Star Wars and History: TFA Prediction #1

Did you thrill to the trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens? Then you remember seeing this daunting hulk of a Star Destroyer on the desert world of Jakku: Wrecked Star Destroyer According to other reports, these wrecks are relics of a fierce New Republic engagement with the Empire’s forces fought a year after the Battle of Endor in The Return of the Jedi.

Such monumental remains have their echoes in our own history only instead of star destroyers, ours are naval vessels such as the Graf Spee whose shattered remains cast an impressive shadow that still resonates today and provide interesting hints about how The Force Awakens could unfold. Here’s Historical Prediction #1 for The Force Awakens: thirty years on, that wreck is still of value. That’s a lesson we learn from the story of the pocket battleship Graf Spee.

It was the autumn and early winter of 1939: the opening months of World War II. The German pocket battleship, Graf Spee, preyed upon British merchant vessels: sinking or capturing nine before the British were able to turn the tables. Three British cruisers, the Exeter, Achilles and Ajax wreaked havoc upon the German ship in what is known as the Battle of the River Plate. They forced Captain Langsdorff to seek refuge in the neutral Uruguay harbour of Montevideo, on 13 December, 1939.

However, The wreck of the Graf Spee, listing the Germans couldn’t linger long in the port under the terms of the Hague Convention. Technically, they were supposed to be out of the port within a day! The captain stretched out his reprieve, offloading prisoners of war from his earlier successes and communicating with his superiors back in Germany. It was all to no avail as the three British cruisers waited not far off. Rather than risk his ship’s capture, Langsdorff chose to scuttle, deliberately sink, the Graf Spee in the shallows on 17 December, depriving the British of a valuable prize but also his German masters of a defiant end.

Just because the ship went down didn’t mean that all was lost. If the British could get access to the wreck, still largely accessible to the tugs that operated in Montevideo and divers who could pry out prizes, they could plumb some of the secrest of the German navy. But Uruguay was still officially neutral: the country didn’t declare for the Allies until January, 1942, after Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, the British devised a clever plan. The German government was persuaded to sell the wreck of the Graf Spee to one Julio Vega in 1940.

In The wreck of the Graf Spee reality, the purchase was orchestrated by the British ambassador to Uruguay, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake. Parts of the wreck were then removed and studied by the British during the war. Even today, the wreck remains a highly sensitive property contested by private salvagers and the German government as recently as 2008. That Star Destroyer that we see in The Force Awakens could also be prized by salvagers as well as the rival powers of the Resistance (the remnants of the Rebellion) and the First Order (the Empire’s aftermath).

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Research Is a River

Teaching term is well and truly over. Except for supporting my grad student’s major project, I can focus on my research and publishing plans.

What are they? Well, there are a few ongoing projects that need to be shepherded to the next step but I’m actually at that happy if terrifying moment where I contemplate what’s next. I know, in big strokes, what my research plan is, but what’s the best next step? What’s the smoothest option? What will be quickest to publish or pull the project together? What’s best?

Trick question. There’s no best step, there’s just any good next step. Stop dithering and just do it, I remind myself. Sometimes the rougher, less perfect research prospects offer the most reward. I thrill to research challenges like learning a new set of sources or discovering a new element in an old story. So now it’s time to go back to the primary sources and immerse myself for a while, writing out bits and pieces until I see where the research is taking me next.

On Monday I’ll open up my research folders, virtual and real, and get back into the stories of women’s lives in early modern England. As I’ve said before, the best advice for me is to write early, write often. While a busy term might eat away at that discipline, it’s easy enough to restore now that teaching is at an end. I just need to let the river run.


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I Should Be Grading

My dreams are haunted by grading. My days are devoted to grading. I turn on the computer: oh, look! There’s grading! I look over at the nearby table: a stack of exams waiting for grading. Let’s not forget the senior and grad student projects that, you guessed it, also need grading!

Grading, grading, grading, grading!

(The above works best when you say it with the intonations of Jan Brady bewailing her perfect older sister, Marcia.)

I don’t figure that I’ll be out from under this grading-induced guilt mountain around the end of the month. Until then, have a classic bit of academic tomfoolery: A Guide to Grading Exams or what I call “the staircase method”. Tempting but no. . . .


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Off Balance

I admit, while this term has been wonderful in terms of my face-to-face class time, exploring the possibilities of my newly-developed online course and interacting with students or colleagues at the university, I’m feeling seriously off balance when it comes to my grading.

You could say that I’m in grading jail. It’s a prison of my own devising and it’s not terribly onerous except, of course, for the nagging feeling that I should be grading all the time. (Last night’s hour of watching “Wolf Hall” was strangely mediated through marking source analyses of “Erra and Ishum” and “Nergal and Ereshkigal”.)

I clearly assigned too many things at the end of the term but given that Canadian academic terms are only twelve weeks long, I’m loathe to request a substantial assignment much earlier. The next time I offer the Crime and Punishment course, I’m going to cut my Old Bailey assignments from four to three. All of those were being handed in during the second half of term: quite unbalancing my marking workload. I’ll assign a lit review in the first half of the term in place, getting a course objective addressed earlier in the course where it will be quite useful.

I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with my other unbalanced course. I’m going to have to rethink the assignments and course structure a bit more thoroughly for the online course on the Ancient Near East. I don’t want to ditch the primary source analyses – they’re vital! – but I do need to think about the rhythm of term and what all can be accomplished in twelve weeks. There are six quizzes (one for each unit), two primary source analyses, a project proposal and a short research paper plus the exam. That feels like too much, especially in the last half of term. Some of those need to go and some need to be reorganized. I’m still thinking this one through.

Tomorrow the first group of students in my three courses writes their exam. Wave to the Crime and Punishment class who have been entirely awesome. Seriously: one of the best class groups I’ve taught in over twenty years. The last exams will be written on the twenty-fourth where we’ll see what the students in our fun team-taught course on Early Modern War can do. Three classes, three sets of exam papers: there’s about a hundred exams I’ll be expecting to see in those courses. Well, maybe eighty-five or eighty-eight, as my co-instructor in the war courses will take half of the pile.

I also have a whackload of graduate and senior project reviewing to do. How many fifty page papers can you respond to in an already busy week? Again, it’s part of my workload but not entirely predictable (most of it comes much later than I would like or theoretically expect as I plan my term). The only predictability is that these project papers will always come later than we want and just when marking’s heaviest.

For now, I’m dropping some revision notes into my virtual class folders to remind me how I want to rebalance the assignment plans for the next time I offer the course (likely one to two years away). I should also put a note in my calendar for next fall when we’re likely to be discussing graduate supervisions reminding me to expect some crazy times in March and April when all of those papers land in my inbox. Maybe next year I’ll feel well-balanced when it comes to marking. That’s the hope!

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Deliciously Criminal

This term I’m teaching a new history of crime and punishment course. It’s inspired all sorts of fun forays into the Old Bailey Online database, particularly as I’ve shown students how they can search on any number of topics. The research is frequently delicious and I mean that in both the enjoyable and the culinary ways. For instance, we can study thefts involving food or food as an incidental in the course of testimonies.

The most obvious “food theft” might be poaching and, yes, this was a concern even in a city such as London. Convictions for game law offences show an awful lot of fallow deer at risk (as well as the occasional pond full of carp). This case from 1725 features three deer killed by two violent poachers, whose dangerous ways were intimately experienced by one Charles George:

The Prisoner stept to me with a Pistol in his Hand, and swore if I did not go back, he’d shoot me. I was not sure that my Piece would go off, and so I retreated, and found two Deer lying dead, and they look’d as if they had been torne by Dogs. In the mean time the Prisoner and Biddesford got over the Pales. It fell out that some Countrymen were coming by soon after without-side the Pales, (for there’s no Foot-Path thro’ the Park.) I cry’d out Thieves, and they join’d together to assist me. I got over the Pales, and there found another Deer with his Throat cut, and not quite cold. The Prisoner and old Biddesford took their Way towards Roger’s Ferry, and we pursued them. When they came to the Ferry, they turned about, presented their Pistols, and swore we were dead Men, if we came a Foot nearer. However, when they were gone off, we took a Boat after them: They landed at the Half-Mile Tree, (about half a Mile from Kingston) and we were not far behind them. Biddesford was shot in the Fields, and the Prisoner was taken in Kingston, with a Powder-Horn and naked Knife in his Pocket.1

In another case, the sharing of brandy between men and cheesecake between women helped to acquit a family of murder. Seriously! At least that’s what the Proceedings for the 1708 trial of Webb Rawlins, Elizabeth Rawlins and Gabriel Huff for the murder of Jacob Hamson suggests, although the details are sketchy.

The Prisoners in their defence deny’d the Fact and Huff produc’d several Witnesses, to prove that he was at Home from the Morning till he went to Bed, and was that Night at Supper with some Friends at his own House, which was at Old-street, it being St. Crispin’s Day, a remarkable time: Webb and Elizabeth Rawlins produc’d Witnesses who depos’d they had not been from Home that Day, neither had there been any Company at their House from the Morning till their time of going to Bed, except one Man for a Quartern of Brandy in the Morning, and a Woman in the Afternoon for a 2 d Cheescake: Upon the whole, the Jury acquitted the Prisoners.2

I wonder if the jurors wrapped up their day with a little brandy and cheesecake or perhaps a bit of venison?

In case you’re interested, I dug up a 1747 Lemon Cheesecake recipe courtesy of Sasha Cottman, a Regency romance writer whose most recent book I picked up because, hey, historical fiction and recipes? That’s another delicious idea.

1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 28 March 2015), April 1725, trial of John Guy (t17250407-57).

2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 28 March 2015), December 1708, trial of Webb Rawlins Gabriel Huff Elizabeth Rawlins (t17081208-23).


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Moving On Up

As of July, I’ll be a Full Professor of History here at Laurentian University.

I had applied last July 1st, even though I was barely back on my feet after a spring sacrificed to illness and malaise. I was ill but not so ill that I couldn’t wrangle the binder full of paperwork together for the promotion application. With four publications slated to appear in the next several months, I hoped that the application would be acceptable.

It was a gamble. I definitely haven’t had the most conventional publishing career of any academic historian. But I enjoyed the support of many colleagues here and elsewhere, for which I’m grateful. I also realized that, even if I was turned down, how bad could it be? Staying as a associate professor until I could try again? Not a hardship.

So there’ll be new business cards (if those are even still a thing) this summer and, more importantly, the opportunity to do more service, research and teaching secure that the only thing I have to prove to others is what’s there in my work.


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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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