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Friday, May 4, 2012

Hometown History

The stained-glass window of the second floor landing across from the main entrance to the high school that I attended depicts General George Washington accepting the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in October, 1781. For the four years that I bounded up and down those stairs, I barely glanced at the window. And when I did, I barely wondered why the town where I was born and raised would dedicate a window to Washington—almost as if he was a church's stained-glass window saint.

Back then, I had no clue of its real significance. Sadly, very little was said during American History classes about the window or Washington's place in our local history. In retrospect, I wish there was—such knowledge would have added a much deeper meaning to my Westchester County, NY heritage.

Then along comes Mary Sudman Donovan, PhD—a transplant to Dobbs Ferry—who, as president of the village's Historical Society, wrote a detailed history of the forty-eight days (July 4 to August 19, 1781) that Gen. Washington spent headquartered in what was then the larger (than it is now) area of Dobbs Ferry—then known as Philipsburg. Here is where he planned his strategy with Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army, to defeat the British forces, some of which were entrenched on York (Manhattan) Island, to end our Revolutionary War.

Yes, folks, Washington did sleep in my hometown.

In George Washington at "Head Quarters, Dobbs Ferry": July 4 to August 19, 1781,
Dr. Donovan, a noted historian and published author, recreates from Washington's correspondence and journals, as well as that of others who served with him during this brief, but important period, a day-to-day view of military life. The book contains glimpses of Washington, his troops, and their (first) joint maneuvers with the French. Aided by illustrations that include reproduced maps, sketches, lithographs and portraits, as well as original complementary drawings by Larry Blizard—also a resident of Dobbs Ferry, a member of the Village Board of Trustees, and treasurer of the Historical Society—this small, 97-page trade paperback tract1 brings to life the intimate details of a rag-tag army on its way to effecting one of the greatest victories of freedom in modern history.

I must admit that I am not much of a history "buff". In school, it was one of my least favorite subjects, second only to calculus, although historical fiction is one of my most favorite literary genres. Go figure. I guess rote memorization of dates, places, and times without learning their true significances and consequences was/is as dull to me as watching paint dry on a humid day. It just doesn't "happen" for me.

Yet, here in Donovan's treatise, one of the four or so books she has written in her illustrious career, provides more than just facts and figures. In depicting one of the two major turning points of the American Revolutionary War—the American victory at Saratoga in October, 1777 and the bold decision of Washington and Rochambeau to march from Westchester County, NY (Dobbs Ferry)—to Virginia2, she incorporates personal commentaries on not only Washington, but his staff and their French counterparts. There are amusing stories anecdotes as well, culled from Washington's memoirs, that bring these most famous historical figures to life. It is a vivid recreation of what, to me, was, at first, no more than a series of dates and times in my high school history textbook. Here is a carefully constructed and enlightening window that carries the reader back through time, as it were, to visualize what occurred in Dobbs Ferry and its environs, placing it squarely smack-dab into the center of American history.

George Washington at "Head Quarters, Dobbs Ferry": July 4 to August 19, 1781, is a must read if you hail from Dobbs Ferry or know someone who does. It is an essential read for anyone who is a history “buff’, especially of the American Revolution. It can, if you have the imagination for it,  almost be read as a novel, although its intent is not to entertain, but to educate. Always one to enjoy a good read, I approached it from both standpoints and was joyfully jolted back to my own roots. I finally—after all these years—discovered the deep significance of the second floor landing.

It is a tribute not only to Washington, but, more importantly, to the village that I still proudly call home.

1 © 2009 Mary Sudman Donovan. Prepared for the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society and published through iUniverse, Bloomington, IN. I was alerted to this book via a friend on Facebook, who posted it to the "You Know Your Grew up in Dobbs Ferry...." page.
2 There is a most interesting interview of Dr. Donovan on YouTube, in which she discusses these events, her book, and Washington and his staff and their impact on the outcome of the Revolutionary War: Donovan interview. For more information about Dr. Donovan, please access her Web site at: http://donovanbooks.net/author_22.html.

12:34 pm edt          Comments

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Perfect Mystery

I am n
ot a big fan of the mystery genre, per se, although I have indulged in a few whodunit novels by Lisa Scottoline, Agatha Christie, and Mary Higgins Clark. But, in general, I prefer a good, juicy historical novel or a rousing Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt adventure.

However, yesterday I received a beautifully written and deeply inspirational email from a dear friend. Cherie is on my Blog Alert List and, since my first posting last November, has been one of my more faithful fans. Allow me to humbly share with you a few of her comments:

I am really enjoying your blog. I was having trouble reading any of the books I had bought lately and...saw your recommendation for 'Her Fearful Symmetry' and knew I had to read it. I am back in love with reading again - I had just needed something to truly engage me and this did the trick...your latest blog on 84 Charing Cross R[oa]d...you were spot on there, too. I cried a lot over that book and loved the way it transported you to London and New York but also into the mind of a reader who thirsts for knowledge - the whole metaphysical / Gnostic aspect of what she was reading was so fascinating. [I] just wanted you to know that I am indebted to you for providing a source of clever and unusual reading - I desperately need the escape of a good book these days...and I find that I can't read just any old thing...

Cherie's comments touched me deeply. To be told that what I write inspired someone else to read again is truly a gift. It is what this blog is really all about. And I, too, can't read just any old thing. In my reply, I explained that I try not to blog about the "typically mediocre" best sellers, but about those books whose themes have meaning in my life, with characters that leap out of the page, and touch me with interestingly poignant circumstances. This is the reason I tend to shy away from mysteries—they just don't do this for me. And then she wrote:

Did you read
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl?

Hmmm...that title did sound familiar. But, then again, it could have been that I was reminded of Dante Alighieri, who wrote Divina Commedia—The Divine Comedy—in the 1400s, which was first translated in 1865 from the original Italian into English by the poet and Harvard professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Was there a connection?

I love it when a blog reader offers a suggestion and I actually find an unread copy of it in my personal library. It's like receiving an unexpected Christmas or Birthday present, full of wondrous surprises. But when I did locate my pristine trade paperback copy of
The Dante Club* squished between two larger hardback tomes on a lower shelf, and read the front matter comments and back cover blurb, I was dismayed. It was, indeed, a mystery. Bummer.

But wait. Friends are indeed friends, particularly those who share my often "different" tastes and proclivities in reading. I knew Cherie wouldn't steer me wrong, especially when it comes to books. So, after walking FrankieB through the park, and then completing the mystery of this week’s enigmatic Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle, I settled in for an hour or so of afternoon reading before dinner. Six hours later, I was still engrossed in this scholarly ingenious first novel. 

Matthew Pearl is a 1997 magna cum laude graduate of Literature from Harvard University; well-versed in the more erudite side of literature. His scholarly research, his studious attention to historical facts and details, are coupled with his equally ingenious imagination, all interwoven into a most diabolical plot played out not only by fictional protagonists but by real members of the real Dante Club: Longfellow, Olivier Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell—eminent poets and scholars in their own right in mid-Nineteenth Century Boston, MA—right after the Civil War—when and where this enigmatic conundrum takes place.

Imagine, if you will, a gruesome string of serial murders, a coterie of the above-mentioned real-life Harvard professors, the culture and politics of a fledging publishing industry, a well-defined but often inept group of detectives who set out to solve the most heinous crimes, along with an assorted bevy of odd-lot characters that—yes  I'll say it—leap out of the pages and come to life in interestingly poignant circumstances. This is the reason I can't put this novel down. I want to know "whodunit" and why. And, for some reason, I know it isn't the butler. I love the unique way Pearl intermixes murder with literature, like a bloody hand fitting perfectly into a finely stitched calfskin glove. And the beauty of it all is that it is all structured like and connected with finely threaded references to Dante's three Divine Comedy canticles: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.

If you are not familiar with Dante and his most famous work, don't worry. Pearl, in his narrative and spot-on dialogue, provides you with just the right amount of information. He does not "talk down" to his readers, but through the characters helps you along, perhaps, to "solve" the mystery, providing an enjoyable jaunt along the way. If you think that revolving a more popularist literary plot around Dante is a bit too “intellectual" for you, then think again. Yes, there are some sluggish spots that read like a pedantic thesis; these do require a bit of slow, careful scrutiny—don’t skip over them. Remember, this is not a typical Conan-Doyle. Once you pass through these parts, you'll understand that they add up to the delightfully overall mysteriousness of the whole. And, to help you along, there are very carefully placed clues and references that urge you on to try and second-guess the author and his surprise ending.

This book is the perfect combination of what I would expect in a good whodunit: well constructed and thought out plot twists, tumbles, and turns; a deft, erudite touch of fine literature; sparkling descriptions of historical events and places; well crafted personalities, both fictional and non-fictional. It is, above all, a stirringly hair-raising great crime mystery that is keeping my mind mesmerized and totally engrossed.

A perfect read for a perfect rainy afternoon.

Thanks, Cherie, for the email and the suggestion! Keep 'em coming.

* © 2003 by Matthew Pearl. This 2004 is a Random House Trade Paperback Edition, Random House, Inc., New York, NY. It is complete with a Reader's Guide and a preface by C. Lewis Watkins, Harvard Professor of Italian literature. The first edition hardback was published in 2003.  
12:56 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,