Sunday, July 16, 2017

Blood and soil: white supremacists and the love of good things

The other night I fell into a rabbithole on Twitter and found some white supremacists. It made me think.

It's not the first time I've read white supremacist material on the internet. I research Nazis. There's, to say the least, a certain amount of overlap. A websearch on "Nazis" plus some other keyword will sometimes turn up, for instance, someone praising Nazis on their highly disturbing blog and detailing why they were right. And I'll admit to some fascination. Like a trainwreck, it's hard to look away.

There are certain recurrent themes in this kind of material--both modern and historical--that I wouldn't have expected to see back when everything I knew about Nazis came from school. One tends to picture Nazi Germany as a sort of industrial wasteland in the making, rather like an early stage of Mordor. So I was a bit surprised by the strong back-to-the-land emphasis, both from Nazis and white supremacists today.

So what I discovered on Twitter the other day was the hashtag "tradlife." Short for traditional life, it identifies a marriage of back to the land, family values, strongly hierarchical gender roles, healthy eating, celebrating cultural traditions... and white supremacy. One prominently placed message showed lovely pictures of young white girls dressed up in traditional costumes from Sweden, Scotland, etc, asked weren't they lovely, and then took a hard right turn into "Whaa??" territory: white people do have culture, the writer insisted, and don't "need Islam to 'enrich' them." When I was finally done puzzling over who had told this lady white people needed Islam to enrich them (I still wonder if she misinterpreted multiculturalism by accident or on purpose), I looked at the pictures again and saw something I had seen many times before.

A lot of white supremacists don't look nearly as scary as you think they're supposed to. A lot of them focus on, and post pictures of, very attractive things. There is a slogan often made into image macros, sometimes entitled "14 words" (watch out if you see that phrase online, it's a code): "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." It's often superimposed on very lovely and romantic images of white women and children. The phrase itself, especially with those images behind it, seems to focus on the protection of good things--children--and subtly implies its real message: the white race is threatened and we must fight back. (What they see as the great threat to the white race, by the way, is intermarriage with other ethnicities, which they believe is so frequent--and backed by conspiracy--as to pose a definite threat that sooner or later there will no longer be any white people. They will and do actually refer to this as genocide.) And in the process they often use images of--and declare themselves to be protecting--things that are personally very precious to me.

The Nazis used the phrase "Blut und Boden," meaning "Blood and Soil." It was about a people's sacred ties to their land. It was about farmers staying on their land for generation after generation and holding it in trust, cherishing it. Like Wendell Berry wants us to and so do I. It was also about the German people's spiritual, mystical ties to the German land, which were violated by anyone of the wrong ethnicity owning that land or living on it. And in the end it was about cleansing those "wrong" people from that land as if they were vermin.

They frame themselves as protecting the good and the beautiful. In its service they destroy.

Those images of children in traditional costumes are beautiful. There is nothing wrong with white people celebrating their ethnic heritages--on the contrary. I haven't read the book myself, but an African-American friend once told me about a book called How the Irish Became White. Irish immigrants to the U.S. were not considered "white people" in the early days, not really--they were considered dirty immigrants, "No Irish Need Apply." The author of the book argues that it was by defining themselves as "white" in opposition to black people that Irish immigrants (in general) gained the status they desired in their new country. Could learning and appreciating our specific ethnic roots--Irish, Swiss, Hungarian--loving them simply as ours, without notions of superiority--be a sort of way of reversing that process? Might loving the good and the beautiful that our ancestors handed down could help us to respect others' roots as well, or understand how awful it was when others' roots were taken from them when their ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved or taken from their families or forced off their land? I feel like it might, if we do it in a humble spirit.

Or--if it's done in a spirit of aggressive, wounded pride--it could be very, very different.

I'm not certain what my point is today. I know that I'm troubled that I share a deep love of certain good things--the land, rooted traditions, family, food that you grew with your own hands--with white supremacists. I know that that doesn't make those things bad. It's a deep, complex, thorny issue, ethnicity and the love of a people for their land--as becomes richly clear when land is in dispute--but I know at least this: that love is not wrong, though terrible things can be, and are, done in its service.

Let's be careful, when people tell us the good and the beautiful is under threat. What if I didn't understand about Nazis? Would those lovely images put hooks into my heart? Would I wonder if the white race really was under threat? People often tell us things we love are under threat, when they want some reaction out of us. Let's be careful. Maybe that's an obvious lesson, but it's what I've got for today.

Also if you see the phrase "14 words" online, watch out.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Flame in the Night - a preview

I recently signed the contract for A Flame in the Night, and the final manuscript is almost complete. I thought I'd share a little preview today. This is one scene that can be viewed completely out-of-context--in fact I'm considering making it a prologue. It's the scene where we meet the major new character in this story, young Elisa Schulmann.


Elisa Schulmann took the last pin out of her mouth, slipped it carefully into the silk of the skirt she was altering, and picked up her needle. She glanced up; Madame Serge was watching her, standing in the open doorway that led to the front of the shop. She kept her hands steady under her employer's frown, taking a tiny, careful stitch.

“Wash your hands.”

Elisa laid down her work. “I washed them when I came in, Madame.”

“Wash them again. You're sweating. Do you know how much silk costs these days? If we have to replace that I'll dock every centime from your pay. Anyway, put that aside for now, I've just gotten a rush order from Madame Boutet. I'll need you to stay till it's finished.”

Elisa sat up very straight, glancing at the doorway of the windowless workroom and the narrowing stripe of afternoon light. She ducked her head carefully, keeping her hands still on the linty black fabric of her skirt. “I'm truly sorry, Madame, but you know that on Fridays—”

“You will make an exception tonight.”

Elisa lifted her head and looked Madame Serge in the eye. “I'm truly sorry, Madame,” she enunciated.

The woman's cold frown sharpened. “You people shouldn't work in Christian shops. I ought never to have hired you. Always trying to rub your difference in people's faces—too good to drink a cup of coffee with us—I wouldn't be so proud if my religion was based on doing cruel things to baby boys—”

Elisa was on her feet before she knew it, blood pounding in her ears. She froze. “Excuse me, Madame,” she said through lips stiff as clay. “I have a personal need.” She turned and walked carefully to the shop's tiny bathroom, then locked herself in and sat down on the toilet lid, shaking.

“God, help me,” she said in a harsh whisper. “Help me, please.” She closed her eyes, thought of the lines in Papa's face last week when he'd told her the rent had gone up again. Their rent, not the neighbors'. All Jews have gold under their mattresses, didn't you know? She thought of the day Papa had asked her to do this. The day Karl Schulmann, who had once been able to provide what was finest for his family, had admitted he needed his daughter's help. A tiny, burning coal had lit somewhere behind her breastbone at that moment. It was burning still. I will not fail them.

She took a deep, silent breath. Help me. She loosened her bun and re-pinned it, carefully, then rose and opened the door. Madame Serge was measuring a hem. Elisa stood silently till the woman finished, then spoke quietly, eyes down.

“I apologize, Madame. I will try to wash my hands more often. I apologize for my attitude and I will do as much as I can for you tonight.”

“Till it's finished?”

“Till seven, Madame.”

Madame Serge blew sharply through her nostrils, turned away and began to roll up her measuring tape.

By seven Elisa had the new sleeves of Madame Boutet's dress pieced, pinned, and the first seam stitched, and she was exhausted. She showed Madame Serge her work, ignoring the breathy sounds of her displeasure; they were good signs, signs that breath would be the only consequence tonight. She ducked her head respectfully as she said Bonsoir. She walked out of the shop and heard the door close behind her, and filled her lungs with the open air.

The narrow streets of Lyon were deep in shadow beneath the three-story houses, clouds already brightening to pale sunset gold in the sky above; Elisa went quickly, threading her way to the dingier quarters. She turned into her familiar alley and went down it hugging the gray wall, away from the stench of the sewer drain where something seemed to have died. She let herself in the back door and climbed the stairwell, shutting her ears against the sound of angry voices through thin walls. Her eyes found her own door, her fingers rising instinctively, eyes on the two ragged nail holes where the mezuzah used to be. They always tightened her stomach a little, those holes. She passed them by and let herself in the door, into peace.

It smelled like chicken. It smelled like Shabbos. The deep, sweet peace of Saturdays in the house back in Heidelberg came back to her with the scent, and her eyes stung. Her right hand lifted to the small bright mezuzah nailed in its new place on the inner doorframe, and for a moment she thought of nothing but the holy words inside. Then she heard her sister's voice: “Just stop it!”

She set her jaw and walked down the little hallway to their bedroom. Her brother Karl sat on the bed, arms crossed and face defiant, as their sister Tova, fingers tangled in her half-made braid, wailed “I'm going to have to redo it all!

“Karl,” said Elisa.

“I didn't,” said Karl hotly, “I didn't touch her, I just asked if I could share the washbasin a minute—”

“You hit my elbow!”

“I didn't mean to!”

“But you did,” said Elisa. “Apologize. Tova, I'll fix it.”

“Sorry,” muttered Karl to Tova's shoes.

“Thank you,” whispered Tova, tears appearing in her eyes. She smiled at Karl through them. She was the only one of them who used her Hebrew name for everyday; it had stuck, Mama said, because it meant “good.” And wasn't that just like a parent, thinking pliable was good? Elisa worried for her. “Shh now,” she soothed as she braided her sister's thick, wet hair. “It's all right.”

She gave Karl his turn at the basin and then shooed them out so she could change. She heard clinking from the kitchen as she peeled out of the sweat-stained black working dress, and doubled her pace. As she combed her hair something rustled behind her. A slip of paper appeared under the door—then flicked back out of sight. She turned her back. Do you know what I do for this family? I'd like a minute's peace sometime. Rustle. Flick. She glanced back. There it was, then—flick—a grin seemed to hang in the air. The corners of her mouth softened helplessly. Whispers from behind the door; a giggle. She twisted her hair into a bun, shoving bobby pins in ruthlessly, and dove for the paper as it slid forward again. “Ha!” She threw open the door and displayed her trophy. “I win.”

“Come to the table,” Mama called from the dining-room.

As she followed her grinning siblings down the hallway she glanced aside at the open door of her parents' cluttered bedroom. Her smile fell away as she took in what lay on the bed.

Mama's jewelry box. Open.

Her heart tightened, then began to pound. The open lid, that ought to be locked and hidden in its place under the floorboards, spoke to her as if aloud. It's not all right. Tova and Karl were almost too young to remember the days back in Heidelberg when the automobile had gone, and the carved walnut furniture, and the piano. Her first piano. She'd cried and cried. The next day Papa had taken her to a rally. She'd heard words she still could not burn out of her mind. “We must leave this country,” Papa had told her quietly, as she walked home with him white-faced. “I am so sorry, Lies. I would not have sold your piano for any lesser reason than this. You see, they will not let us leave with our money. That is the price.”

“It's not fair,” she had whispered.

“It's not fair,” he'd said gravely, as if they were reciting a lesson together. Then, “We will pay them and go.”

She leaned on the doorframe, staring at the box. Who are we paying now? Where do we go? The handful of bright things in there was all their savings. Not enough. She had heard Papa say so. She had heard him say over and over that the rumors from Paris must be exaggerated; that even if the Nazis had done such a thing in the Occupied Zone it was another matter here. This was still France.

He had said it to her and Karl and Tova, his voice measured and calm. He had seemed so sure.

The gold in the box spoke its silent question. “I don't know,” she whispered, and turned away. She walked down the hall to the dining-room, to where against the scarred wall the pure-white cloth was laid on the table, the blue-and-white plates and the clean napkins by each one. To where Mama stood behind the four tall candles, and Papa by her side smiling. To Shabbos dinner, and peace for tonight.


image credits:

young woman sewing: Vincent Van Gogh, wikimedia commons

alley: vanOrt,

candles: Miheala Gimlin

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Buckskins and brains

And now for something completely different!

I'd like to share my strangest hobby with you. Interestingly, although it used to be a traditional feminine occupation (at least among some peoples), every single practitioner I've met online, in the course of learning it, has been male. I'm referring (of course?) to tanning buckskin.

It all started with the deer in the woods here at Plow Creek. They get hit on the road sometimes. And sometimes (in season) they get hunted. I learned from an experienced guy here how to field-dress and butcher deer that have fallen victim to cars (I have very high standards though--it needs to be still bleeding) and we've gotten some high-quality organic free-range venison out of it. (Mm, deerburgers.) One step in the process was burying the parts we weren't going to use. I always felt a little twinge at burying that big, soft, beautiful pelt in the earth.

So one fall and winter, when I needed what Jane Austen would call "useful occupation" due to some plans not working out, I started a web search about how to tan that beautiful fur.

The first thing I found out: it isn't fur. No matter how nice and soft it feels, it's hair, like a cow's or a goat's, which means it's hollow and will fall out after a few years; there's a reason they don't sell deer coats. Apparently wanting to tan a hair-on deerhide is a mistake all newbies make, in the interesting world of tanning forums, so I duly listened to my teachers. They said: you have the skin of a buck. Why not make buckskin?

So I did.

Buckskin is a fascinating material. It's not leather. It is technically its own, entirely different substance. It's softer than suede, strong as canvas, light as, well, probably denim, and stretchy. It's unbelievably comfortable to wear--as leather definitely isn't. The only thing wrong with it, as a garment, is that it absorbs water like a sponge. But other than that, it's light, strong and beautiful.

And it's made with brains.

What I don't do. Those lacings would be the end of me.
There's a certain oil in brain tissue that's crucial to the tanning process. (It can be found in other things--you can approximate it with egg yolks, for instance.) It's wackily enjoyable to imagine just who discovered this and how (and it must have been dozens of people, because native peoples all over North America and on almost every other continent have done it), but no doubt about it, brains do something special to hides, and it's said every animal except the buffalo has enough brains to tan its own hide.

I searched and searched the web for different methods, mostly for the sake of avoiding that incredibly arduous-looking process where you lace a skin into a homemade frame to scrape or stretch it--and I found what I wanted, and happily learned something called the wet-scrape method. Here are the steps.

1. Soaking (aka bucking)

You put the hide into a barrel with just the right mix of water and wood ashes, or water and lye. (If you're using lye, WEAR GLOVES. Don't ask me how I know.) After a few days, depending on the weather, the skin will swell slightly (in a non-stinky way) and the hair will start to come out. I can also attest that if you accidentally leave it for three years, the hide will literally dissolve. But then Coca-Cola will do that too, or so I hear.

 2. Scraping

What I do instead. That's not me though.
You lay the hide over a log or a PVC pipe, placed on a sawhorse or stump or something so that one end is up near your stomach. With a blunt metal edge of some kind (I used the handle of a long metal spoon), you scrape off, first all of the bits of flesh and fat from the side of the hide that used to contain, y'know, the deer; then you flip it over and scrape off the top layer of epidermis (and hair, but that's just a bonus) from the outside. (You can scrape the flesh earlier, especially worthwhile if it's freshly skinned, but the bucking mixture prevents rot, so you can afford to wait till this step.)

3. Braining

You blender up the brains with some warm water and soak the hide in them. Should I claim it's not as gross as it sounds? It's... well, it doesn't bother me, anyway. And what it does to the hide is fascinating.

What I'm told is: the oil coats the matted fibers that make up the core layer of skin, so that instead of holding tightly to each other, they begin to slip. You have a piece of hide (it's gray-white at this point and fairly thin) that used to be as unstretchy as canvas, and now you can grab its sides in two hands and double its width just by pulling. It doesn't spring back, it just stays that way. Then you can grab it in the other direction and double its height. (It doesn't just keep getting bigger; when it gains height, it loses width, etc.) It's kind of a magical feeling, like being a kid discovering a new material for the first time--mud, or play-dough, or water even...

Till you do it all day!

4. Stretching

You wring the hide out very thoroughly (there's a special technique) and then you start stretching it. You stretch it over and over, in every direction, till it's dry. You can do it solely by hand or stretch it around something--a cable, a post, even a small tree. This can take three hours, or it can take all day, depending on how thick the hide is and how dry the air is. It's kind of grueling. More than "kind of," if you've got a big, thick hide of an older buck. (I still have a hide in the freezer that I know I don't have the muscle strength to stretch, actually. It was, I forget, an 8-point buck? Maybe more. Even scraping it was hard.) I can only imagine how strong Native women used to be as a matter of course, doing this on the regular to clothe their families.

This part is where you hope you scraped all the epidermis off. Any pieces you missed will become little hard patches on your hide, like bits of it have been laminated.

If you've scraped and stretched it properly, on the other hand, when it's all dry it will be soft like cloth, mildly stretchy like a heavy T-shirt, and pale.

Then you smoke it.

5. Smoking

This "fixes" the tanning chemically in some way. If you don't do it, a good washing will undo your tanning and return your hide to rawhide.

Smoking's a bit complicated, and looks ridiculously picturesque--definitely the photo-shoot stage of buckskin tanning. You set up a little tipi or frame of short poles, and hang your hide from it, all sewn up (or, modernly, glued with tacky glue) into a sort of balloon shape that only opens at what used to be the neck. Under the neck you place a coffee can full of hot coals, and onto those coals you crumble dry punky wood, like you find in the woods in fallen logs full of dry-rot. It makes this lovely fragrant smoke, which goes up into the hide and out through its pores, "fixing" it and giving it its final color. The color is subtly different depending what kind of wood you use--from red-brown to dark brown to golden-brown.

(Although to be honest, I don't know what kind of wood I've used, as I'm not great at identifying rotting trees. At a guess it was probably oak, maybe maple, and as a great connaisseur of subtle color shadings I would call the color I got out of it... brown.)

I've never made buckskin clothing yet, having tanned all of three successful hides in my life so far, but maybe someday! I've made only small things, mostly gifts. My two favorite projects so far have been a pair of custom-fitted gloves for my mother and a pair of moccasins that were my kid's first real shoes. I've also made a couple of nice small purses.

If you want to learn more, a good intro page that includes both how-to and some interesting history is And here is the best series of forum posts I have ever seen on how to do wet-scrape brain tanning, with thorough science included.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

She opened her door: Madame Trocmé

Because I am very busy organizing a party for a friend this weekend, I'm re-running a piece I wrote when the blog was only three weeks old. I'll be back on my regular schedule next week!

“The struggle in Le Chambon began and ended in the privacy of people's homes. Decisions that were turning points in that struggle took place in kitchens, and not with male leaders as the only decision-makers, but often with women centrally involved.”

- Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

It was a cold evening in the terrible winter of 1940-1941—the worst winter France had known in a long time—and Magda Trocmé was feeding the fire. In her town up on the Vivarais plateau, where the winters were harsh at the best of times, this one was a time for worries. She was carefully adding bits of dried genêt brush, trying to build up the fire without wasting the precious firewood that would get them through till spring.

She heard a knock on the door.

She opened it to find a woman shawled in snow, fear and hunger in her face, hesitating. She was a German Jew, she said, a refugee. She had heard that here in Le Chambon, someone could help her. Could she come in?

“Of course,” said Magda. “Come in, come in.”

Magda was the wife of André Trocmé, the pastor of the Reformed Church in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. If you have heard of anyone in this story, you will have heard of him. He was a brilliant scholar and preacher, sent by his denomination to this small rural parish because he refused to stop preaching nonviolence. He was a big fish in a small pond, both a charismatic leader overflowing with ideas and one who warmly loved his people and visited them constantly. Since France's defeat in the spring of 1940, he had preached to his people that they must resist pressure to act against their consciences and against God, and he had himself resisted in politically symbolic ways. When it was decreed that all schoolchildren would now salute the French flag with the same salute used in Nazi Germany, he refused to enforce the order in his church-run school, and the principal of the public school followed suit.

That was the time of symbols. There in the unoccupied zone, the new collaborationist Vichy regime was trying to capture the hearts and minds of the people with their program of National Revolution, its goal quite literally to make France great again. On the Vivarais plateau, people had long memories, and those memories were of government persecution and the brave resistance of their Huguenot ancestors. Their country's greatness wasn't their main concern. André Trocmé helped to focus and embolden the new sense of resistance welling up in their hearts.

But Magda opened the door.

Magda was not always sure just what she believed about God—or if she was, she never said so very definitely. She supported her husband in everything he did, but she was a practical woman, not much taken with words or symbols. She wanted to know what she should do—and do it. “I am not a good Christian at all,” she explained once, “but I have a few things I believe in... I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me or asks for something. This I think is my kind of religion.”

The time had come for her kind of religion.

This was the first time a refugee in need had come to the village openly asking for help. When Magda gave it, she ushered in the second time in Le Chambon: the time of helping. Simply helping people who needed help. Within a year and a half, in the summer of 1942 when the round-ups began, the time of hiding would come; by then the village would be full to bursting, the vast majority of households sheltering at least one refugee, with many more in children's homes and dorms of the church-run boarding school. There would be false identity cards, planned hiding places, code-phrases to alert Jews to the presence of police.

But first there was an open door, a place by the fire, a bed for the night.

It was only for the night, that time, because there's another part to this story. Magda made a mistake.

Leaving the woman to warm herself by the fire, she went straight to the town hall, to ask the mayor to help her get a ration card and hopefully a false ID for the woman. There were no round-ups yet, but as a refugee and an illegal alien she could still be deported back to Germany by the French. Magda assumed the mayor would help. It was what she would have done; it was what her neighbors would have done. She was not experienced yet.

The man was shocked. How dare she endanger the French town under his care for the sake of one foreigner? He told Magda to get her out of town the next morning—at the very latest. She looked at him, turned on her heel, and walked back out to comply. She had no choice. She had told the authorities who and where the woman was. She had put her in danger and she would have to get her out if it.

Thankfully, Le Chambon—though it's the one you may have heard of—was not the only town on that plateau where people believed in welcoming the stranger. In the next town over, Magda knew a Catholic family who were willing to take the woman in. But she was ashamed, ashamed for her town and for herself, to be sending this refugee who had come to her back out into the snow. She did not remember that day as a triumph. She learned from it the precautions to take, the next time she opened her door. Not precautions against the person who stood on the other side, but for them.

Her mistake is really interesting to me. It seems so obvious to us in hindsight, and yet she was not a stupid or naïve person. She was a mother, an organizer, the equal partner of a brilliant man. She didn't suppose everyone approached needy refugees in the same way as her; just that everyone in her community did. And the crazy thing is that she was almost right. There were thousands of Jews in Le Chambon during the war, and no informers. Also—though I haven't been able to discover whether this was due to a change of heart or a change of mayor—it's a matter of record that for most of the war years the town's mayor fully supported the rescue efforts. Magda Trocme assumed a moral community that was almost there. And her assumption came true.

Who made it true? Who can say? Every person who opened their door, one by one, made it true. Every person who offered a little help, whatever someone needed. A pair of shoes, a meal, an invitation to hide in their hayloft anytime there was need. And yes, André Trocmé with his preaching helped make it true too. But his words and his symbols would have been nothing without the people willing to make them real. Without farmer after farmer saying (they were surprised after the war that anyone was impressed) “Well, they're in trouble, of course they can stay here.” Without woman after woman, standing in her kitchen, deciding she could stretch the rationed groceries in her pantry enough to feed another mouth.

Without his wife, opening that door.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"I came back. Therefore, I won't complain." Madeleine Dreyfus, Jewish rescuer and deportee

A lot of the rescuer stories I've told so far have been of non-Jews hiding or saving Jews. This one is quite different.

There's an image, sometimes, that Jews were passive during WWII: victimized or rescued, their fate depending solely on others. The truth is otherwise: many, many Jews resisted as they could. Some resisted by force of arms, even in the face of hopeless odds, some by underground activities and rescue, some by--like Daniel--continuing to worship God as Jews when it was terrifyingly forbidden. (Read more on Jewish resistance here.) Madeleine Dreyfus resisted by saving Jewish children.

Saving them, hiding them, and counseling them. Madeleine was a psychologist.

She hadn't felt any particular bond with the Jewish community, growing up; she was raised as an atheist, and had friends of different faiths. Her studies took her into intellectual and artistic circles in Paris, where she met her husband Raymond (whose background was also Jewish.) But as the war encroached on their lives, things changed bit by bit. Her husband, drafted into the French military and then discharged after the defeat, took a job in Paris--then lost it for being Jewish. The new French government had made it illegal for Jews to hold jobs they considered "positions of trust." The Dreyfuses left for Lyon in the Unoccupied Zone, where a friend who was leaving the country asked Madeleine, as a trained psychologist, to take over her job. The job was with the OSE, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants--a Jewish organization with a double life and a double name (which still exists today.)

Secours means more than one thing. The OSE's name can be translated as Children's Aid Network--or Children's Rescue Network. This was exactly right. Officially, they were about aid--food, shelter, social services. But as the threat rose, a shadow side of the OSE rose to meet it, with rescue.

Madeleine started on the social services end, plying her trade, counseling troubled young people whose parents had taken refuge in Lyon. Then disaster struck--the first great round-up of foreign Jews in the Unoccupied Zone, August 1942. She was called on to help in an incredible illegal rescue performed by the OSE and a network of Christian aid organizations, the Venissieux rescue I wrote about last year, in which over 100 children--almost all the children arrested in the Lyon area--were spirited away and hidden from the authorities who had intended to deport them. Madeleine's work was to make the children disappear before the police could find them.

 This was her entry into the new underground side of the OSE, and she plunged into it fully from then on, understanding that the children's lives were at stake, and willing to risk her own for them. She organized the making of false papers and ration cards, did the risky work of feeling out local institutions to find places to hide Jewish children. She made a contact that led her to Le Chambon, and found the town a godsend: a place where not just a few, but dozens or hundreds of children might be welcomed.

Soon she was traveling regularly from Lyon to Le Chambon, to find places for Jewish children and to deliver them to their new homes. She was put in charge of that section of the Garel network, a highly organized secret network in which Jewish children were transported anonymously, each worker not knowing the name of the fellow worker she passed them to. It was much like the work my mother and I described in Defy the Night, but far more terrifying: if the children slipped up and spoke the wrong language or called each other by their real names, they might be arrested and immediately deported, and the worker too. Madeleine personally transported over 100 children--some of them given to her by their parents, some of them escapees from their parents' arrest. She cared for them, helping them to adjust, bringing letters from their parents (who weren't told their addresses, for safety) if she could. She valued her local allies in Le Chambon very much, and told stories about them after the war--one of her favorites was about how a dear friend of hers, when asked about Jews by the police, used to say "Jews? What does that mean, 'Jews?'"

Madeleine had two children, and during this time became pregnant with a third. After her daughter's birth she resumed her traveling. It was 1943, and French Jews like Madeleine and her family were under threat of arrest now. Her husband, whose sister-in-law had just been deported with her children, begged Madeleine (who didn't have false papers of her own) to stop risking her life. She asked him to wait till she could find someone to replace her in the work.

In November 1943, Madeleine walked into a trap.

She called a boarding school that turned out to be in the midst of a Gestapo raid, to ask after some children she'd placed there. The woman who answered the phone asked her--being ordered to do so at gunpoint--to come to the school immediately. She was arrested when she walked in. The trap had been set for a major local Resistance organizer, but she was swept up in it too.

She asked to be allowed to go home briefly to breastfeed her baby, or at least to call home and arrange for her care. When they allowed the phone call, she called the National Jewish Council instead and slipped a warning into the message. Her family fled their home immediately, and the OSE was warned as well.

Incredibly, although Madeleine was interrogated by the Gestapo under Klaus Barbie, the infamous Butcher of Lyon, they did not find out about her clandestine activities. But her papers revealed she was Jewish, so they didn't let her go. She was sent to Drancy, a French internment camp from which people were regularly deported to Auschwitz, and barely saved from that fate by a lawyer friend who was a fellow prisoner there and was able to falsify her legal status enough to exempt her. Even from the internment camp, she was once able to get a warning to a Jewish children's home she had heard was in danger. She also sent off a coded message asking her husband to have their own older children smuggled to Switzerland, and they made it safely there.

But in May 1944 she was deported to Germany.

She was sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp without gas chambers. It was a terrible place, where forty thousand inmates died of starvation and disease, but Madeleine said very little after the war about her experiences there. Once she wrote: "I came back. Therefore, I won't complain."

She worked hard to keep her dignity in the camp, and uphold others' as well. She helped others as she could, and they trusted her. One of the few stories she told out of her time there: she was once chosen to divide a hard-boiled egg among fifteen people. "I still have the taste of that fifteenth of the hard-boiled egg in my mouth," she wrote many years later. The effects of profound hunger, the way it made human beings feel like animals in their longing for even a handful of rutabaga peelings or a bone, haunted her then and later.

In the spring of 1945 she was liberated with the other camp survivors, so starved that they combed the fields for dandelion leaves to eat, and feasted on boiled soup-bones they found in a railroad workers' shack. She finally made it back to France and to her family. They had all survived. There would be much to rebuild; her 21-month-old daughter barely knew her. But they had time.

She came back. And she did not complain.

She worked with and counseled the children the OSE still cared for after the war, children who had survived terrible trauma, many of them now orphans. Later she went into private practice as a psychotherapist, especially skilled with families and children. She kept deep friendships from her work during the war. Her husband summed up her life, in a memoir, with the word "Ecoute": listening.


There's one other thing I would like to talk about today. Speaking of bones, leaves, and one-fifteenth of a hard-boiled egg. The worst famine since World War II is happening in Africa this year. And like the hunger during World War II, it is not caused by nature but by war, by people willing to shoot and dehumanize others. In South Sudan people are being forced to flee for their lives into wilderness where they can hide from soldiers, knowing that there is no food there. They go knowing that their children may starve. And that if they stay they'll be murdered.

When the survivors of this terror make it to the other side, to places that are, or should be, safe, they are desperate for food. Especially for their children. Young bodies are resilient; they can bounce back from starvation--if they get enough food, and fast. And there is food aid coming in, being made available to these people. But not enough. Nowhere near enough.

We can change that.

We can't change all of it. We can never change all of it. We're too few. Our government could, but it won't at this point. And that makes it hard to think about; that article I linked was hard to read, for me, the pictures hard to look at. But: I can only imagine how hard it was for Madeleine, knowing how many she could not save. There were so many. But she saved the ones she could. There are women like her out there, doing everything they can, carefully dividing the handfuls of food they have. Let's add what we can.

I've set up a fundraising page for fighting this famine, through Oxfam. They're a reputable, thoroughly experienced organization, and I feel they're the best choice to get as much food to these people as quickly as possible. (But if they are not the organization you'd choose, please--find one that is.) I'll be donating when my book advance comes in.

Would you donate too?

Saturday, June 3, 2017


I have a confession. I like to read terrible reviews of other people's books.

Only books that genuinely deserve them. (Twilight, anyone?) But I don't know that that makes it any better. I could try to spin it, but the fact is that this is a trait of mine that is genuinely not very nice. I can tell, when I do it, that I am satisfying a low impulse in myself by reading: even if I'm feeling low, I can feel a little better by telling myself at least I do it better than that person.

Another version of this that many people go for (and, again, so do I) is stories of people behaving badly. Some people watch daytime talk shows and reality TV. I read Not Always Right. We come out feeling better: I would never act like that.

(I still do it. I try--keyword: try--to do it only as a stress valve. That might be the one redeeming part: if I can bleed off some irritation and be calmer for the people around me.)

Over the years as I've written and read fiction, I've come to understand better some of the ways in which fiction can cater to low impulses in us as well.

After writing that sentence, I realized sex might come to mind, but it's not actually what I'm thinking of. I'm thinking of books that pander to our pride.

For an example I'll pick an author famous enough not to suffer from anything I might say: Anne McCaffrey. I've enjoyed her Dragonriders of Pern series very much, read almost all of them and many of her other works. After awhile, though, I started to notice a pattern that grew more pronounced with time: Our Heroes had their flaws, sure, they weren't always nice, but there was one thing they always were--they were Right. And the people who opposed them were Wrong--and selfish and jealous and had no actual good reasons for opposing them, nary a one. This is an exaggeration, most likely, but read it all and you'll start to notice it too.

There are many other writers who do this, to different degrees. Very many. And it isn't exactly a writing flaw, even though it does sometimes annoy us as readers if we pick up on it. I feel pretty sure that it's sometimes, as programmers say, a feature rather than a bug. Deliberate pandering rather than a mistake. Because, when we don't notice it consciously, we tend to like it.

We like it because it gives us a similar feeling to the things I started this post with. Vindication. A sense that we aren't so bad, that we are better than other people, or other people are worse than us. Fiction is even more powerful at giving us this sense of vindication, because it doesn't just give us Bad People to look down on, but also Good People to identify with.

In any fictional story, except for the most detached literary fiction, we're given a character that we don't just watch from the outside--someone into whose skin we can slip, someone we can identify with. Sometimes it's a hero, sometimes it's an anti-hero, sometimes it's an "Everyman," but whoever it is, whether we admire him or not, this is the person we suffer and rejoice with; what happens to him happens to us. (I'm going to go with a "him" on this for now. It's more often a "him," even nowadays--and almost always a "him" the color of the majority. I almost opened that can of worms here, but it's too big; I'll have to do a separate post.) We hope that he finds what he is seeking. If he does, we feel deeply gratified.

And if the author overinflates this hero's ego--makes him Right, shows him off to the world vindicated beyond his real deserving--we walk away inflated too. Either that or we see through it, and detach, and walk away unsatisfied.

It's not just a matter of the hero doing no wrong. Almost every hero makes mistakes, even bad choices; otherwise there's very little story. But when the hero goes up against other people, is he ever wrong? Does he ever have to admit that someone else saw the situation more clearly than him, that he should have listened? Does he ever have to admit that someone he dismissed or looked down on or even hated had a point? If the answer is no, never, no hint of any such thing, I think there's something wrong.

This definitely happens in Christian fiction. (I won't name names--none come to mind, it's probably been years since I read the books that started this impression forming. And indeed that may be an indication that it's getting better. I have hope that it is.) It's particularly insidious in Christian fiction, at least in the form it often takes: you see, the Christian is right. The non-Christians are wrong. Why? Is it because we believe that our beliefs are right? Or is it because we like to see someone like us vindicated?

What I know is, I am always and will always be refreshed when I see an author do, even briefly, the opposite: the Christian sees the non-Christian's point. Says I'm sorry. You're right. I've been a jerk. When the character we identify with is forced to swallow his pride, to widen his view of the world through the eyes of the other.

So, there they are, my thoughts on pandering. I've been thinking them a long time, telling myself Don't do this, never do this. (And on occasion the voice in my ear, my own voice: You could sell more books! Of course there's always the other voice saying drily: Sure you could.) There isn't a bright line that you cross or don't cross--it's one long, smooth continuum from Give them everything they want to Give them nothing they want. Where do you draw that line? How do you judge? So murky.

Until you step away from playing some cynical version of God, from thinking you know "what the reader wants"--from thinking you know everything about people just because you know something bad that they want. Until you choose to trust the reader, and say: The reader wants the truth. The truth of the love and the selfishness inside each person, the high courage, hungry need and angry pride, the yearning for the good and true; the journey through the tangled wood after the light. It's been my principle, my bright light to follow in all my writing: Tell the truth. And there are readers who want it. I'd rather sell a thousand books to them, friends--to you--than fifty thousand to people who want pandering.

Let me trust that. Let me trust you.

And if I ever start pandering--please let me know.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A postscript, and some flowers

I've been reflecting since last week that I left something out of my post on Christian involvement in the Holocaust. It's this:

This is the reason I write about rescuers. This is the reason I write about Le Chambon.

It's not the original reason, as I've said here before. The original reason was that my Mom was writing about it and I wanted to help with her project. But it is the reason I write about it now.

Because there were Christians who did the right thing. There were Christians who actually loved their neighbors during that time. And what I really want is not to whitewash the behavior of Christians in general during that time, but to ask myself and everybody: what was it about the ones who actually acted the way Christians are supposed to act? What kind of Christians were they? How were they different? How can we be more like them, so that we will act like them?

That's what I want to know. That's what I want to find out.

So. That's my coda to last week's post.


And now for something completely different!

(I mean it's about time I write something positive, right?)

Spring is in full swing here, the growing part of spring: everything green and wet and warm. Peonies opening, their white ruffled petals weighed down with clear raindrops. Such an ephemeral beauty--the wetter a peony gets, the faster it fades into brown, I've seen it before. In the first stage of spring, the tree-blossom stage, the wildflowers-on-the-forest-floor stage, I used to take the quilt outside on warm evenings and lay it out under the flowering crabapple tree and sit on it with the Boy. Sometimes we'd just lie down and look up at the white blossoms and the blue sky. He learned about bees and pollination from that tree, I remember standing near it with him in the carrier on my back, and showing him all the bees... Anyway, there was one windy day near the end of the blooms' life--they were still pure-white and lovely, but every gust of wind sent them flying till they filled the air. There's no ephemeral beauty like the beauty of petals swept away by the wind. Just looking at it hurts in that lovely way, like you're reminded of death and the sweetness of life at one and the same time.

Well. Um. I was just going to share some photos, actually. Of that earlier stage of spring, since I don't yet have photos of this one.

These are dogtooth violets, also known as trout lilies. The flowers only last two or three days. Right where our walking path enters the woods, there's a thick patch of the shiny mottled leaves. It makes maybe five or six flowers each year. They're not even that pretty, I suppose. But they're so shy, and rare, and they have a kind of grace.

Here's one in fuller bloom, though blurrier focus.

Bluebells. They grow in our backyard. Such a short life. They're annuals: they live and die and make seed, all in the short time before the trees above their forest floor leaf out and shade them. Just that short sweet time in the sun.

This is jack-in-the-pulpit. As a kid I knew it as a houseplant. I figured it was tropical. Nope! Turns out it's a North American wildflower. (For all I know it lives in the tropics too.) It makes bright orange berries in a little cluster in the fall.

A patch of ramps (wild onions, like the ones Rapunzel's mother craved!) see through a fallen log.

Bloodroot leaf with the sun shining in it. Below is what the flowers look like. They last three days at the most. We value things we can't keep.

 And, last, those white blossoms and that blue sky. They come out every spring, unfolding out of brown-grey branches we could have sworn were dead. They are ready, they know their time. There is such strength in roots and seeds, biding their time through the winter, waiting to pass out of death and into life.