first aid course and learned how to stop bleeding. My mother spotted planes.

One day at school, mimeographed sheets were given to the oldest child in the family. After the parents read the sheet, it had to be returned the next day. We were to watch and report any sighting of incendiary bombs. The Japanese were floating balloons carrying them across the ocean. The government didn’t want Japan to know a few had landed.

In a few months we received our ration books with stamps of different colors, one for every member of the household. On a Sunday, we heard over the radio what each color stood for. Red stamps were for meat and butter. Another color was for canned vegetables. Sugar was rationed, as were shoes and gasoline. Since we lived in the country, we grew much of our own food, including meat, so we used our meat coupons for butter. Since each person had the same ration of shoes, families with small children found it more difficult to manage keeping those growing feet shod. Gasoline rations were separate. Farmers received more than enough to run their tractors to keep food production up. The speed limit was reduced to 35 miles an hour, saving on fuel, but also reducing accidents caused by worn out tires. (Rubber for tires was in very short supply.)

Some of the products we see in our stores today began life as non-rationed goods to replace rationed items. Play shoes made without leather or rubber were soon available. They became quite popular, and, in some cases, necessary. Cake mixes, on the other hand, were a failure. They tasted awful. My mother was disgruntled that some companies were getting allotments of sugar to mix up something so useless. (The did improve with time, until, today, they are probably more popular than home made cakes.) Production of fake butter, called oleomargarine flourished.

Internment of Japanese residents
When the war began, we lived in an area largely populated by German immigrants. This was not a problem with us. The kids were our classmates and friends. Others accepted Italians as well. The people who lived with Japanese neighbors weren’t so benevolent. My aunt, who taught school near Seattle, told us a story, which may have been an urban legend before its time. She said a teacher asked a child what they would do if the government took the father away to a camp. The child supposedly replied, “Then my mother will light the candle on the roof.”

In any event, the Japanese families, over half of them American citizens, were moved completely out of California and the western half of both Washington and Oregon. (Less than 2,000 of the over 150,000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii were interned.) I later worked with two of the Japanese women who had been interned. One had been a child. She told me they asked the man of the family two questions. “Do you swear allegiance to the United States?” and “Will you fight against Japan?” Those who replied “No,” to both questions were kept in internment until the war was over, then sent to Japan. Those who replied, “Yes,” to both questions were released, but could not return to their own homes until after the war.

Of the two women I knew, the older one had been released with her family. During the war she worked for the government in Washington D.C. After the war, when her family returned to the Seattle area, they discovered the farm they had signed over to friends to “save”, had been sold by the supposed friends who left with the money.

The other woman’s father had been born in the United States of immigrant parents. He went to Japan to choose a wife and returned to farm in America where the children were born. He said, “Yes,” he was a loyal American, but “No,” he wouldn’t fight against his wife’s family in Japan. They stayed in the internment camp until the war was over, then returned to the Seattle area. The absolute worst, my friend said, was dealing with all the others in the camp who had said, “No, No.” They tried to turn her family against America.

The book, Cherish
My book for teens is Cherish (A Ghost Mystery). It’s a story that spans the centuries with today’s Kayla, and Cherish, a teenage ghost from 1946. Cherish, fifteen in 1946, would have lived through World War II, just as I did. But, just as I did, by 1946, a year after the war was over, she didn’t dwell on it. Others did.


Cherish book coverA big thanks to Norma Huss. She’ll give away a paperback copy of Cherish to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Saturday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available within the United States only.


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The Winners of Queens Never Make Bargains

Loretta Wheeler, Cindy Sample, and Norma Huss have won copies of Queens Never Make Bargains by Nancy Means Wright. Congrats to Loretta, Cindy, and Norma!

Thanks to Nancy Means Wright for a look at how she transformed ancestral scandal into a multi-generational novel. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Stepping into the Past: On Castles, Spitfires, and Feisty Scots

Nancy Means Wright author photoRelevant History welcomes back historical novelist Nancy Means Wright, who has published fourteen novels with St Martin’s Press, Dutton, Perseverance Press, and elsewhere, including two historical mysteries featuring 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft. Her most recent historicals are Walking into the Wild for tweens, and the multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains. Her short stories, both mystery and mainstream, appear in American Literary Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Level Best Books, et al. Her children’s mysteries have received an Agatha Award and Agatha nomination. Nancy lives in Middlebury, Vermont, with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats. For more information, check her web site, and look for her on Facebook.


Some people move ahead with the times—I’ve been stepping behind. After a decade with a contemporary farmer sleuth, I journeyed back into the 18th-century and into the head and heart of real life feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. I relived Mary’s turbulent adventures as governess in an Irish castle and as author of the groundbreaking Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—for which they called her a “philosophical wanton.” And I wrote a middle grade novel, Walking into the Wild, set in the 18th-century Republic of Vermont, in which three young siblings walk up into a wilderness filled with catamounts and Tories, in search of a captured father.

Now I’ve reached a stage in my life where I want to dig into my own family roots. In Queens Never Make Bargains, I tell the story of my Scottish grandmother, who as a young woman, alone, took ship aboard the Campania, a turn-screw, steel structure with a veranda café for first class (my granny rode third class) from Port Glasgow in Scotland to New York City. Her half-sister had died in childbirth and she was to be nanny to her uncle’s brood of seven children. She later married him and had six more—thirteen in all. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that I discovered in the Edinburgh, Scotland archives that my grandmother was illegitimate! It took a glass or two of Scotch for me to digest this stunning news—and then I wrote a novelette for Seventeen Magazine that ultimately turned into a full-blown novel.

Castle in the Highlands
Castle MenziesOf course I wasn’t alive when my grandmother took that ship. I have only basic facts, along with family stories sifted down through the years, and myriad visits to Leven Fifeshire where my mother’s family lived in Scotland near the Firth of Forth, and where archeologists had dug up the body of a Viking in full armor. And I placed scenes near the Menzies Castle in highland Weem where my father’s forebears lived. My daughter and a friend once sneaked into the elegant ballroom after the castle was locked and had a fitful night’s sleep filled with dreams of kilts and daggers!

The area is magnificent. The whole valley spins at the feet of the castle: braes, burns, the old houses and trees of Weem and Aberfeldy, Dull and Fortingall. This had been Menzies country since the thirteenth century when the laird was granted the lands and became in loco paternis to the people, renting them land, I was told, in return for certain favors. It was those favors, my father claimed, that spawned our branch of the family!

Life, Love, and Art in Cherry Valley, Vermont
After reaching America, my fictional Scots nanny, Jessie, moves with her uncle and his unruly brood to a town I call Cherry Valley, Vermont. The latter is based on the Vermont machine tool town of Springfield, which was allegedly on Hitler’s World War II “hit list” for bombing. Russian and Poland immigrants flocked there during and after WWI, and I’ve created a love affair between Jessie, who teaches English to the foreigners, and a young Polish poet. Her uncle, of course, does everything he can to separate the lovers.

So far as I know, my grandmother was never in love with a young Pole, who despite his pacifism, fights for his new country in WWI, but like my mother who never told about her illegitimate origins (if indeed she knew), my grandmother stored her secrets deep inside.

One of my characters is based on Joe Henry, a real life artist from Springfield, Vermont (1912-1973), whose paintings I’d seen in an art gallery. I was amazed at the quality of his work, for polio had left him with no use of his opposable thumbs. To paint, he would stand propped in braces before a cardboard table, and then sweep a painting onto canvas or the back of newspaper—for Joe had little money for art materials. I interviewed a compassionate veterinarian who took him on his farm rounds in the 1930s, and gave him subject matter for his work, which eventually found its way to N.Y.C. galleries. One of his paintings graces the cover of my book.

Banned Plays and War Planes
Since the novel tells the fictionalized story of three passionate Menzies women who carry on their lives through two world wars, a pandemic, and a Great Depression, I write from three different points of view. In Part 3, I’m in the head of Victoria, the youngest of Jessie’s charges, who grows into a rebellious young woman in love with the 30’s theater (a theater killed by fanatical congressmen), with her (married) Vassar College professor, and with the Spitfire airplane.

SpitfireAfter seeing Colonel Charles Lindbergh set down his famous Spirit of St. Louis in a nearby field (he truly did in 1927), she learns to fly, and ferries planes in wartime London. Women pilots are not allowed to carry guns, although like Victoria, they do encounter Messerschmitts in the embattled air. My older brother, a pilot and navigator, steered me through the mysteries of Victoria’s beloved Spitfire, with its snug single seat and overhead “bubble” which she calls “the dome of heaven—like flying out of the self.” Like the WWII female pilots I’ve researched, she has her share of misadventures—including a landing in foul weather in which a fellow pilot just ahead of her drowns in his plane.

So the narrative moves in and out of time (1912-1945). I’ve been researching it off and on for years, exploring the roles of immigrants and their conflicting cultures and religions. I’ve been particularly interested to see how external events shape and alter our lives, and how, like many of my ancestors—and yours as well, no doubt—we cope with and survive them, even when we lose what we most love.


Queens Never Make Bargains book coverA big thanks to Nancy Means Wright. She’ll give away copies of Queens Never Make Bargains (ebook or paperback) to three people who contribute a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available within the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.


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Flogging: A Common Form of Corporal Punishment in the 18th Century

Have you been watching the excellent adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s historical novel, Outlander, on the Starz channel? I have, and I also belong to an Outlander Facebook discussion group. Since my first book was published, readers have told me that my series appeals to fans of Gabaldon’s books because of certain settings and themes. Redcoats, war, 18th century, amoral characters, civilians in peril—hey, what’s not to like? So many interesting issues and points have emerged from the Outlander episodes that I’ve decided to explore some of them here on my blog.


The makeup job on Sam Heughan's backEarly in season one of Outlander, viewers were shown the scarred back of character Jamie Fraser—the result of his being flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails by a wacko, sadistic British officer. From all the research I’ve done into the American Revolution, I knew about the cat and the kind of damage it could do. Flogging permanently disfigured a person’s back. The makeup job done to actor Sam Heughan’s back to represent the scarring looked like what I expected, accurately depicting the traumatic damage.

But outrage, disbelief, and horror exploded in comments from members of the discussion group. Most had no idea that flogging with a cat could produce such trauma. Even after a flashback of the gruesome event was shown in episode six, the outrage, disbelief, and horror persisted. I wondered why there was such a disconnect about flogging.

Many people of my generation and earlier were spanked or “switched” if they were naughty children. That level of corporal punishment is mild compared to flogging, but if it’s a viewer’s only point of reference, the flogging in Outlander comes as a huge, horrific surprise. Also, in first-world countries, corporal punishment of children and criminals has been downplayed for several generations in favor of other forms of punishment.

Plus, in the last century, especially the first seven decades of the 20th century, I think that Hollywood’s depiction of “good guys” played a crucial role in the development of these mistaken beliefs about flogging. These Hollywood heroes had stiff upper lips when it came to pain and could unrealistically “take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.” For all their trouble, villains seldom got more than a grunt out of these superhuman hero characters. The following two examples show you what I mean.

Errol Flynn in "Against All Flags"Errol Flynn portrayed many swashbuckling heroes on the Silver Screen. Here he is in the movie “Against All Flags.” His character, a Navy officer, is receiving twenty lashes on deck while the crew watches. It’s a ruse that his superiors concocted to convince everyone that he’s in disgrace so his reputation will precede him, and he can credibly infiltrate the villains’ operations. Aside from being a bit sweaty and emitting an occasional grunt of annoyance, Flynn’s character takes those twenty lashes in stride. He then moves on to getting dressed, hunting down the bad guys with sprightly energy, and (because he’s Errol Flynn) seducing a defiant and lovely woman. In reality, twenty lashes was a rather light sentence that might be delivered for minor crimes; often soldiers and sailors received at least fifty lashes. But those twenty would have torn the skin on a man’s back repeatedly. He’d have bled through his shirt, assuming he could have tolerated the pain of fabric rubbing his injured back. For several days afterward, he’d have been far too stiff and sore to gallivant around and seduce women, and he’d have carried scars from the flogging for the rest of his life.

Captain Kirk and Mr Spock in "Patterns of Force"Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are considered icons and hero figures almost five decades after the debut of classic Star Trek on primetime TV. This image, which provides excellent fodder for those who write slash fanfic, shows Kirk and Spock in a jail cell right after futuristic Nazis have flogged them in the episode “Patterns of Force.” To break the lock on their jail cell, Spock stands on Kirk’s freshly-flogged back so he can reach a light bulb and activate a laser-producing gizmo in his wrist. All Kirk does is grunt a little and kvetch about how the Nazis did a thorough job on his back. The two then escape the cell, beat up some Nazis who try to restrain them, and steal their uniforms. In reality, the “thorough job” any Nazi (c’mon, a Nazi, folks) would have done on Kirk and Spock would have resulted in shredded skin on their backs and incapacitation for both men.

Cat-o'-nine-tailsFlogging with a cat-o’-nine-tails was a common, flexible punishment for 18th-century soldiers and sailors convicted of a wide range of infractions. The experience that men received from flogging varied, as the whip could also be made of leather, and the knots could contain sharp objects like metal spikes to inflict an additional level of damage.

Trained soldiers and sailors were a valuable military investment in the 18th-century, thus the desired outcome of flogging wasn’t usually the recipient’s death. That meant that often the flogging was delivered by a boy who didn’t have the upper body strength of a man. (Here’s an update/correction on that statement.) Floggings were usually made public. The recipient’s company mates were required to turn out and watch him be flogged. The experience bonded all of them in a grisly way. After a flogging, the man was far less likely to screw up again because his mates were keeping him in line—and keeping themselves in line. I show this briefly in chapter thirty-five of my book Camp Follower: A Mystery of the American Revolution.

One more point about flogging. While it was considered punishment, the flogging that Jamie Fraser received in Outlander also demonstrated the psychological effectiveness of torture—and I don’t just mean torture of Jamie. We’re used to thinking of most forms of torture as a way to get someone to divulge information, right? But torture is actually not too effective at that. Studies have shown that when people are tortured, they say anything to make the agony stop. Most of the time, the information they spill is useless.

So if the torture wasn’t just for Jamie (who actually withstood it and didn’t give the loco villain what he wanted), who was it for? It was for the townsfolk who were witnessing the flogging. If you watch the episode, notice their reactions. The villain turned the flogging into a weapon of terror and made it public to keep the civilians in line. And he delivered the flogging himself to give it a personal touch.

Flogging, corporal punishment in the #18thCentury, and #Outlander http://bit.ly/1rV2zSR #history #AmRev


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