Scorpions Dance, by Jefferson Morley****

The Watergate burglary’s fiftieth anniversary has passed, and Jefferson Morley, a longtime journalist and political biographer, has written a history of that event; the focus is Richard Helms, the man that ran the CIA and had to walk a tightrope between the demands of President Richard Nixon, and what best served the CIA. This book is for sale now.

If you are searching for just one book to read about the Watergate debacle and/or Nixon, this isn’t it. However, if you are a hardcore Nixon buff, as I am, or if you are a researcher, looking for specific information for academic study, you can hardly do better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review.

Helms was a slick operator, walking a tightrope as he sought to protect the reputation of the agency while maintaining cordial relations with Nixon and those around him. For some of this, there’s a heavy irony involved here; how can anybody ever make the CIA look less than sleazy? But of course, leftists like me are not the ones Helms wanted to impress in the first place.

As the administration sought to damage political enemies that might prevent Nixon’s reelection for a second term, its shady dealings—hiring thugs to ransack a psychiatrist’s office in search for dirt on an opponent, and planting bugs in the office of the Democratic Party in the Watergate Hotel—proved to be the president’s undoing.

Two of the ugly characters in service to Nixon were in charge, for example, of interviewing candidates for a “riot squad” of counterdemonstrators to oppose the anticipated throngs of antiwar demonstrators that were anticipated in Washington. “One of them was Frank Sturgis, whose reputation for violence preceded him. ‘The men were exactly what I was looking for,’ Liddy rumbled in Will, his best-selling memoir. ‘Tough, experienced and loyal. Hunt and I interviewed about a dozen men. Afterward Howard told me that between them they had killed twenty-two men, including two hanged from a beam in the garage.’”

The burglaries had too many moving parts to be kept completely under wraps, and consequently, the president and his top advisors were soon looking for scapegoats below themselves, men that could be packed off to prison while the country regained confidence in the administration that had supposedly brought them to justice. At one point, they had Helms in their sights as a possible fall guy, and the former CIA director, McCord, who was retired, caught wind of this and was having none of it. In a letter, he said, “If Helms goes and the Watergate operation is laid at the feet of the CIA where it does not belong, every tree in the forest will fall. It will be a scorched desert. The whole matter is at the precipice now.”

There are moments when I wonder if the ghost of Richard Nixon haunts the White House, cackling with glee to see a former president in far more trouble today than he himself experienced when he was there. Who knows what the old dog would have thought about the political machinations unfurling today?

Morley has a conversational narrative tone that works wonders. Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and narrator John Pruden does a fine job bringing it to life. But the most impressive aspect of this book is the research behind it, with treasure troves of primary documents and brilliant integration of data from multitudinous places. The endnotes are impeccable, enabling other researchers to trace back the facts to their original sources if they need or desire it.

For a niche readership of researchers, this is a five star work, but I suspect most interested parties will be of a more widespread readership; for them, this is still a fine read at four stars. Most satisfying.

Lies My Mother Told Me, by Melissa Rivers**

I hadn’t heard of Melissa Rivers, but when a friend mentioned that the daughter of the legendary comic, Joan Rivers, had an audio book nearing its publication date, I wanted it. My thanks go to Net Galley and RB Media for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Joan Rivers was an icon, one of the first fierce women to breach the world of standup, an old boys club if ever there was one. She was scrappy, fearless, and very, very funny. Like all of the early women comics, she incorporated a good deal of self-deprecating humor, a defense against all of the nasty things that reviewers and audience members might throw at her, but she also made fun of the rich, the famous, and the powerful.

Joan died in 2016, and although she was eighty-one years old, news of her passing came as a shock. She hadn’t been ill, and had been admitted to a hospital for surgery of a fairly minor nature; her death was caused by errors made by the doctors and hospital. Her only child, Melissa, had been developing a standup career of her own, and now steps fully into the spotlight left vacant by her mother’s death.

I had never heard of Melissa or her work when I found this audio book, but I expected great things; often a talent is passed down within a family, after all. Sadly, there’s no joy to be had here. Melissa’s tone is grating and abrasive; whereas Joan sometimes veered in that direction, she had the skill and instincts that told her when to pull back or soften things. Joan’s trademark phrase, “Can we talk?” created a sense of intimacy, and drew me in. Melissa’s repels me. Apparently, I am not alone; I was playing this audiobook while preparing dinner, and when other family members came into the kitchen, they either wanted it turned off, or they left immediately. Nothing she said made any of us laugh, or even smile. Nothing. I have never heard a comic so obnoxious.

Wikipedia tells me that Melissa Rivers is known for her work in comedy, and for philanthropy, as heir to her parents’ considerable estate. I haven’t seen or heard any of Melissa’s other work, but if this book is representative, she might do better to focus on her charity work, brightening the world by embracing the causes dearest to her parents’ hearts, and her own.

Not recommended.

Damn Lucky, by Kevin Maurer****

John “Lucky” Luckadoo was a bomber pilot in World War II in the most dangerous period of the European theater, and he survived twenty-five bombing runs, which was unusual. This is his story, told to us by the skilled wordsmith Kevin Maurer, and narrated by Holter Graham and Luckadoo himself. My thanks go to Net Galley, St. Martin’s Press, and Macmillan audio for the invitation to read and review.

The first portion of the narrative tells about Lucky’s early years, as well as his yearning to learn to fly. I feel a bit impatient as I read this segment, because I’m dying, like Lucky, to go to war. However, some of what I think is extraneous material proves to be important later on, so I’m glad not to have skipped anything.

A quarter of the way into the story, and we’re off. I am impressed by the descriptions, which are brief and unmistakably clear, written for general audiences of today. An example is when he tells us that a Quonset hut looks like a tin can that has been split lengthwise, then put on the ground, cut side down. Everything, from the planes, to the target, to the flying conditions is easily understood without talking down to the reader. The chapters are a good length, and the dialogue crackles. But now, we have to talk about that.

When anyone writes military history, whether it’s a biography, a memoir, a reference book, or any other nonfiction work, there must be citations for the facts and especially for quotations and dialogue. (I am proud of myself for not using twelve exclamation marks here; if there were an audio version of this review, I would be shrieking, so it’s just as well that we’ve stuck to print.) The author provides a bibliography at the end, and it. Is. Not. Enough. No, no, no! This is why so many writers in this field use historical fiction as a vehicle; the very best historical fiction communicates the same material, but is not bound to document facts. A bibliography alone would be just dandy for a work of historical fiction…which this is not. In fact, (said the American history and government teacher,) the four star rating is evidence of my appreciation for the clarity, organization, and pacing of this story; ordinarily I would go no higher than three stars for anyone in violation of this clear requirement. (Where was the editor?)

Moving on. The pace in the middle segment is brisk, but I have no problem putting it down and walking away when I am interrupted in my reading. That all changes at the sixty-sixth percentile, when the B-17 pilots and crews are sent on a mission to bomb Bremen. This is a huge mission, and a very dangerous one, as they are trying to bomb the canal where German U-boats are housed in broad daylight. At the same time, Goering is done watching his pilots get pounded, and he orders them to fight to the last man, and those that will not will be transferred to the infantry (note here that the German infantry is starving and freezing; pilots are much better fed.) Consequently, their aggression in the air is unprecedented, with kamikaze-like maneuvers that none of the Allies have seen from Germany up till now. During the portion of the book, I would not have left this story unless my house was on fire.

The callous decisions by higher-ups as to what an acceptable attrition level looks like, with about sixteen percent of active American airmen making it home alive after their service is done, is horrifying.

I have read a number of biographies and other historical works regarding this topic, but nevertheless, I learned some new information. I recommend this book to readers that are interested, but not to researchers or students.

Although the narrators do a perfectly fine job, I realize early that I cannot keep up with this level of detail without seeing the words, so I jettison the audio version and stick to the digital review copy. I recommend the audio version for those quirky souls that understand and retain spoken information better than print.

Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott*****

I was invited to read and review this book by Random House and Net Galley, and immediately I accepted, because it’s right in my wheelhouse. However, I also understood that it would be a painful read, and I postponed it for months, because 2021 was already a terrible year, and I wasn’t feeling brave. So my apologies for the delay; at the same time, this book is not quite as wrenching as I expected, and the research and writing are stellar. It’s for sale now.

Dasani Coates is the firstborn child of an impoverished, disorganized African-American mother with few marketable skills.  She is named after the premium brand bottled water, because her mom thinks it’s a beautiful name. (Wait till you see what the next baby’s name will be!) They live in Brooklyn, and not long after Dasani is born, she has a sister. And another. And another, and then eventually a brother and a couple of step-siblings. None of them are the result of poor family planning; all are planned and wanted. But at the same time, they have very few resources, and the slender safety net provided by relatives doesn’t last forever; and the city fails to protect its most vulnerable denizens.

As a retired teacher that worked in high poverty schools, I have seen families similar to this one, and the children suffer the most, every stinking time. I’ve also seen children take on the role that Dasani assumes without ever planning to do so, that of the adult in the house (when there is a house,) caring for a large group of tiny people when the actual adult isn’t adulting. If you watch closely enough for long enough, it can eat you alive; as for the far-too-young surrogate parent, I have seen them cope admirably, right up until they become adults themselves, and often, it is then that they fall apart. I don’t know whether that holds true for Dasani, because we don’t see her as an adult, but I can well imagine.

Elliott, a Pulitzer winning journalist from The New York Times, follows this family closely for eight years, sometimes sleeping on the floor of their house or apartment. In her endnotes, she explains her methodology, her relationship to the family during this project, and the parameters determined by the paper, for whom she originally did this research. Dasani was the subject of a front page series on poverty in New York which ran for five days. Elliott’s documentation is impeccable, and she can write like nobody’s business.

Because I am running behind, I check out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and I want to give a shout out to Adenrele Ojo, the narrator, who is among the very best readers I’ve yet encountered. Though I continue to use my review copy at times, I like Ojo’s interpretation of the voices for each of the large number of characters so well that I find I prefer listening to reading.

As I read, I become so attached to Dasani that I skip to the end—which I almost never do—because if she is going to get dead, I need to brace myself for it. I’ll tell you right now, because for some of you, this might be a deal breaker, and I’d hate for you to miss this important biography: it’s dark, but not that dark.

I don’t find myself feeling nearly as sympathetic toward Dasani’s mother, Chanel, as the author does, but I do think Dasani’s stepfather, who is the only father she knows, gets a bad, bad break. He jumps through every single bureaucratic hoop that is thrown at him in an effort to get some help for the seven children left in his care, and every time, the city turns its back on him, right up until a social worker comes calling, finds that they don’t have the things they need, and takes his children. This made me angrier than anything else, apart from a few boneheaded, destructive things that Chanel does.

For those that care about social justice and Civil Rights issues, this book is a must read. I highly recommend it to you.  

Blood and Treasure, by Tom Clavin*****

Daniel Boone’s story is legendary, but few of us know any of the particulars of his life and achievements, beyond the forging of the Cumberland Gap. When I saw this book, I leapt at the chance to read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Boone’s life is often held up as a testament to what an individual can accomplish if he is hardworking and determined; yet though he was both of those things, this bit of lore is also partly myth. Boone is born into a well-to-do family, pioneers to be certain, but not ones forced to build fortunes from scratch. After parting ways with the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the family moves south.  Daniel is in love with the wilderness, and his physical strength, health, and stamina, combined with courage, resourcefulness, and a capacity to think on his feet make him a natural born explorer. He is an excellent hunter, and so he makes his living by selling animal pelts; also, it turns out that bears are delicious. (Sorry, Smokey.) But as others move westward, the game begins to dry up, and so he moves further westward than anybody else.

Boone is renowned as an Indian fighter, but the truth is complicated, and it’s political. There were a great many tribes involved, and often as not they were enemies with one another, at least in the beginning. In some cases, land was sold by a tribe that actually had no claim to it in the first place. This explodes the notion taught to us as children, that the Native peoples found the notion of selling land incomprehensible because of its sacredness; we see one tribe for whom this is true, but there were plenty of instances where a treaty was knowingly made, yet other factors also made it unenforceable. Most of all, Caucasian Americans failed to understand the lack of a top down decision-making structure within the tribes, and so often a chief or other leader would sign, but others within his tribe weren’t bound by his individual decision.

Then too, there’s the little matter of the American Revolution. Alliances are constantly made and broken, involving the British, French, Spanish, and Patriots. At one point, Boone loses his considerable acreage because his land is granted him by the Spanish, but the Louisiana Purchase renders his title null and void.

But it is the detailed recounting of Boone’s explorations (almost never alone, except in an emergency, so there goes the myth of the rugged individual) that makes this book fascinating. The scrapes he gets into, and how he gets out of them; the harrowing fates that befall those around him. He is captured and escapes multiple times.  And although the women in his life get little ink, my heart goes out to Rebecca, his wife, who is left alone with the younger children for months and months on end, often without any idea as to where his travels have taken him, and whether he’s coming back. There are so many ways to die out there, and it’s not like anyone can send her a telegram to let her know if everyone is killed. At one point, she gives him up for dead, and when he finally shows up, she is pregnant, and the baby cannot be his! She tells him that she believed herself a widow, and so she turned to his brother; Boone decides this is understandable, since that’s pretty much what widows are expected to do, and since his brother looks like him, it won’t be obvious to others that he isn’t the father.

Even more interesting, however, is his daughter, Jemima. Her strength and cunning in dangerous circumstances—particularly when she is kidnapped and plays a part in her own rescue—make me wish she had her own biography. Were gender roles not so restrictive, she would have made an outstanding lieutenant, and perhaps successor to her father.

I initially didn’t believe I could give this work a five star rating, because the sources provided aren’t well integrated, and Clavin has relied tremendously on one source, a biography written long ago by Draper. But after I read the endnotes, I realized that even if he had been merely rewriting Draper’s book for a modern audience, it would be a great service. The social and political perspectives dominant when Draper’s book was written would make most of us blanch today, particularly with regard to race and gender, and yet, Draper did a masterful job with research, extensively reviewing Boone’s family and others still living at the time. I came away convinced that Clavin knows his subject well, and though I taught American history and government for decades, I learned a great deal from this one nifty book.

Highly recommended.

The Dead Are Arising, by Les Payne*

I haven’t been this disappointed in a long time. From the moment I saw this book listed on Net Galley, I was eager to read it, given that the promotion promises a lot of new information about this courageous man, a powerful advocate for the rights of people of color. When I didn’t receive a galley, I awaited the book’s release, and I went out and bought it. Less than halfway into it, I was absolutely sickened.

For starters, not all new information is important or necessary information. There’s a lot of minutiae here, as well as a fair amount of Black History 101 material, interesting to those unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Northern red-lining practices, and so forth, but a real snore for those of us already steeped in these things. But beyond that—and one could argue that these historical basics are necessary inclusions for a lot of readers—Paine goes to a great deal of trouble to destroy Malcolm’s legacy.

Academics do this sometimes, and surely it’s no coincidence that the top three examples that come to mind are all biographies of African-Americans that fought for their rights, and aren’t alive now to object to what is being said about them. (In addition to Malcolm, recent biographies of Frederick Douglass and Muhammad Ali come to mind, the latter two slandered by two different authors.) Picking through the tiny, often insignificant details of their lives and combing through their speeches and writing, these authors go to great pains to “expose” small details that conflict with one another, or other signs of inconsistency, with the clear implication that the subject was a liar and a fraud.

For shame!  

Let’s talk about that for a minute. I am a grandmother myself, and I can think of important aspects of my life, especially my younger years, for which my own motivations were and are complicated, and if asked about them I am sure I would have given different answers in my twenties, my thirties, and so on. Our own thoughts and motives have a lot of layers. Perhaps we become more insightful later in life, or perhaps our memories are no longer as sharp as we believe them to be. But because we are not famous, or notorious, depending upon points of view, we are unlikely to have some academic interviewing everyone that ever fucking knew us, or combing through every speck of written documentation we leave behind us, searching for all possible details that may bring our integrity and veracity into question.

For me, it matters very little whether Malcolm’s early life was exactly as he told it. It is his ideas, and his courage in expressing them, that made him a legend, and that’s what I look for in his biography. In the 1960s, almost no African-American (or colored, as they preferred to be called during that period,) Civil Rights advocates dared to come right out and say that Black people were not only as good, but in some cases better than Caucasians. And it is Malcolm’s political evolution during the last year of his life, the time when he broke with the Nation of Islam and embraced a working class perspective that included fighters of every race, that galvanizes me. Malcolm raised a powerful voice in opposition to the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people, quipping after President Kennedy’s assassination that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.”

This takedown of an iconic Civil Rights warrior is shabby in every sense. For those interested in Malcolm’s political and social evolution, I recommend the book titled Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Usually, the best way to learn about someone is to see what they themselves had to say. In this case it’s doubly true.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone.

The Autobiography of Mother Jones, by Mary Harris Jones*****

Note: I wrote this review before I began this blog, and I was shocked when I found I had somehow not included it here. There’s no disclosure regarding a review copy, because I didn’t get one. I bought this book and paid full cover price, and I will keep it until it is pried from my cold, dead hands.

Mother Jones has been called “the most dangerous woman in America”. Some refer to her as an anarchist, but in her autobiography, she denounces anarchism, though allows that these folks have their hearts in the right place. She has been called a syndicalist (which is probably closer to the truth), but the fact is that she was motivated by what she saw right there on the ground in front of her. When the Russian Revolution unfolded, she was by her own account past 90, and by the account of another biographer, in her mid-80’s, so either way, she was very, very elderly, yet she championed its achievement at the Pan-American labor conference held in Mexico:

“…a new day, a day when workers of the world would know no other boundaries than those between the exploiter and the exploited. Soviet Russia, I said, had dared to challenge the old order, had handed the earth over to those who toiled upon it, and the capitalists were quaking in their scab-made shoes.”

Jones’ career as a political organizer began shortly after she turned 30. She was a married woman, her husband an iron worker, and she stayed home with their four small children. “Yellow fever” (which I think is malaria) came and killed her whole family, and then as if that wasn’t enough, the great Chicago fire swept away her home and all her possessions.

Some would have turned to suicide. Some would have gone looking for an elderly widower to marry. Some would have gone off to find distant relatives and live with them as little more than domestic servants.

Jones reinvented herself and gave the next fifty-plus years of her life to making the world a better place.

Still clad in a widow’s black garments, she put her hair up in a chaste bun and left Mary Harris Jones behind. From this time forward, she would be “Mother Jones”. Think of it! The cinders from the American Civil War were barely cold, and women had no position in American political life, including the labor unions. Yet by becoming a mother to workers everywhere, including the women and small children laboring in mines and textile mills, she became a force to be reckoned with. It was a brilliant piece of theater, entirely sincere in its intention and in many cases successful. She was one of the most ardent champions of the 8 hour day:

“The person who believed in an eight-hour working day was an enemy of his country,a traitor, an anarchist…Feeling was bitter. The city [Chicago] was divided into two angry camps. The working people on one side–hungry, cold, jobless, fighting gunmen and policemen with their bare hands. On the other side the employers, knowing neither hunger or cold, supported by the newspapers, by the police, by all the power of the great state itself.”

When Mother speaks, people feel they should listen, and if she speaks in their better interests, they listen harder. And in the early days, at least, the boss’s goons and the local law thought twice about putting a hand on Mother. It wasn’t nice!

Later, as her impact on their wallets hardened their resolve, they would deal with her less gently. She didn’t care. She spent nights in jail when she could have left town instead. Sometimes she traveled into a coal mining enclave where every bit of property besides the public roads was owned by the mine owners. Even homes that had been rented to miners were closed to her, as was made clear enough to break almost anyone’s heart. She describes a mining family that held a union meeting at which she was present in the coal fields of Arnot, Pennsylvania. The following day the company fires and evicts the family, and “they gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much…and the sight of that wagon with the holy pictures and the sticks of furniture and the children” made the local miners so angry that they decided to strike and refuse to go back to work till their union was recognized.

The quote most well known that shows up on tee shirts, posters, and coffee mugs among the liberal and radical milieu today is knocked clean out of context, in my view. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” was delivered in order to get working men out of the local church, where the priest was trying to cool down the heat and persuade the coal miners to wait for a reward in heaven. “Your organization is not a praying institution,” she reminded them, “It’s a fighting institution!” She tells them to leave the church and meet in the local school, which their own tax dollars had bought. And she later tells other miners that striking is done to provide “a little bit of heaven before you die.”

From Chicago to the coal fields of West Virginia, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, she was found among railroad men and their families, machinists, textile workers, and above all, miners. She had no use at all for union officialdom, and though she occasionally praised a senator or governor who saw the light of day and called off the hounds of vengeance so that unions could be organized and the workers represented, more often than not she saw them as perfidious and untrustworthy.

When Eugene Debs became a candidate for U.S. president, she embraced his campaign, though she stayed among the workers, which I think was the correct thing to do. But when Debs comes to speak to coal miners and the union officialdom wants to meet his train quietly with a few representatives, Jones proposes all the union members go to greet him. They stampede down to the train, leap over the railings, and lift Debs onto their shoulders, she says, shouting, “Debs is here! Debs is here!”

I could have been finished with this slender volume quite quickly if I hadn’t been making notes (most of which, as usual, I cannot fit into my review, but then I should leave you some choice tidbits to find for yourself, and there are still many of them!) The chapters are brief, and so the book can be read just a few minutes at a time. And the introduction is written by one no less auspicious than Clarence Darrow himself.

You may look at the price and wonder whether you should pay that price for this slender little volume. The answer is, oh hell yes. Please remember that the words of the woman herself are worth twice as many from some armchair hack who wants to pick it apart and wonder whether she was really 83 or 85 at such-and-such moment? Spare yourself the blather and go straight to the primary source. It’s worth double the cover price!

Life of a Klansman, by Edward Ball*

“White supremacy is not a marginal ideology. It is the early build of the country. It is a foundation on which the social edifice rises, bedrock of institutions. White supremacy also lies on the floor of our minds. Whiteness is not a deformation of thought, but a kind of thought itself…

‘The story that follows is not that a writer discovers a shameful family secret and turns to the public to confess it. The story here is that whiteness and its tribal nature are normal, everywhere, and seem as permanent as the sunrise.”

I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy.

Edward Ball writes about his ancestor, Constant Lecorgnes, known fondly within his family as “our Klansman.” The biography is noteworthy in that it is told without apology or moral judgement, as if Ball wants whites to feel okay about the racism, the rape, the exploitation, the murders, the terrorism that membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and any and all of the other white supremacist organizations have carried out, and will continue to carry out, in the United States. Relax, he tells us, it’s normal.

Well, let’s back up a moment. The “us” in the narrative is always Caucasians. It apparently hasn’t occurred to him that anybody else might read his book. In some ways, the “us” and the “our” used consistently and liberally throughout this biography are even worse than the explicit horrors detailed within its pages. It’s as if there is a huge, entitled club, and those that don’t belong are not invited to read. Further, it’s as if all white people are of a similar mind and share similar goals.

Not so much.

Ball won the National Book Award some years back for Slaves in the Family, a title currently adorning my shelves downstairs. I have begun it two or three times, but it didn’t hold me long enough for me to see what he does with it. And this book is the same, in that the late Lecorgnes is not particularly compelling as a subject, except within the framework of his terrorism. He was not, Ball tells us, a key player; he was just one more Caucasian foot soldier within the Klan. And so, the reading drones along, and then there are the key pronouns that capture my attention, those that give ownership to his terrible heritage, and a couple of paragraphs of the history of the period, particularly within Southern Louisiana, follow; lather, rinse, repeat.

As I read, I searched for accountability. As it happens, I have one of those relatives too; but my elders, though not beacons within the Civil Rights realm by a long shot, understood that such a membership brings shame upon us, and consequently I was not supposed to know about him at all. I overheard some words intended to be private, uttered quietly during a moment of profound grief following a sudden death. My mother spoke to someone—my father? I can’t recall—but she referred to her father’s horrifying activity, and I was so shocked that I left off lurking and spying, and burst into the room. I believe I was ten years old at the time. I was told that the man—who was never, and never will be referred to in the fond, familiar manner that Ball does—was not entirely right in the head. He truly believed he was helping to protect Southern Caucasian women, but he was wrong. It was awful, and now it’s over; let’s not talk about it anymore. In fact, this topic was so taboo that my own sister didn’t know. She is old now, and was shocked when I mentioned it last spring. She had no idea.

As I developed, I understood, from teachers and friends more enlightened than Mr. Ball, that the best way we can deal with ugly things in our background that we cannot change, is to contribute our own energies in the opposite direction. I’ve lived by it, and so I was waiting for Ball to say something similar, if not in the prologue, then surely somewhere near the end; but he never did. If Ball feels any duty whatsoever to balance the scales of his family’s terrible contribution, he doesn’t offer it up. There’s no call to action, no cry for social justice. Just the message that hey—it’s normal, and it’s fine.

I’m not sure if I want to read his other work anymore; but I know that what I cannot do, and will not do, is recommend this book to you.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird*****

Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.

Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.

The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.

Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.

After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.

I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.

It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.

Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns