Message from author and history professor Annette Laing specifically for kids in Grades 3-5 who have seen Annette's presentations in recent months.
Mary McDougall Gordon, ed. Overland to California with the Pioneer Line: The Gold Rush Diary of Bernard J. Reid (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987)
How do historians work?
Reading a Gold Rush diary this morning, I stumbled across this brief (but unusually full) description by the author, a young Irish-American named Bernard Reid, of a campsite in present-day Wyoming in July, 1849: “Growing city of wagons, tents, men, women and children, whites, Indians, negros, horses, oxen, and mules. Motley crowd.”
Historians don't usually waste a lot of time tut-tutting at the dead for their failure to anticipate modern sensibilities, so I'm not to harrumph at Reid for his lack of cultural sensitivity in lumping people in the same sentence with animals and inanimate objects: I'm just grateful he made this observation. It's a no-brainer that he thought differently than we do, and lazy to assume he thus has nothing of value to say.
To understand the significance of this scene to us in 2019, I have to think of it in modern terms. I contemplate that what Reid (unaccustomed to mingling with people unlike himself) calls a "motley crowd" is what we might term diverse. The common conception of the Gold Rush as a bunch of white men heading West needs to be modified. African-Americans were among the migrants. Women and children were present. And almost every location (except for the driest of deserts), the migrants encountered and spoke with American Indian peoples.
Bernard Reid was struck by the novelty of diversity, and it would become his new normal. This is just one of many sources of our idea of California. The word "diversity" would likely have been alien to Bernard Reid, but no matter. His thoughtful attention to the crowd helped pave the way to where we are now, and his diary is a treasure.
As a historian who writes fiction, and who tries to link past with present, I now have to help carry Bernard Reid's worldview from his diary (published more than thirty years ago in an edition edited by a historian) into the 21st century, and make it relevant to a broad audience through my novel, and my Gone West! program for schools, libraries, and museums.
"Mendips", the house in Liverpool where Beatle John Lennon grew up with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith. Now in the possession of the National Trust, it is open to the public, but only via ticketed National Trust minibus tour (along with Paul McCartney's childhood home on nearby Forthlin Road). Details
So I was thinking about John Lennon (as you do). He is often represented as a working-class hero. But, as Lennon himself pointed out, he was actually a middle-class boy from the Liverpool suburbs. He and others who have made this point have been pretty much ignored.
This summer, touring "Mendips", the carefully restored Liverpool house where John grew up with his Uncle George and Aunt Mimi Smith, I could see why people struggle to understand his background. The house is a modest duplex (in American terms) on a busy street. I mean, good grief, his Aunt was a former nurse who, once widowed, took in boarders to make ends meet. Surely these people were working class? By the standards of today's wealthy, this was squalid poverty.
But looking at Aunt Mimi's house through my postwar British eyes, there's no question that John was right. His house and family would have seemed "posh" to practically everyone else in Liverpool. An owned (not rented) semi-detached house (duplex), no matter how modest, and his well-spoken aspirational Auntie, no matter how self-taught her diction, screamed "lower middle class."
Looking at the world through the lens of class is hard for many Americans. I know that when I arrived in California from Britain as a teen, I struggled at first to understand the role that class played in the U.S., especially because so many of the people I met in interpreted society through the lens of race. But in America, it seemed to me, you couldn't understand one without the other.
One of the challenges I am finding as I age is to recognize how hard it is for people--including historians, including myself-- to understand times and places of which we have no personal experience. But throwing in the towel and simply representing everyone in the past in 21st century terms isn't an option. It concerns me that a successful and much-lauded recent historical novel for middle grades just kind of made it all up, and that was on a time and place that's still within living memory. This barely generated controversy. Call me crazy, but I find that disturbing, a mass agreement that thinking historically isn't worth the effort. John Lennon took pains to undermine the narrative being constructed around him of "working-class hero". In doing so, he firmly acknowledged his own privilege as a middle-class lad. Maybe that privilege is hard for most people to see in Lennon's troubled childhood, but he was right: It was there.
Two skeptical evacuees meet their cat lady foster mother in a church hall in Balesworth (the town in my Snipesville Chronicles series that's lightly modeled on Stevenage) Hertfordshire, England, in 1940. From Could You Be A World War II Kid? at J.T. Reddick Elementary, Tifton, Georgia, January 2019.
I’ve been trotting out Could You Be A World War II Kid? in schools for a decade. It’s my most flexible and practiced program, with lots of different versions for different audiences and different situations. Looking at the big picture, however, I think it needs an overhaul. The past doesn’t change, but history (the interpretation of the past) can and must to keep us in touch with it. That said, this is too popular a program for me to mess with it too much at once. So I have continued to tweak, albeit more consciously than before.
One popular addition involves kids in the action:
Through the lychgate to the church hall, where our pretend evacuees will meet their foster parents for the rest of the war. Marching in place behind me (as Miss Sutherland, their escort), kids often gasp when this picture turns from black and white still to color video, and they see we are moving through the picture. It's a simple but surprisingly engaging technique, and it's all part of building empathy, culminating (as time allows) with a discussion of the Kindertransport, a highly resonant subject today.Could You Be A World War Two Kid?
In character, as WVS lady Miss Sutherland, and with a background of wartime images, I lead my younger audiences on the evacuee journey by train from London (starting at Kings Cross for its Harry Potter resonances) to a small town in Hertfordshire. We arrive at the church where they will meet their foster parents. I had the good fortune to shoot video last summer on a non-rainy day in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, at St. Nicholas Church which shows no tell-tale 21st century signs, on a weekday when nobody was around to get in the shot. My audiences pretend to “walk” through the lychgate, and into the churchyard. The video editing technique I used to steady my wobbly footage adds a wonderfully surreal feel, and (to my pleasant surprise) kids audibly gasp when they realize we are “moving.”
Tremendous fun and popular though this is, it is simply a dramatized version of what kids experience while reading novels. It’s why I consider my historical fiction the most important thing I do: it encourages deep empathy. At this age particularly, for kids to learn history via random facts (per curriculum) would be a shocking waste of time: I have great respect for teachers who interpret the drill and test curriculum to a much higher standard, and I hope my programs provide inspiration and practical help in that direction. Harness imagination, and we give kids a fighting opportunity to seek out learning for themselves, and the critical thought that brings with it, for a lifetime.
Recently, a simple question turned into a superb opportunity for me to think about how my novels model historical thinking.
I was taking questions about my novels before an audience of seventh graders who had read the first two books of The Snipesville Chronicles. A girl raised her hand. “In the second book, did you ever give a reason why the park was saved after [the main characters] time traveled?”
[Multiple Spoiler Alert]
That gave me pause. I couldn’t remember. I wrote A Different Day, A Different Destiny (The Snipesville Chronicles, Book 2) nearly a decade ago, and while I have re-read it since, I simply don’t think about it very often. Set in 1851, it takes my middle-school time travelers to industrialized early Victorian Britain and the antebellum South. It’s a complicated plot, and I won’t even try to repeat it here, but one catalyst for their adventure is that, in the present day, a nameless scrap of land in the middle of the historically black neighborhood of a small Southern town is threatened with development and gentrification.
That's before their adventure in the 19th century. When the kids return to the 21st century, the formerly neglected and nameless land is now miraculously lined with pecan trees, and has just been renamed for a distinguished member of the black community.
When the young reader asked her question, how and why did that happen, I couldn’t for the life of me remember if I had explicitly connected that sudden change with my main characters’ time-travel adventure.
It isn’t like me to leave loose ends, and nobody had ever asked this question before. But I did wonder in that moment if I had pulled a Ray Bradbury, as I like to think of it. In his short story “A Sound of Thunder”, Bradbury’s famous premise was that a time traveler who steps on a butterfly in the prehistoric past causes massive and catastrophic change in human history.
I told my questioner that perhaps I had simply followed my instinct (derived from Bradbury) that any changes in the past could potentially have unforeseen and unlikely consequences in the present. But I also told her that I honestly couldn’t remember what my thinking had been on the park's transformation, or how I had represented it, and that I would take a look when I got home.
So I have, and this is my reply.
When I read the relevant part of the book, I immediately remembered: I did give a reason, and it’s explained. However, in the manner of teaching historians (of whom my character Professor Harrower is an extreme example) my explanation isn’t laid out clearly for quick consumption. I simply build a case with textual evidence. The answer isn’t handed to the reader. The final connection is hers to make, or to pursue. Or not, as she prefers. Contrary to how history professors are perceived, the good teachers are less about doling out facts for consumption, and more about modeling how historical arguments are made, while inviting students to participate in drawing their own conclusions in accordance with the facts.
So what is the reason I gave for the park’s unexpected reprieve? Naturally, there’s no simple answer. First, the way that the community thinks about the park has changed drastically. Before my time travelers depart for the 19th century, Dr. Braithwaite, speaking to the city council, presented the green space simply as a place for local children to play, children for whom the nearest official city park was a considerable walk away. This was my allusion to the insidious effects of historical segregation, although (wishing to spare my readers a history lesson) I didn’t say so directly.
But when the kids return to the present day, to discover that the land is now to be a park, Dr. Braithwaite’s reasoning has changed. He explains that the park “is a traditional gathering space for black people in Snipesville.”
So the park has now developed a status it had not had before. And there's more. It has also acquired an origin story. They now learn that the land had begun as a pecan orchard developed by Jupiter, an enslaved man who was also one of time-traveler Brandon’s ancestors, and that people in the community had been picking pecans there for more than a century. I got the idea from an unpleasant encounter with a campus cop a few years ago, when I was picking up pecans on campus. I learned that the university (for reasons) had banned the gathering of nuts from around the trees. It offended my British sense of access to land, of harmless foraging, and I had to leave before I risked arrest (which still strikes me as absurd and sad, years later.)
So it won't be a surprise to you that when I reinvented the park in light of the time travelers’ adventure, the park had become the focus of black community identity, and had inspired their sense of investment and ownership. Again, I did not explain why, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots, that people will fight for what they genuinely care about. Leaving the reader to draw conclusions is not a good practice for a historian writing history: As a professor explained to me when I was a grad student, you don’t want your readers to draw their own conclusions from your argument. Doing so may not even be a wise move for a novelist. But it is a good practice in teaching, and it is a reflection of how historians work, acting in detective mode, pulling disparate wisps of evidence together to form a plausible narrative.
Still, though, this doesn’t answer the main point of the student’s question: Now that I have reincarnated the park as central to the local black community, which made it easier to save it from development, what did this change have to do with my time travelers? The answer is quite a bit.
While the kids were in 1851, the new owner of the plantation asked Jupiter why, during the hiatus between his arrival and the departure of the previous owner, a corner of a cotton field had been planted with pecan trees. Jupiter explained that he and his fellow enslaved people had planted the orchard to supplement their diets. It would also gave them an income, by providing them a marketable product they could sell in Savannah (slaves selling their own produce on Sundays for personal profit was absolutely a thing!) However, the owner curtly informed him that the pecans would henceforth either be sold for his own profit, or counted as part of the slaves’ existing food allowance.
But then the kids change everything. They cleverly arrange for ownership of Jupiter and the other enslaved people on the plantation to pass into the hands of a woman who opposes slavery. They also persuade her to allow Jupiter to manage the plantation, since he is already pretty much in charge as it is, thanks to absentee ownership. What goes unsaid is that she could not, as an alternative, free the slaves, since to do so was virtually impossible under the law in Georgia (although, again, this is not explained, in the hope that readers will look it up or ask!) The implication—and it’s there—is that Jupiter, now in charge, went ahead with his plans for the pecan orchard, although we learn from Dr. Braithwaite that it didn’t bear literal fruit until after the Civil War.
My hope in leaving clues and partial explanations (just as my character of the Professor does) is not to be maddening. It is in the hope that readers will look things up, or even ask me, as this young reader did, although it’s a pity I didn’t have a ready answer for her!
But that's not a requirement to enjoy reading my work. Since this is fiction, readers are welcome to come up with their own explanations. And the books are written to be understood and enjoyed regardless of the reader’s interest in history, or curiosity to learn more: I write on multiple levels. My main goal as a novelist is to create new worlds, grounded in fact, that you can imagine yourself inhabiting. And also to create many layers of plot, not all of which reveal themselves with ease, because, like the Professor, I just can’t resist challenging you to figure things out for yourself, which always involves gathering as much information as you can.
To make the point that even middle-class kids didn't get toys in WWII Britain, thanks to factories and employees focused on the war effort, I show how a chamberpot doubled as a helmet. I have no shame. Truly.
In my Could You Be A World War II Kid? presentation for schools, I slyly use the Blitz to introduce a subject close to the hearts of kids: Toilets. History, I point out, is not just about dates and presidents and battles. Historians study EVERYTHING. I ask them to hypothesize about what they would do if they were time-travelers, living through a World War II London air raid at two in the morning, and realizing that they needed to pee. Inevitably, one kid says (s)he would pee in a corner, while another says (s)he would pee on her/himself: I suggest (to much laughter) that they would have an air raid shelter to themselves, since nobody else would want to be with them.
Finally, I hold up a chamberpot, and explain why it would have been used in 1940 even if households had flushing toilets. Kids are impressed and grossed. And then we talk about why that is, and how that attitude to chamberpots is a reflection of historical change. I recall my one Scottish great-granny, who resisted having a toilet installed into the 1970s, because she thought them dirty things that belonged outdoors. And then there is my other Scottish great-granny, who handed me (aged 7, and appalled) a chamberpot because she didn't like people coming downstairs and flushing in the night, since it woke her. Born in 1899 and raised in a two-room toiletless tenement flat, "Babs" was oblivious to the horror of a kid raised in a four-bed, two-loo post-war council house.
There's an interesting modern parallel to my great-grannies' attitudes toward toilets, and that is the Indian families who choose smartphones over flushing loos. I explain to the kids that behind every Indian family who makes such a puzzling decision, is a granny who refuses to have such a revolting thing as a toilet in her home.
It's a great set of stories: they explain how culture changes over time and place, and why people have reasons for being different from the children in my audience. People who have never seen my shows or read my books sometimes find it hard to understand how I teach historical thinking without resorting to jargon or tedious textbook stuff, but this is a great illustration of what I do: I connect the past to kids' lives through carefully-chosen story and characters. Kids get it.
And let's face it, so do adults. Those of you who are fans of my Snipesville Chronicles series will recall that I don't shy away from bringing my middle-school time travelers face to face with the horrors of past toileting. From Hannah's disbelief on encountering austere, crunchy, shiny World War II toilet paper (it was a luxury compared to newspaper . . .) in Don't Know Where, Don't Know When to her very different response in the last book, One Way or Another. In 1905, as a seasoned time traveler and experienced Edwardian maid, she basically shrugs off having to empty other people's chamberpots. Her experiences also illustrate how profound cultural difference and acculturation can be. Not that I use words like "acculturation" in my novels.
Oh, and by the way: The BBC just posted a great story that shows the relevance of these toilet stories that I have been telling for a decade: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-46534681
Learn more about my books, Could You Be A World War II Kid? and my other programs for schools, all presented by a middle grades author, published academic historian and former professor with 15 years experience working with kids and teens (that's me!) at AnnetteLaing.com
Wheel ruts from mid-19th century covered wagons are still visible across America, especially in the desert. What you're seeing here, as the trail stretches into the distance in Wyoming, is a tiny part of the journey migrants took. And they didn't normally travel in the wagons: They walked. This is also a tiny example of what kids will discover in Gone West, my new program for 4th and 5th graders.
Ever have a hard time imagining what a destination will look like before you get there? Ever been surprised by how much you enjoyed a long trip?
Of course. That's because, even with Google Street View and millions of photos at our fingertips, nothing really prepares us for a new environment. Now imagine that your only information came in the form of a map, a guidebook without illustrations, and some very scary news stories involving travelers' nasty deaths . . .
And when you decided to go anyway, your journey exceeded your wildest imaginings, and (sometimes) your greatest fears. You came face to face with the unimaginable.
That was the situation of the wagon train migrants in the mid-19th century. This summer, as part of the research for a school program about 19th century westward migration and its impact, my husband and I hopped in a rented car, and in less than two weeks, followed the wagon trails from the Missouri River to eastern Nevada, a journey that would have taken several months on foot (did I mention that covered wagon folk mostly walked?) We were stunned to think of what the journey must have been like nearly two centuries ago.
I'm working out how to share this insight with 4th and 5th graders whose own westward trip will be virtual. I'm also planning to present on Gone West, the new program, at a couple of forthcoming teachers' conferences.
While I'm set on a road trip theme, I'm not oblivious to the revolution in western history over the past three decades: I'm committed to getting audiences to empathize with Plains Indians as well as migrants,and to understand the impact that westward migration had on indigenous peoples and the environment. We're still living with the consequences of these journeys (environmental disaster, Westerners' fascinating and contradictory views of government, the struggles of Indian communities . ...)
In an age when immigration is in the news daily, I'm helping everyone to understand that, no matter what, people take enormous risks to move away from everyone and everything they have ever known. This week, NPR ran a fascinating segment that explains why even the cruel policy of separating children and parents is doing little or nothing to deter undocumented immigrants. It's astonishing to contemplate that 19th century wagon train migrants almost all had far less pressing incentive to take their gruelling and risky journeys.
These are lofty goals. For Gone West, I only have 75 minutes to show all this to kids. And I have only 40 minutes to present the program to teachers.
Needless to say, many of my optimistic plans have gone out the window. I had naively thought I could also work in the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark's expedition, chat about mountain men, and generally put a bit more historical context around the journey itself. But the good news? Teachers tasked with checking off these bits of curriculum will find it means much more to kids who have enjoyed Gone West, and gained a better idea of what westward migration actually meant to people on the ground, and what it continues to mean to us today.
I'll be talking about Gone West at this year's South Carolina for the Social Studies meeting (postponed to a date TBA owing to Hurricane Florence) and the Georgia Council for the Social Studies meeting in October. I'm also presenting on my World War I program at the National Council for the Social Studies meeting in Chicago in late November. So if you're a teacher, please plan to come and bring colleagues! Meanwhile . . .
Check out These Teasers from Gone West:
(Left) February, 2018: West Pelzer Elementary (SC) Students Early in Their Reading of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Snipesville Chronicles, Book 1) (Right) May, 2018: Skype Visit with Author, Speaking from London.
I won't lie: I was worried.
The enterprising vice-principal of West Pelzer Elementary in rural South Carolina had hired me to speak to fifth graders, and ordered a class set of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When. But, of course, I had no idea whether she had classroom teachers on board, and that was essential.
When I turned up to present Could You Be A World War II Kid?, a program that serves simultaneously as historical background to the book and an introduction to it, I had a chance to speak to Jessica Johnson and her colleagues. They were concerned about it being perhaps too complex, especially in its vocabulary, for the kids' reading level.
And by this point, so was I. I have readers of all ages and backgrounds, including kids younger than these from underprivileged areas. But I also trust teachers to know their students' abilities.
Mrs. Johnson was willing to work with it. I offered to consult, and kept my fingers crossed.
The books are often used in schools as read-alouds. A rural middle school buys more than 100 copies every year to give to 6th graders. They're also on the summer reading list (and used in an economics classroom) for 7th graders in an elite private school. But an entire class of readers of varying ability in a Title I school in 5th grade? I hadn't seen that in person.
And then came the fantastic news: The kids loved the book. It was a hit.
I hoped Mrs. Johnson wasn't just being polite in telling me this, and offered to Skype with the kids from London, where I was researching future books. The reply was immediate and enthusiastic. Once I met with the kids, I knew this was the real deal.
But why was I surprised? This was, after all, my target audience when I began writing with several years experience of working with kids in the rural South under my belt, and, as I said, I have fans as young as nine, and even a few eight year olds. But I also have adult fans, among them several academic historians, and a professor of English Literature who holds degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Suppose the younger kids were hugely exceptional?
I should have been more confident. I have never forgotten readers who struggle with reading, I have seldom compromised on my vocabulary, or knowingly talked down to my readers. What I have done, based on long experience teaching college freshmen, is made the meaning of complex words clear through context. And, of course, I have consciously kept the story moving. If kids want to know what happens next in a story, they will persist (as surely Beatrix Potter knew when she used "soporific" in Peter Rabbit), and they will, as a result, learn more vocabulary and become better readers. This isn't the philosophy of reading programs in schools, with their prescribed "reading levels". But most librarians consider those problematic at best, and increasingly, so do teachers.
That said, I owe much to Jessica Johnson. Mrs. Johnson is an impressive teacher, and I don't say that lightly. She recognizes the value of reading in opening up the world to kids in a struggling rural community, and she was willing to encourage the kids to stretch. That's key.
I asked Mrs. Johnson for a quote for my website. Here's what she wrote: "I accompanied my project based learning unit on WWII with Don't Know Where, Don't Know When for my 5th graders at West Pelzer Elementary in South Carolina. The book was a DELIGHTFUL addition to the unit and included a much needed child perspective of this major event in history. My class cannot wait to read the next book!"
Like many writers, and women, and women writers, I often doubt myself and my work. But once again, I've learned that optimism and confidence are a better approach. I should have known better.
Westerns are unfashionable, that much I do know. Hollywood isn't filming them, and the story of thousands of mostly white Americans storming west, usurping land from Indians and Mexicans in the process, is a fraught one in these divided times. But, despite all this, as you may note from an earlier blog entry, I have become fascinated by those who traveled west, and especially those women who went with the Gold Rush migration. More than that, westward migration is too big, too resonant, too American for me to believe that it's a story without 21st century appeal. What was it like to be an immigrant risking your life to cross a vast desert, and to knowingly trespass on others' lands? Were you truly a resilient individual, facing a perilous journey alone, or did your community, and even the federal government, have your back? What happened when your American dream met disappointment and death?
My husband and I have come to Kansas City to follow the wagon trains, almost 200 years too late. We begin at Independence, MO, from which traders left for New Mexico (and returned) on the Santa Fe trail, and migrants prepared for their wagon journey to Oregon or California, most never to head "back east" again.
Our wagon is a rented Toyota Corolla. Our tent is a series of comfortable hotels. Our food is whatever we can forage on the trail from a succession of cheap restaurants, although we have stocked up with supplies for the journey here in Missouri: trail mix, sparkling water, and chocolate.
We started with high expectations, but like the migrants--like America itself--we quickly began to "see the elephant". The phrase was used by the 19th century migrants to mean getting terribly excited about an experience (in the migrants' case, going west) only to suffer a reality check in the form of disappointment and disaster.
After excitedly anticipating museums and original sites leading us west, our elephant immediately appeared to us in the Kansas City area.
Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At one time, there were many Eunice Shrivers, only without the money and clout that she possessed to get things done on a grand scale. Opinionated, forceful, unconcerned with appearance and other superficialities, and possessed of a moral voice and certitude, she steamrollered all who got in her way. I have never been particularly interested in the Kennedys, or Special Olympics, but I was intrigued by an NPR interview with the author. I'm glad I acted on it. This is an engaging biography, and given Eunice's reluctance to reveal her soul (typical of so many women of her generation) could not have been an easy project. Given how much she had to juggle, both context and subject material, McNamara does a deft job of keeping the reader engaged. Her book is a porthole into extraordinary privilege, and the good that can be done by those who, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, do not take that privilege lightly. Her legacy is all around us, the recognition of the full humanity of those with intellectual disabilities.
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Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com