Prairie Fire: A Book Review

A year ago, I reviewed a YA contemporary fantasy novel that drew an intriguing picture of an alternate world where dragons and dragon slayers integrated seamlessly with a world of cars and cornfields. The Song of Owen has spun out into a wonderful and worthy sequel, Praire Fire by E.K. Johnston (cover) Prairie Fire. E.K. Johnston gives us a new verse for Owen, featuring his bard, Siobhan McQuaid and their many companions on the oft-mentioned Oil Watch (an international protective duty linking dragon slayers, engineers, medics, firefighters and, after many years without, bards).

A number of other reviewers were taken by Johnston’s deft and engaging alternate history as I was on the first outing. This only deepens in Prairie Fire where Johnston takes us deep into the Oil Watch and deeper into the world those brave souls protect. She delights in off-hand mentions of historical figures from our world who figure a bit differently in her own. In Prairie Fire, this is particularly evident with the focus on Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and, in both the real world as well as Owen’s universe, the driving force behind a transcontinental railroad. Crowd watches the CPR last spike, 1885The project was a tough enough endeavour in real history; just imagine what it would have been like in a world where dragons were drawn by fire and exhaust to feast and destroy. So there, the railway went deep underground for far more of the route. In both cases, that labour was mostly through the work of Chinese labourers, whose sacrifices earned them a share of the tunnel’s name as spoken of by McQuaid and others stationed at the desolate concrete outpost of Fort Calgary: the John A-Zuò Tunnel.

Deep tunnels and dedicated dragon slayers don’t mean ease and safety. Johnston gives us risks and dangers galore as we take up after the harrowing end of The Song of Owen with the high school students preparing to wrap up their studies and head off to their duties. Only nobody exactly knows what Siobhan’s duties are, including Siobhan, in a world that’s forgotten the bardic tradition. Where corporate contracts have outweighed community good and dragon slayers are seen as distant figures: those are battles that Owen and Siobhan have already fought and began to make inroads upon with the help of their fellow crusaders, Sadie and Emily. Now the foursome are torn apart, the first three sent off to training in the Oil Watch and Emily remaining behind as their anchor to the rest of the world transfixed by the heroes of Manitoulin.

Siobhan struggles, saddled with devastating injuries incurred during that epic battle in the first book. But she struggles with the help of her friends, old and new, who bond with her in determination to make a difference in the Watch. Around Owen, the support crew builds with Siobhan’s centring support: engineers like Courtney Speed, medics and firefighters, who are there to assist Owen in his terrifying duty. During training, they bond and shine, but then they are faced with even more hurdles, including an unexpected posting where they connect with another renegade dragon slayer, Declan Porter.

And now, in a fashion I hope that Siobhan will approve, we pause for a musical interlude. Siobhan characterizes almost every person she meets musically. Owen’s a horn, Sadie a trumpet. Peter, a farmer that Siobhan befriends, is a mandolin. And Declan Porter, SAS-trained dragon slayer? He’s bagpipes. No bluster, just deeply-based determination leavened with a sense of humour. He’s also a wary mentor for Owen and all the rest: fellows in disgrace, for Declan threw his career away when rather than hide from the most awe-inspiring of dragons, a rogue Chinook boiling out of the Rockies and down to Kansas, he shot it down. Porter saved thousands but his kill started a fire that still burns, years later. (Johnston’s dragons are a serious ecological threat when killed out of turn.) So for Declan Porter, I offer up the feeble hope of rest and relaxation, with Spirit of the West‘s “Home for a Rest”

For Siobhan, Owen and all the rest, there are more adventures in this book. There are adventures and dangerous that will astonish and test, both characters and readers. Serving in the Oil Watch, Owen’s team uneasily realizes that there is real inequity and wilful blindness in their world. They see that people are not the prime value of politicians: but coal, land and wheat. There are trenchant observations as condensed in this exchange between Sadie and Siobhan:

“What are you singing about?” she asked. “The price of wheat?”
“Not in terms of money,” I said.

Siobhan, Owen, Sadie and the rest are also refreshingly real. They stumble and flail, they misread people and yet they soldier on because they are soldiers, now. We follow them into the concrete jungles, off to the coast and into many more encounters with dragons along the way. Primed by the rash and principled bravery of Declan Porter, however, you never know what they might do when a hot wind blows off the mountains.

So I’ll end this review with one more musical interlude, including another bit of Canadiana, for Prairie Fire is that, too, although it wears the Maple Leaf lightly. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young mixed memories, hope and benediction in “Long May You Run”. That is my hope for Owen’s crew and for Johnston, with many more books before her.

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Early Modern War Teaching

Today I wrapped up my half of a team-taught third-year course on Early Modern War, 1350-1850. Next week’s our reading week after which my co-instructor, Dave Leeson, takes up where I left off, circa. 1650. We opened the course with a book-end examination of Greece at the start and the end of our periods – I talked about Greece in the Venetian-Turkish Wars and then we jumped forward to the cause of Greek Independence in the early nineteenth century. I tried to frame each class meeting on different historiographic debates or thematic elements and then illustrate those with interesting examples and compelling readings. We wrapped up each class with discussions on the day’s assigned readings: pulling out arguments and assessing our responses to the same. To give you a taste of what the course has been like, I’m sharing parts of our syllabus below:

Course Objectives: Students Soldiers in Peasants' War, 1525will identify the key technological, cultural, tactical, and strategic developments that have shaped pre-modern warfare; demonstrate awareness of the role of political, economic, and social changes that have shaped war in the world through their research, analysis and assessment of key aspects of the history of early modern war and warfare.

My class topics for the first half of term:

January 8; The Military Revolution Debate

Readings: Michael Roberts, “The Military Revolution, 1560-1660” (Rogers); Geoffrey Parker, “In Defense of the Military Revolution” (Rogers)

January 12; The Rules of War & Chivalric Culture
Readings: Anne Curry, “Disciplinary Ordinances for English and Franco-Scottish Armies in 1385: An international code?” (Reader)

January 15; War as Set-Piece: Crécy, Poitiers & Agincourt
Readings: Clifford J. Rogers, “The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years War” (Rogers)

January 19; Siege Warfare & the Early Modern Arms Race
Readings: Thomas F. Arnold, “Fortifications and the Military Revolution: The Gonzaga Experience, 1530-1630” (Rogers)

January 22; The Military Revolution at Sea
Readings: Louis Sicking, “Naval warfare in Europe, c. 1330- c. 1680” (Reader)

January 26; War from Below: Revolts & Riots

Readings: Anthony Fletcher & Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Kett’s Rebellion” (Reader)

January 29; Citizen and Soldier: Early Modern Military Cultures
Readings: Angela McShane, “Recruiting Citizens for Soldiers in Seventeenth-Century English Ballads” (Reader)

February 2; Supply and Demand: The Business of War

Readings: I.A.A. Thompson “’Money, Money, and Yet More Money!’ Finance, the Fiscal-State, and the Military Revolution: Spain, 1500-1650” (Rogers)

February 5; New Models of Armies: Military Command and Discipline

Readings: David A. Parrott, “Strategy and Tactics in the Thirty Years’ War: The ‘Military Revolution’” (Rogers)

February 9; Commercial and Colonial Wars, 1492-1650
Readings: John F. Guilmartin, Jr. “The Military Revolution: Origins and First Tests Abroad” (Rogers)

February 12; An Age of Atrocity?
Readings: Will Coster, “Massacre and Codes of Conduct in the English Civil War” (Reader)

Texts: Clifford J. Rogers, ed., The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995) plus additional materials available via D2L and/or on reserve (“Reader”)

Assignments:
Essay Proposal One: 10% (Due January 26, a brief proposal of the topic for Essay One that includes a bibliography.)
Essay One: 25% (Due February 23, an 8-10 page research essay dealing with a topic in the history of war from 1350 through 1650.)
Essay Proposal Two: 10% (Due March 12, a brief proposal of the topic for Essay Two that includes a bibliography.)
Essay Two: 25% (Due April 2, an 8-10 page research essay dealing with a topic in the history of war from 1650 through 1850.)
Final Examination: 30% (All essay cumulative exam scheduled at the end of term.)

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Mary Carleton, the Heroine Bigamist

She was born in Canterbury, or maybe Cologne, in 1634 or 1639 or perhaps even as late as 1642. Whoever she was and wherever she came from, Mary was a fascinating individual Counterfeit Lady who captured the interests of many, including the famed diarist Pepys. She convinced many Londoners that she was a wealthy and well-educated German princess but other contemporaries claimed Mary was actually the runaway wife of a Canterbury shoemaker who fled to Barbados seeking to escape her husband before taking up with three other men, the last of whom, John Carleton, prosecuted her for bigamy at the Old Bailey in 1663. When Mary was acquitted, she took lovers, changed identities and supported herself through tricks and thievery. Convicted of theft in 1670, she was transported to Jamaica but engineered her return to England where she was caught again, and recognized. Confessing all, Mary was taken to the gallows at Tyburn and executed in January of 1673.

Too often we assume that our modern age of celebrity culture is unique in fixating on the bad boys and girls of the day. But Mary Moders, as she was born in Canterbury, fascinated her contemporaries to the extent that she spawned two remarkable flurries of publications decrying her perfidy or defending her honour. Some scholars have claimed that her defensive memoirs, An Historical Narrative of the German Princess and particularly The Case of Madam Mary Carleton, were so learned and well-written that they must have been authored by someone else, i.e. a man. Other academics and even Mary’s most skeptical contemporaries believed these were her own words. Those who doubted Mary’s truthfulness but not her authorship pointed to Mary’s facility with words, her practice at forging identity documents and her skill at appearing part of the highest ranks of society: this was no empty foil but a full-out confidence artist.

In her long and varied career, Mary was also a bigamist several times over: she left her first husband after the death of two children, marrying a doctor who aided her in her escape before abandoning him and taking up with a bricklayer. After she travelled to London in the guise of a rich continental woman, she drew the attention of the Carleton family and was courted by young John Carleton, an ambitious lawyer’s clerk. The two of them must have been a disappointment to each other in terms of riches and opportunities. The Carletons, tipped off to Mary’s true past, attempted to prosecute her for bigamy. A 1604 legislative change, “An Act to restrain all persons from marrying until their former wives and former husbands be dead” (I Jac I, c. 11) had taken what was formerly a spiritual offense punishable by penance and transformed it into a felony crime. Mary could have been executed for her disregard of the solemnity of marriage as other contemporaries were.

However, the Carletons failed to document Mary’s bigamous past. They produced few witnesses who could testify to her previous life in Canterbury and the case was overthrown. Instead of a humbled convict, Mary became a darling of fashionable London. She was visited by gawkers while still in custody and may well have used the experience to find new ways to exploit her new-found fame to extract gifts and confidences from those who rose to her defence. Given her later convictions for theft of silver plate and the heady riches she accumulated through fraud, Mary appears to have been always on the make.

And yet, how much can we really know of what she did and what she desired? As her best biographer, Frances Kirkman, author of The Counterfeit Lady pictured above, wrote of her in 1673: “How can Truth be discovered of her who was wholly composed of Falsehood?” For the intriguing story of a woman who shed the conventional life and embraced an early form of celebrity culture in a life of scandal and adventure, look no farther than the bigamous thief, Mary Carleton.

Suggested Readings:
Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. “Mary Carleton entry: Overview screen” within Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2006. http://orlando.cambridge.org/public/svPeople?person_id=carlma.
Kate Lilley, “Mary Carleton’s False Additions: The Case of the ‘German Princess'” Humanities Review 2010 https://www.academia.edu/265004/Mary_Carletons_False_Additions_the_Case_of_the_German_Princess.
Janet Todd, “Carleton , Mary (1634×42–1673)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4676.
Geraldine Wagner, “The Staged Self in Mary Carleton’s Autobiographical Narratives” CLCWeb 7:3 (September, 2005) http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol7/iss3/7.

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What’s Next?

2014 turned out to be a banner professional year, despite health problems that sapped my strength for most of the first six months of the year. I shepherded four different projects into print that resulted in one scholarly article, three book chapters and a co-edited book. That also cleared a lot of my academic writing to-do list (except for Game of Thrones and History), leaving me in the strange situation of trying to determine exactly what is next.

I’ve been telling myself since the end of October that I could either go with the stalled article draft that’s sitting on my hard drive or move sideways to the related article idea that hasn’t been giving me kittens as the first piece has. Seriously, every time I reopen the first file, I find another point that makes me stop and think “self, isn’t that taking the analysis off-topic?” The stalled draft is stalled for a good reason: it’s not coherent and focused.

In contrast, the related article is just an idea, but it takes one of the elements from the stalled article and runs with only that element. I think that’s a better way to approach the project: start by outlining the clear elements in the sources and then move onto the more complex questions from their interaction.

So I know, when I stop to think about it, which way I need to go with my writing. The tricky part was that I needed the last week to see clearly. A week ago I wrapped up my marking for the fall term. That’s given me a week free of teaching worries (except for my new preps for January) and other pressures of the term or family life. That breather week has helped me to realize what I can and can’t do.

The next trick is not to get too far ahead of myself on the project. I’m going to open a new note in Evernote to collect any insights but, otherwise, I won’t tackle this until January 5 when the new term begins. Let’s see what another week off of the hamster wheel can do for my prospects ahead.

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Not Much, How ‘Bout You?

It’s been a crazily busy end of the year here. I’m buried in marking at the same time that I have to wrangle a mountain of course preps. Two new on-campus courses and the first run of the ancient Near East survey ready to run as an online course. Oh, and research and writing. In and around there I have to get everything ready to host the annual holiday celebrations that will only start to feel real once Eldest returns from university next week.

I feel as if I’ve become a very boring person in terms of my own life precisely when my research and teaching have become their most interesting and exciting. After all, this year I’ve published or presented on hobbits and historical wizards and science fiction and Westerosi folk and badass early modern women like Margaret Pole!

But I’m boring in that I don’t do that much besides work and personal maintenance. I don’t find the time for cross-stitch or any other art – activities that used to keep me balanced during my undergraduate and grad school years. I walk the younger dog every day and sometimes let the older dog tag along if she’s up for it. But that’s hardly an exciting exercise regime. I’ve read a lot of books, certainly, but far more for work than for pleasure. I cook a lot more than I had, but that’s more the necessities of a new and healthier diet, but I don’t really feel inspired to turning the kitchen into my personal hobby central.

I’ll put my mind to it but for now, I have that whackload of marking still to manage. I’d love to hear how you’re doing, though!

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Occult Words

Next Tuesday wraps up my team-taught “History of the Occult” course. As I review my slides, running from antiquity through the mid-seventeenth century, I was interested to see what I blathered on the most about. Here’s a word cloud to Wordle: Occult, Ancient to Early Modern provide one perspective on how I taught them in my half of the term. It’s interesting to see that magic dominated occult, at least in what I projected on the screen. I’ll have to ask the students if that was their impression, too, when we review for the final exam.

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“The Hobbit and History” Giveaway

In The Hobbit and History by Janice Liedl conjunction with Goodreads I’m giving away two copies of The Hobbit and History. The contest is open to residents of the US and Canada (sorry but holiday post makes this a crazy time to ship packages farther afield) and entries close at midnight, EST, on Tuesday, December 9.

See the giveaway details and enter to win!

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