Posts tagged ‘Ace Star Books’

Jul 16, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 7 – culture, cannibalism and courage

I ended last time with Charles Dickens, a wonderful writer whose novels and commentaries evoke Victorian England in all its captivating awfulness to the extent they found a new lease of life in the guise of the television serial and Christmas special. If it isn’t Dickens then it’s Austen. And if it’s Dickens or Austen it’s Christmas. Except nowadays Christmas tends to be cheap and trashy dancing shows and Mrs. Brown’s Boys. The progress of civilisation, huh? With both Dickens and Austen we feel we know their worlds for we’ve been exposed to a succession, a very long succession, of directors and scriptwriters who’ve reinvented their characters and storylines, adapting them to the mores of the day. Of course, we don’t. We have not the faintest sense of the privileges and suffering they wrote about. Suffering we’ll come back to but none can deny that many a Dickensian character sticks in our minds as clear as any picture because of his sheer ability to distil their persona onto a page of letters. Pictures are a powerful medium – I feel a link coming on.

Think Renaissance with a capital R and you are probably thinking pictures and characters. First book up is The Penguin Book of the Renaissance edited by J. H. Plumb. Plumb had a long and glittering career as a historian. Not your average working historian for a glance at his Wiki page explains how this well-connected academic was so successful he was able to ‘indulge his taste for fine food and wine, build a collection or rare porcelain; drive a Rolls-Royce’ and had residences in England, France and New York. But this isn’t about him.

I used this little book when studying History of Art at university and for some reason while other books from that time went the way of many things, this one has stuck fast to a book shelf, possibly because it is small and can be squashed in between other books. Anyway, renaissance art was one of the major topics in my degree cannily chosen to overlap with aspects of my history degree which included Renaissance Italy. Art was intrinsically mixed up with the treacherous, inspiring, enlightening social and political events of that tumultuous period – ever fascinating and exciting.

It is impossible to isolate the art: painting, drawing, etching, sculpture, architecture from dynastic struggles between feuding families who were the main patrons of the arts. This was the world of political murders and unquenchable corruption that affected religious and lay life: the Borgias, Sforzas, Medici, Machiavelli. Ruthless tyrants and immoral politics. The wealth and privileges enjoyed by the great families associated with the renaissance was only made possible because of the craftsmen and women who manufactured items, agricultural labourers who worked their lands, their guards and militiamen who protected them from equally rapacious rival clans or families. Not that any Borgia or member of the Medici would have acknowledged they were dependent on anyone so low.  

Fifteenth century Italy – magnificent and cruel. Artists who stood on the shoulders of their forebears of classical Rome and Greece in developing their specialisms that so beguiled their unsavoury patrons continue to fill us with awe and admiration today – indulgent, ravishingly beautiful – often providing pictorial evidence of that period. Architects designed homes for the powerful, fortresses, chapels and churches. They painted their portraits positioning them alongside saints as though they were part of the narrative of Christ’s life and work. They flattered and massaged the egos of Italy’s elites. And that got them more work.

The book looks at many works in detail: The Tribute Money by Masaccio – researching Scottish farming many years ago I chanced on a bull in the Scottish Highlands called Masaccio. I liked that. But back to the art. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his figure of David, Fra Angelico’s Life of St Nicholas.

The arts at this period flourished to a level that was astonishing and inspiring despite or was it because of the back-stabbing that was happening in pursuit of power both religious and secular, including in the Vatican. Whereas now rich and powerful individuals and families indulge themselves and show off their wealth through owning fast cars, enormous yachts, racing horses, properties in the world’s chic destinations, trips into space and art collections – but often collecting art created by long-dead artists who starved to death in the proverbial garret. Fine art consumption, a bit like hoarding bitcoin. Back in the renaissance living artists were given contracts by princes and tyrants keen to bask in the glory of an outstandingly beautiful cathedral or sumptuously painted ceiling. Okay, so they didn’t pay much but usually they paid something.

Paintings, sculpture, architecture and other associated crafts were rarely just seen for their intrinsic beauty but as property and narratives that carried a message to influence behaviour.

Nowadays? Well, there are pally newspapers and TV editors to massage the egos of the great and the good (sic) and mould a public impression of them that flatters and deceives. Different times, different media but essentially buying an image has been around for a very long time.

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And from the old world to the new – or so those Europeans who settled in what became America would have us believe was new. A new world to them, certainly. Again, there are comparisons with today. We’ve become inured to flimsy vessels taking to the seas packed to the gunwales with the scared, the frightened and the ambitious. It was ever thus. Where do you think we in the British Isles first came from? Under a cabbage leaf? Think boats and migration.

The factors that influence people to up-sticks and migrate to another country or a different part of a country vary but for most it is in the hope of a better life – somewhere safer, more pleasant, land available, work available, exploration. The ‘pioneers’ who took to a temporary itinerant life to travel westwards across America from east to west, to California, were following their own individual drives but surely all shared the belief they were heading towards better times.

Ordeal by Hunger by George R. Stewart is one of the most harrowing books you will ever read. He tells the story of the final group of the 500 wagons that left Independence Illinois for California in the spring of 1846. The pioneers tailing onto this huge body of migrants came to be collectively known as the Donner-Reed Party. Stewart’s account was first published in 1936 but our copy is from the press of Ace Star Books, 1960 edition, which we bought from Old town Books in Tempe, Arizona in April 1991.

During that spring of 1846 hundreds of people; single people, servants, whole families (there were many children), rich and poor thought to undertake a journey of more than 2,000 miles for a host of reasons – to escape difficulties, to find land to farm, to forge new businesses, to find work, to find religious freedom, for adventure – all adults had their own reasons. They were not the first to head westwards and of those who made it through some sent letters to their folks back east or in other parts of Europe that California was a fine place to settle and bring up a family. So, under the leadership of George Donner and James Reed this last group set off along the Oregon Trail. They would have anticipated reaching California by fall, all going to plan but the plan was altered. Instead of continuing along the established trail as those ahead of them had done it was decided they would take a largely untried route recommended by Lansford Hastings, an explorer who had never attempted to take a wagon across this inhospitable and unbroken diversion. On the map it appeared Hasting’s trail would shorten the journey and because of earlier mishaps that had held up the wagon train the Donner-Reed party was behind in their schedule and winter was fast approaching in the high territory that lay ahead. This decision was their undoing. They became completely bogged down in the mountains in treacherous conditions. Snow tens of feet deep prevented wagons progressing, oxen disappeared and horses couldn’t cope. What hope was there for men, women and children on foot, fast running out of food? Practically none. These were not mountain men and women but people used to the plains of the east. They did not have the knowledge of folk living in extreme conditions who in any case would not have considered embarking on moving people, the majority children, and goods across untamed boulder and tree strewn mountainous landscapes with snow, ice, gale-force winds and swollen rivers.  

It is impossible to imagine the extent of miseries experienced by the men, women and children who found themselves stranded in a living nightmare.  One by one they weakened, grew sick or got injured and began to die. Some of the stronger ones endeavoured to scale the mountains to make contact with help. One or two made it. They were met with enthusiasm from settled Californians who volunteered food, money and animals and some risked their own lives to rescue those trapped across the Continental Divide who were dug into rudimentary shelters completely submerged under deep snow with nothing to eat.

Well before this stage because of the delays in crossing the lower part of the trail food was in short supply and water frequently unavailable for many miles. To try to prevent their mouths feeling so dry distressed children were given a flattened bullet to chew on. With food supplies dwindling to non-existent some folk were reduced to eating grass. That was fine, in a sense, until heavy snows piled feet high over the ground. Animal hides, used as tent covers and cut into strips to make fastenings for quickly manufactured snowshoes from ox yokes were soaked and cooked over fires and eaten – a choice of food over shelter. They ate tallow and mice. Then it was decided they would have to eat human flesh. One can only imagine the tensions ensuing during a discussion about how this might be done. It’s almost unbearable to read a passage describing two men contemplating firing loaded revolvers at each other until one is shot dead instead of black-and-white murder. When it came to eating human flesh revulsion prevented this for long and some never would touch it except to keep children alive.

Stewart is a good story-teller. His descriptions of landscape and horror are well-done. And, too, his accounts of kindnesses for this is not simply a horror story but one where adversity brought out the very best in people as well as the worst. There are so many characters involved it is hard for the reader to keep individuals in focus but there’s a roster of the Donner Party at the end and a condensed itinerary plus other notes on people and incidents to assist.

Accounts of their harrowing trial came from survivors and diaries kept by some of the migrants. Forty-eight of the ninety pioneers who set out made it to California. Some fared well in their new lives but for others so deeply were they affected by the horror imposed upon them they were never able to reconcile what they lived through.

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As though there was method in the madness of filling bookshelves the next book along is also about the land featuring above, only thirty years later and from the experience of a lone traveller – I offer you A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird.

There’s a bad breed of ruffians,” she’s told, “but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you. There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.

And so it was.

Isabella Lucy Bird certainly had pluck. Daughter of an English clergyman she was born in 1831 and owing to her fragile state of health was advised to spend time abroad in American and Canada. And so the 23 year old began on an incredible set of travels around the world. Not quite sure the adventure she embarked upon was quite what that English doctor had in mind but what was soon abundantly clear there was nothing at all wrong with her other than, perhaps, boredom with her life in England.

From San Francisco she took to the saddle riding for hundreds of miles around the Rockies mainly inhabited then by wild men and animals, proving herself braver and more resilient than everyone gave her credit for at the outset. There in the Rockies she fell in love – with the place – the immense grandeur of its mountains, the flowers of the foothills and many of the animals still abundant in the 1870s. And though she hardly admits it, surely fell in love with one Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent – beguiled by his kindness, his poetry and long blond curls.

Okay, so I’ve cheated. The passage above comes from a blog I wrote some years ago on the intrepid Ms Bird and being someone who doesn’t believe in wasting energy reinventing the wheel I’m reproducing a fragment from my earlier piece, A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks. For the whole blog click on the link:

A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com)

I’ve read Isabella’s book several times and on each occasion find it totally spellbinding. That’s not to say I like Isabella for I find her prejudices, her racism and disparaging remarks about native Americans hard to stomach but I admire her guts and sense of adventure. Hers is an astonishing story recorded in a series of letters sent home to her family which were published in 1879 which paints a picture of the West as proficiently as any artist with a brush: her palette the carmine, vermillion, greens, blues, yellows, orange, violets, lemons of the skies, the grasses, the hillsides, the gorges, the mountain streams of Colorado so the reader can imagine those crimson sprays of Virginia creeper, snow-capped summits, colossal rocks crested with pines, “beautifully arranged by nature,” blue jays and chipmunks, deer, elk bighorn, grizzlies, mountain lion, bison, rattle snakes, tree snakes – every kind of snake. Her writing is lush and spare at the same time for she doesn’t tell all.

If you haven’t yet read it then give this one a go. I’m not a great one for re-reading books, with a few exceptions such as James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Bird’s tales of the American West. Her book on China I didn’t like as much.

We’re just about there, folks. Next time should do it. End of a bookshelf. Till then forget Freedom Day. Being free to contract Covid is no kind of freedom so take care and keep well.