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In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
In this, the fourth in my limited series of film observations, I want to focus on two hard hitting social issue films, one from the late 1940’s and the other from the early 1950’s. The twist for me, an element of both films, is that both starred actors who went on to interesting careers as politicians. Republican politicians. Californian politicians. One even became President.
As for my two selections, they both have perspectives that still simmer today: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, and Stewart Heisler’s Storm Warning.
I do not remember the first time I saw Border Incident. It was certainly less than ten years ago. I have watched it a few times since, especially since the 2016 American election that spent so much time dissecting Donald Trump’s animus to those who live south of his border and who have, as they have done for decades, sought sanctuary and a future in an often unwelcoming and, at best, ambivalent country.
Border Incident begins with a documentary-like narration about the business of agriculture in California, the brilliance of the water system, and the need for laborers. Farm workers.
The challenge is clear. People from Mexico are not only being smuggled into California to slave away as farm laborers, they are, whilst on their way home to Mexico, being robbed and murdered. To cut off the head of the murderous people-smuggling snake, Montalban will go undercover as a bracero. Murphy will also go undercover, basically trying to keep tabs on Montalban’s journey. As Montalban’s boss summarizes, “It’s a good plan. Since the criminals’ work in a circle, we’ll cover the circle.”
The two men enter a grim, seemingly hopeless world, a twilight zone of shadows, of dark deadly times. The smugglers are heartless. The braceros are slaves. John Alton’s cinematography captures the agonizingly endless passage through the desert night. Though not everything always goes all that well, the gang, such as it is, is mostly efficient. The cheap labour, including Montalban’s cop, reaches their destination. Plans do go awry, however. Villainy always seem to have these types of interruptions. We can be thankful for that.
Eventually though, before the villains earn their just desserts served to them on the proverbial platter, this dark film takes an even more treacherous turn than we might have expected from a late 1940’s movie. On the other hand, just a few years earlier, the world learned a few terrible lessons about the capacity of mankind to go beyond evil: Hitler’s Death Camps, his “final solution” for one. The unleashing of the A Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for another.
So, whatever does happen towards the end of Border Incident, it pales in comparison to the holocaust. Nevertheless, it has a quite personal ending and carries a cinematic punch.
Supporting Cast: Border Incident has a rich field of great character actors. Howard Da Silva is stupendously smarmy in the film. A couple of years later, this talented thespian was victimized by the HUAC blacklist.
James Mitchell, an actor who didn’t appear in many films (he had a later thirty year run in the soap opera, All My Children…and no, I never watched it) appears in Border Incident as Juan Garcia, an everyman seeking a better life.
Also appearing in the film is one of the all-time great noir actors, Charles McGraw. McGraw could play hero or villain with barely a change of expression. He starred in one of my favourite noirs, The Narrow Margin. Of note, he also starred in the short lived 1955-56 nine-episode series, Casablanca…eschewing the Bogart role.
Although the rest of the Border Incident ensemble cast is spot on, I would like to mention one other: Alfonso Bedeyo. If you have had the opportunity to watch John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will remember Bedeyo. He was Gold Hat…famous for spouting, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”
Storm Warning is a fascinating film. Its portrayal of the KKK is quite frightening and yet, even with all the hooded night riding (or driving) and grown men being boys engaged in semi-anthropomorphic behaviour, somehow it misses the full mark This may have been intentional. However, intentional or not, it hits an interesting noirish target. From the moment Ginger Rogers gets off the bus, irritating her manager who hopelessly reminds her that she has responsibilities further down the line, the stage is set. Ginger wants to meet up with her sister, a youthful looking Doris Day (even though she was twenty-eight or so at the time, so I guess she was still fairly young) who has recently gotten hitched.
Big sister is checking out the new guy.
Ginger arrives in the southern town at a nervous moment. Something is off. As she seeks help to find her sister, doors are closed. The locals are abrupt. The scene as she walks towards the hamburger joint is classic noir. Lights. Shadows. An altogether eerie night. Moments later, walking the dark streets, stores and streetlights are turned off in sequence. And then, in a second, just as she rounds a corner, a dozen hooded Klansman drag a man out of the County Jail. They whip him. He runs. And is shot. He drops at her feet. Stepping back, further into the dark, she witnesses the Klan run up to the fallen man. Cowering in the shadows, she conveniently is able to see that two of the Klan have removed their hoods.
Interestingly, after the KKK flee, Ginger appropriately rushes up to check on the poor fellow on the ground. Off in the distance, lights come on in the jail. Ginger takes flight. Not quite the actions of a good citizen. Anyways, she runs through the dark city streets. Earlier she had asked directions to the town recreation centre, the place where she knew her sister worked.
From thereon, soap. Fifties soap. A little dirt of course. Early on it is revealed that one of the Klansman is Ginger’s new brother-in-law. Steve Cochran. Cochran is classic passive aggressive. A handsome fellow by port-war standards, he often played tough guys with squirmy tendencies. He does not disappoint this time.
After Ginger is introduced to her new brother-in-law, recognizes him as one of the Klansman, this potboiler begins to boil over.
We meet Ronnie Reagan at this point. He is the DA. Burt Rainey. This is not the first lynching. They know it is the Klan. The victim this time was a reporter. A northern reporter. The officials know everyone is afraid. As one cowering citizen says, “Please Mr. Rainey. Don’t ask me any questions. I don’t want to lie to you…a mob that did what those people did tonight would burn me out like that,” and he snaps his fingers.
As Rainey talks with one of his investigators, that fellow mentions that he used to belong to the Klan. His reasoning is simple enough: “I thought it was something to do good. You know, to help people…” When asked why he quit, he says. “Found out it was a lot of bunk. A bunch of hoodlums dressed up in sheets.”
Back at her sister’s house, the tension is palpable. We watch Ginger’s stare. She is clearly angry, afraid, indecisive. Finally, she confronts her new brother-in-law. The fat is in the fire. The cat is out of the bag. One of those, anyways. After some hysterics, Ginger agrees to scurry out of town in the morning. Cochran’s character goes for a walk…a run through the dark streets…to the Rec Center. Bowling Alley Noir at its finest. A wonderful set piece. Pins crashing. The whole town seems there. Everyone looks guilty.
The treadmill of discovery rolls on. Ginger is interviewed, acknowledges that there were hooded men. She is kept in town to testify at the inquest. The Klan in this movie, deadly though it is, turns out to be something watered down, something separate from the real world. Its racial xenophobia is underplayed. It is almost as if the characterization by the script writers is that they are are, as Trump so pathetically declared a couple of years ago, “very fine people on both sides.“
Is there a happy ending? No. It’s noir. But it has an ending. There’s some comfort in that.
Some Political Second Thoughts:
Murphy and Reagan followed somewhat similar theatrical and political paths. In fact, Murphy served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild (A labour union formed in the early 1930’s to improve the lot of performers and reduce the strangle hold of the major studios in the lives of those performers.) from 1944-1946. Reagan served as President of SAG for two time periods (1947-1952) and a return engagement for one further year, 1959.
Though Reagan was a democrat early in his career, he transformed over the years into a Republican. He garnered a huge public profile by being the host of General Electric Theater, a weekly television anthology series that ran from 1954-62. This exposure enhanced his public profile and no doubt aided his entry into politics. Reagan served as the Governor of California from 1967-75. He tried to parlay his political credentials in 1976 when he sought the Republican Party Presidential nomination. He barely lost to Gerry Ford who subsequently went down to defeat to Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter’s quest for a second term. Reagan served as President for two terms from 1981-89.
In 1965, in response to a public statement by Murphy about the willingness of Americans to do farm labour, folksinger/satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song that captured and perhaps partially sunk Murphy’s career. Murphy’s early years as a song and dance man was mentioned humorously by Lehrer.
A final note, perhaps gratuitous. Montalban’s first feature role was in Border Incident. That same year, he had a small role in the comedy musical western, The Kissing Bandit. Though not a song and dance man like his Border Incident co-star, he danced well enough in that film. And his green ensemble…to die for.
Both these films certainly tried to deal with serious social issues. While neither really solved the issues they portrayed, they undoubtedly have given us a window back in time. Even with their flaws, that should be appreciated.
Thank you for your time.
About Bill Engleson:
I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.
I write flash fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews and have two larger projects that ever so slowly get my dwindling attention including my first novel’s prequel, Drawn Towards the Sun
My occasionally added-to-website/blog is http://www.engleson.ca
I’m quite hopeful you, as you read this, have a best friend.
If you don’t, however, you can pick up a best friend from a shelter not too far away: you can get a dog.
Dogs, called “man’s best friend” in a cliché and somewhat sexist statement, hold that special status in our hearts for a reason. Whereas horses can understand and work with humans, and while cats can see us as food and attention sources, dogs are starved for love and want to dole it out in equal – well, let’s admit it, greater – measure. But how did we get to this point? And why the heck are there so many breeds?
Let’s find out by delving into a pre-history that, with modern technology, is only now being discovered.*
This peer-reviewed gene analysis paper shows how researchers analyzed dog genomes of many breeds to determine that the well-beloved race all descended from gray wolves. Yes, that’s right, your beloved Butter Butt is 100%, genuine wolf.
In fact, the genetic clades (clades represent similarities in genomes, and the closer the clade the more similar the genes) show how closely related dogs and wolves really are. In one of the article’s images, the one that describes the haplotypes (or genetic groups) of dogs and wolves, several groups of dogs and wolves are about equally related to one another. Dogs and wolves are also capable of interbreeding.
This interbreeding seems to have been important during the domestication of the dog, as analysis of the mitochondrial DNA indicates multiple back-breeding events (i.e., when domesticated dogs interbred with wolves) added genetic diversity. It may also indicate multiple domestication events. Multiple events makes it really hard to pin down when dogs were domesticated, and even where! The paper I linked above seems to indicate the primary event happening in east Asia, but others (as summarized in this The Atlantic article) claim with what seems to be equal validity, that the event occurred in any number of places. There is a lot of evidence, however, favoring east Asia over other places.
While genetics has shown us what changed to cause the wolf ancestor to split into wolves and dogs, scientists still argue as to how or why those changes were implemented.
What does it take for domestication occur? This review article from Cell (trust me, it’s a high-level scientific journal) says there’s nothing certain about what makes an animal domesticated, and studied traits vary by species, breed, and situation. The sheer number of dog breeds with highly varying traits also leave us wondering what were the things ancient humans did that changed a wolf into a dog.
There’s only one thing we can be sure of: we absolutely needed friends. Humans gave dogs protection, food, and comfort in a harsh and ancient world even before the first agricultural revolution.
And, as you dog owners know, they gave all of that back ten-fold.
Though dog domestication happened something on the order of 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, the divisions of dogs into breeds happened much later.
And it’s the biggest genetic experiment to have ever happened.
From Mastiffs to Chihuahuas, from Shiba Inu to Australian Shepherds, they’re all dogs. Most breeds also didn’t exist until about 150 years ago, when it became a popular hobby in England to breed the perfect pup.
In fact, look at this map where the landmasses are adjusted for size based on the number of breeds from the area:
CRAZY FRIKKIN’ ENGLAND IS BIGGER THAN AFRICA, AUSTRALIA, and ASIA COMBINED. Also, sorry the map’s not zoomed in to see things well, but I couldn’t find a better image (I saw it for the first time at my dog trainer’s place).
In the late 19th century, the English – and, later, much of Europe – got into the whole idea that dogs were pets and could be bred. Now, I don’t want to be too presumptive, but Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, otherwise known as “pretty much at the beginning of the dog-breeding craze.” Was this scientific work influential in dog breeding? Did it inspire the middle-class hobbyists to begin creating dogs that had specific traits other than what were needed to do their jobs? There’s no proof, and it’s literally just something I’ve had in my head for a while, but I think it’s fairly coincidental that all of this happened at once.
But, as selective pressures brought about the differentiation between dog and wolf, human-enforced breeding measures brought about the breeds. We can see this still ongoing today as breed regulations change and new traits come into favor. For instance, when you look at the below picture of two chihuahuas, which one do you think is the correct by breed standard?
The answer is both are ok. Both the deer-headed (B) and apple-headed (A) Chihuahua are up to code, but the apple-headed dogs are more popular and more “desirable” (especially if you want more health problems). I take issue with this specific consumer choice due to those associated health issues, but whatever.
As dog breeding continues, issues associated with inbreeding have cropped up. If you choose to get a purebred dog, do your homework. Look up the lineages of the dog you’re considering, and maybe don’t get one descended from the top showdog (for AKC Pomeranians, it’s hard to get away from Prince Charming in your lineage, but I tried to keep greater diversity when I got my dog).
And, every time you pet your friend, remember that someone, thousands of years ago, was brave enough to pet a wolf.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. She has a vicious attack Pomeranian named Hector, who she loves dearly. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.
*If you believe in the young earth theories or disbelieve evolution, I hope this article was interesting to you without being offensive. With or without evolution, it’s clear: dogs were designed to be our friends. 🙂
Creative writing is defined as writing fiction or poetry with imagination and contrasts academic writing. As a creative writer, we imagine our character to gallop over the green pastures or drag his feet in the dry brown desert. To be able to take long firm strides over the mountainous terrains, or glide over the waters like a speed boat.
But that requires an uncluttered mind where we have neatly piled all our emotions just as we stack clean clothes versus the scattered dirty laundry.
That allows a single-pointed mind, and a writer can be in her character’s shoes and capture just the right kind of emotions.
Writing is like housework. For that, the mind should be tidied up just like our bed every morning before we sit down to write. It should be crystal clear for those cells in that organ to create something extraordinary for our character. If we cannot differentiate between fiction and our real-life, we will end up writing a memoir unknowingly, of course.
If our mind is hungover from yesterday’s dialog between a friend or a relative, our plot would unknowingly revolve around that scenario. We have limited ourselves to our environment and missed out on a classic scene, which our mind dared to explore. Due to the circumstances, it wandered around our troubled spots and penned those down instead.
Mind and Intellect can go hand in hand, but the mind ought to first spruce up to listen to the Intellect.
A mind without thoughts is no mind, but to tidy up our thoughts is the key.
But how do we unclutter that damn mind to begin exploring the unexplored?
Unclutter Mentally and Physically
The learned suggest we meditate. Continue to breathe with closed eyes while keeping your mind over your breath. This activity is like rinsing your mind with fresh Oxygen as you continue to breathe, which helps curb the erratic thoughts. Can you imagine how soothing it would be?
The scenario is like the ocean waves crashing on the shore, washing off any footprints left behind by humanity.
Attached is a guided meditation.
Writing down thoughts can help your mind stop churning and begin to release them. An individual can choose to write what pains her since most of the time, people are aware of their foul mood, but don’t know its reason. Journaling helps to work through current challenges, helping one get rid of mental blocks. As a doctor drains a wound, write out all those toxins on paper, and those words will glow in gold once your heart is lighter. So, find a comfortable spot, grab your pen and paper, and get going. Journaling is meant to be a stream of consciousness activity, so you can choose to set a timer or just free flow.
Some prompts that an individual can choose to write is:
“What makes you feel happy?”
“What is hurting, and why?”
“What do you believe in most?”
“Write a letter to your future self?”
“What is your past that still hurts you?”
“List the things you are grateful for?”
Walks amidst nature can help turn your mind outside and help calm the chaos in mind. It’s just like distracting a child who is throwing tantrums. This activity enables an individual to relax as she continues to take deep breaths while she is striding through the open space. Such walks not only help clear the mind but also help burn some calories. On a side note, it gives many ideas even if you choose to call yourself a plotter or a pantser.
Uncluttering is simple; the only thing needed is having the awareness to do so. Once that is in check, one can shape the character or the plot as your creative bugs allow you to do so without anybody’s interference. You are at liberty to either project your characters’ mental growth or take them to a dark place.
I’ve tried all the three methods above and can vouch for it.
As a writer, I write about issues that stalk the human’s mind via tales of fiction, making my readers tag my work as, “Books that make you ponder.”
My contemporary romance novels and short stories have allowed my readers to go to a beautiful place and take home a message. That has helped them ponder their true nature and enjoy my characters’ growth as they endure through the journey that I have created.
My work can be found at www.ruchirakhanna.com
This post comes from Rough Writer Ruchira Khanna
A Biochemist turned writer who gathers inspiration from the society where I write about issues that stalk the mind of the man via tales of fiction.
I blog at Abracabadra which has been featured as “Top Blog” for four years. Many of my write-ups have been published on LifeHack, HubPages to name a few.
I can be found at:
This quote is taken from Good Ideas How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher by Michael Rosen.
The thought of having to assist children’s learning at home can sometimes be overwhelming, but it needn’t be that way. Some of the best learning can take place in the kitchen without any extra equipment or expense. All you have to do is include them in preparing the day’s food. We all have to eat, don’t we?
When you involve children in meal preparation, including choosing the menu, purchasing the ingredients, preparing the food and cleaning up, they are not only learning valuable life skills, they are learning in almost every area of the curriculum.
Children love to cook, and by ‘cook’ I mean the preparation of food whether heat is involved or not. They enjoy sharing the food with their family and friends almost as much as eating it themselves.
Some of the curriculum areas in which you are helping children develop skills while preparing food include:
- Reading — read and follow the recipes for ingredients and method, select the ingredients, read product labels
- Vocabulary development — learn the language of food and cooking and the preciseness of vocabulary such as the difference between dice and chop, shred and slice, boil and steam, bake and roast; understand words such as mix, stir, sift, fold, blend, boil, bake, roast, fry …
- Writing — write a shopping list, or list of ingredients to take from the pantry or refrigerator, write a menu or invitations to the family (how lovely to receive a special invitation slipped under the door), write a recount of an event
- Maths — count e.g. the number of eggs and measure quantities with cups and spoons, count and sort utensils and dinner dishes and cutlery, read and measure times for cooking or preparation, share e.g. the number of cookies or how many slices, measure the size of cooking trays and tins
- Science — observe changes that occur as you mix ingredients or when heat is added or removed, understand that some of the changes that occur are reversible e.g. water to ice and back again; but that some are irreversible e.g. cream to butter, but not back again.
- HASS — learn about the recipes that have been handed down through your family and about recipes that have originated in other countries or traditions
- Music — listen to music as you engage in food preparation, including music from the countries of food you are preparing
- Art — decorate menus and special invitations, photograph dishes made and keep a record of them in a book alongside their recipes
Life skills they may be learning include, but are not limited to:
- The ability to look after oneself.
- Social skills such as cooperation, turn taking, sharing and patience (how long before they’ll be ready?), the etiquette of dining.
- Safety – with knives, peelers, hot implements, and ingredients including hygienic food handling. While it is not suitable for children to use knives or handle hot utensils or heating appliances when young, and only under careful adult supervision when older, if children are included in kitchen tasks from a young age they understand the dangers and respond to them appropriately.
- Understand that unless the steps of a recipe are followed in order the outcome may not be what was expected.
- Organisation and preparation skills: making sure all ingredients and utensils are available and assembled.
One of the fantastic things about food preparation is the opportunity it provides for asking questions: it can be an ongoing edible science experiment, for example:
- Why do the cakes rise?
- What makes the water bubble?
- Why is a cloud coming out of the jug?
- Where does the water go when it boils?
- Why isn’t the egg white white before it’s cooked?
- What would happen if I didn’t put the egg in the cake mixture?
- Why is some sugar brown?
- What the difference between the different types of sugar, flour or milk?
- What happens to cream when it is beaten?
As you have seen, with a little imagination and lots of discussion, any kitchen activity can stimulate a lot of learning.
In the cooking section on readilearn, a website of early childhood teaching resources, you will find the recipe for a crater of the moon cake and some suggestions for associated science learning. These are usually available for minimal cost but, if you are interested in these or any other of the cooking resources, please let me know in the comments and I’ll send you a complimentary copy.
Until next time, have fun learning in the kitchen.
Norah Colvin is a lifelong learner and passionate educator. She believes in the power of education to change lives and is committed to raising awareness of ways to support and enhance learning.
Norah has spent her life learning and thinking about how children learn and how best to support their learning. Her own observations as learner, parent and teacher have enhanced understandings developed in both formal and informal study situations.
She believes strongly in the need for learning to be self-initiated, directed and motivated, and the importance of timely and appropriate support for learners on their individual journeys.
While no longer working with children in a school setting, Norah continues to share her passion for education through writing.
The World War II vet tells of his experiences like they happened yesterday, or maybe last month. The reality, he is 95 and he is reliving days that took place 70 years ago. He explains their daily routine, as soldiers, was so structured that the feelings and memories have never gone away. He is a gentle, caring, slow-moving, refined gentleman, but his stories are of a young, cut-up, often getting reprimanded. I can’t picture the young man, but I can tell you about some of his shenanigans because I’ve known the man for five years. Most likely, I will never grasp the severity of his statement, “On the European front, we were just trying to stay alive and we did what we had to do to make it home.”
The Vietnam Era C-130 pilot explains, those who wore flight suits were a team. If one person failed to do something correctly, the whole team could die in a fiery crash, taking the load of cargo or humans with them. The military flight suit, with name, insignia, and rank was our brand and it was burned into our souls through training and repetition how to act while wearing it. Sometimes taking off or landing on the airstrips we had to use turned into an exercise of cheating death because of weather, location, or gunfire. One doesn’t forget those experiences. After his enlistment was finished he worked for 38 years at Xerox helping to design and bring to life the first digital printers, yet when he is asked what he did for a living he will tell you he was a pilot. That’s the identity he is proud of, that never left him, and has shaped him as a man.
The female Lt. Colonel RN admits she said no when the Air force asked if she was going to reenlist again after serving 23 years. Her dreams had become instant playbacks of twisted bloody bodies and she knew she couldn’t bear another deployment to a war zone. She now stares at her military uniform in the closet wondering who she is without it? No one knows how many young lives she saved or at least tried to. She has no intention of telling her co-workers that during her last military assignment in Afghanistan it was her job to make sure the correct body parts were reverently placed in the body bag with the same name label. When she had worn her uniform people could see her rank, her ribbons that proved accomplishments, and her name. She was a necessary cog in a big wheel. She knew her job, and she did it well. Now in her civilian job, she feels insignificant, invisible, fearful, and uncertain of how to establish her identity as a civilian. She knows it’s time to heal herself but she isn’t sure how to do that.
The above three examples of military identity come from veterans who are close friends of mine. They gave me permission to summarize their identities in my own words. When I asked them to explain why some vets walk around wearing parts of their old uniforms or other clothing identifying them as a veteran the answer was because it shows who their brotherhood is. It gives the vet a sense of still belonging in the big wheel and allows others to strike up the common conversation of, which branch, where and when did you serve. The question of what did you do is shied away from, especially during wartime. No one wants to admit what they had to do on the front lines. Sometimes the uniform stays visible because the body has left the armed forces but the psyche has not.
Families are directly affected by their member’s identity on many different levels. Some because of accomplishments, reprimands, security clearances, ongoing health and/or emotional problems, and even death benefits. I went to a quilting retreat a few years ago and overheard our guest teacher being asked if she had been able to travel without her security detail. My ears perked up. She answered, as she drove out of D.C. her tail car turned back. What? Turns out she was married to one of the members of the White House Chiefs of Staff and a security detail was part of her life. I’m not sure I’d enjoy that. I recently learned that my desire to move often may be called “self-deploying” because as a military wife I moved almost yearly, if not to another base, to another residence because of my husband’s advancement in rank or because of another child being born. The military life is a transient one. I’m one of the people that enjoyed it.
Have you been the person with a military identity or an identity from any other job that had a major impact on your life? Did you find it took a while to grow away from it once you were no longer involved in that job? Were you able to take the attributes and apply them elsewhere, or did you miss the routine you were used to and still long for the familiar? Please share any thoughts in the comments section.
Sue Spitulnik is an ex-Air Force wife who stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly you can do so at her blog, susansleggs.com
Write about what you know.
My initial knee jerk, gut reaction, to that statement was, “No one would be interested in the things that I know.” Followed by, “I can’t write about some of that stuff! People wouldn’t believe half of it.”
Needless to say, I got past my inner voice with guidance from previous generations, melded with my own experiences and input. I have found writing about what I know is quite enjoyable, even with the hurdles that presented themselves along the way.
I have come across many bumps, frost heaves, and closed gates touring the trails of the four genres that I write in. Yet, the passion to share, and more importantly, preserve the knowledge, pushed me through the shin-tangle, and diversity was born.
Choosing to write in more than one genre occasionally causes me consternation. I think this comes from words pummelled into our brain from those who don’t know us, or what we are capable of. “Find one genre, stick to it, write it well, no cross-contamination, and defiantly no trying to make a name for yourself using more than one genre.”
Unfortunately, we tend to head these words until we, or perhaps I should say I, finally resolved what works for me. I am not saying it is or isn’t good advice, but these comments proved to be nothing but a frustrating, brick wall challenge for me. Had I allowed myself to adhere to the guidelines of staying in one genre, I might not have bothered to venture as far as I have, into the modern-day literary world.
There is an old saying that goes something like this, ‘Open the gate and let the horses out if you want to see how they will really perform.’ Well, that about describes me and my creativity to a tee. It took me quite a while to settle within the niche that let me run free with my writing. The realization it was okay to ignore the genre rules made less of an obstacle for me to pen my thoughts. I could now write about everything I love, embrace, and am passionate about. I knew all I needed to do was stay true to my brand—something that came easy to me because of my upbringing in ranching country.
While the genre argument was happening in my brain, another mud hole opened up in the road to being published. Notoriety using name identification was certainly not going to happen for me when over thirteen million results of my name, Ann Robson, appear on a search engine.
I sat looking at a list of books I thought I would write—cookbooks, a collection of my (very) early works, several books to include pictures I had taken, and let’s not forget fiction with some poetry and children’s books thrown in for good measure. How could I write about these varying topics using my plain Jane name? I knew if I was to become remotely successful, garnering a reader following would not be easy; yet somehow, I didn’t care.
And that’s when the light came on! While I made a list of my first, middle, and last names in as many scenarios as I could think of, the answer became clear. I merely switched out my middle initial/name for my maiden name that starts with the same letter. It made me giddy to think I would include some very important family history in my author’s name. My name was now unique and completely me. The dilemma was over, Ann Edall-Robson would do quite nicely.
In retrospect, it hasn’t been that long that I have come to terms with the fact that it is okay to write in several genres under the same name. To heck with what ‘they’ say about what I should and shouldn’t be doing. Again, I didn’t care, and it made my job easy—each piece of my published work must somehow intertwine with my brand.
After eight books in four different genres and more than five decades of various types of writing under my belt, I still walk the trail of uncertainty when I come up with a new book idea and where it might fit in. As a writer, I think it is a good thing that I remove complacency with a jolt of what-if questions before I start a new project, it keeps me focused on what I believe in.
If you are new to this game of writing, my suggestion would be to just write and write lots. Try to write something every day, and don’t stop to edit, just write. After a while, and you get to choose how long, read out loud all of your work in the order you wrote it. You should see a pattern forming. You should see what you are comfortable writing about. Ultimately you might find the genre(s) you are best suited for; and, hopefully, you will get a glimpse at a writing voice growing through your written words.
For those who have always written in one genre, maybe now’s the time to dust off those pieces you have squirrelled away. You know, the ones you didn’t think fit within your current genre. You have already tasted the wide-open spaces, so why not open the gate to a different pasture and explore your options.
Whether you are an old hand at writing, or a greenhorn, taking the plunge through the gate to write in more than one genre should not be taken lightly. Do your homework. You need to find a common ground in these genres you are about to embark on. A commonality that may need to be justified, or explained to others. Try to remember, your name is not that common ground, but your brand should be.
Do you write in more than one genre? Do you use more than one pen name? Is either of these something you have thought about doing but have some trepidation about opening that gate?
I rely on my heritage to keep me grounded. Reminding me of where I come from. Gifting me with snippets of past life and lives. Providing fuel to include in the writing I do about the lifestyle I see slipping from my grasp, from the world.
The taking pictures thing started forever ago, and when I found I could marry them to the material I have written, and am writing, well, to put it mildly, I think I have a bit of a runaway going on.
I am a lover of life and all things that make us smile. I write and take pictures for the pleasure of being able to share at Morning Muse, HorseWest, and my Blog at AnnEdallRobson.com where you can also contact me.
In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
When World War 2 ended, most soldiers returned home. Europe at that point was a chaotic caldron of refugees and defeated as well as occupying forces. Most of the refugees were innocent victims dispossessed from their various homelands. Cities had been devastated, many bombed into oblivion. The countryside had not been spared and much good growing soil had been razed by the pointlessness of war, the fields of blood, and the endless battles.
While there are many films that speak about life after the war, including two personal favourites, the multi Academy Award winning The Best Years of Our Lives and a somewhat similar albeit lesser known film, Till The End of Time, a gem actually released before its cinematic doppelganger, both which follow a set of vets reintegrating into a peacetime America, there were other films that offered a glimpse into something darker, something much more sinister.
In this column, I want to take a peek at two stark little film noirs. Each offers a deep dive into the shadowy world of fugitive war criminals, villains who, of necessity, need to leave their old lives behind and assume a brand-new identity. The two films are the Edward Dmytryk directed 1945 thriller, Cornered, and Orson Welles’ 1946 suspense mystery, The Stranger.
The Costs of War: Prices Paid, Debts Owed
Wars end. Usually. Past lives finish. One horror is over; recovery, the attempt to return to a semblance of normal, begins. So many millions of people dead. By one estimate, 70-85 million souls perished in WW 2. Of the living, many millions, up to 11,000,000, are on the move, homeless, lost.
But there were others, hundreds certainly, perhaps thousands, who were war criminals. They too had been uprooted, compelled to go on the run.
Cornered and The Stranger take a slightly different point of view to unearth, or, more accurately, run to ground war criminals in the aftermath. I have always been drawn to films that get to the heart of recovery from disaster. The social order, once firm and fathomable, has forever changed. No doubt the war caused much disruption but adjustments were made, sacrifices given, losses mounted, and always the prayer that it would it eventually conclude. And then, it did. First in Europe, then in the East.
One Canadian celebration
There are also iconic images that capture the mood of war ending and sharing it with the world. This Alfred Eisenstaedt image below is beloved around the world. But it was not all parades and puckering.
Cornered has a heavy-going introduction. Hindered by a bureaucracy that won’t let him return to France in a timely manner to find his young wife’s grave and, possibly, a measure of revenge, the protagonist, Laurence Gerard, rows across the English Channel, scuttles his rowboat, seeks old compatriots in the ruins of France, snarling frequently as he launches his long journey to justice.
Gerard’s quarry is Marcel Jarnac, a Vichy collaborator, a mass-murdering war criminal. Allegedly dead. One of those convenient deaths where some grave doubts about the authenticity of his expiration date exists. In any case, Gerard assumes Jarnac is still alive, journeys to Marseille, then to Berne, and then, as a reward for his superior sleuthing wiles, travels to Buenos Aires. There, seemingly by happenstance, he is approached by travel guide, Melchior Incza. Is he just a guide or something more sinister?
Incza, deliciously, sleazily played by the great character actor, Walter Slezak, worms his way into Gerard’s, if not confidence, then into his orbit.
Incza conveniently drops the name, “Jarnac”. This leads the duo to a hoity toity Buenos Aires soiree where the dangers are both viscerally noirish and not a little sultry.
“A fine party. A fine party, I promise you,” waxes the salivating Incze. “Few people have the talent anymore. My friend, Herman Goering had it, for one. Before the war, of course. Ah, those were parties.”
Girard, played by former song and dance man, Dick Powell, is not a pleasant man, even though he is Canadian. As a Canadian, I find that mildly refreshing. A number of reviews of the film note the darkness that surrounds Powell’s interpretation. He is a post-war poster boy, angry, driven, obsessed with revenge. Powell’s previous film is one of the great noirs, Edward Dmytryk’s, Murder My Sweet. In that film, Powell, playing hard-boiled detective Phillip Marlowe, in a film based on Raymond Chandler’s, Farewell My Lovely, made great strides in proving he had dramatic chops and had outgrown a decade and a half of musical comedy. In fact, the producers changed the title from Farewell My Lovely to Murder My Sweet because the book title sounded too much like a romantic comedy.
Welles, The Stranger, begins with a shot of a door opening. There is a sign. Allied War Crimes Commission Dept. 12.
The scene is set. The film, shot sometime late in 1945, is the first to seriously address the evil of concentration camps. Clearly it was as topical as film could be.
The next few scenes get us caught up in the chase. The world is the canvas. The mood of the hunt is as visually ferocious as we saw in Cornered.
Where will we land, we wonder?
After such a noirish journey, we are suddenly thrust into a bright, sunny Connecticut college town. Harper. A bus pulls up and two gentlemen exit. There are numerous suspicious glances. The hunter and the bait. This we know. Inside the local coffee shop/news counter, a brace of locals is positioned.
The hunter, Edward G. Robinson, our Mr. Wilson, busies himself with chitchat. The Bait goes to a telephone. Next to the phone, a hand-written sign implores, “Gentlemen Do not Deface Walls! Use Pad.” A call is made. We immediately understand who the quarry is. Unlike Cornered, where Jarnac is a wisp, an inkling, almost a ghost, Franz Kindler, the quarry in The Stranger, is almost immediately revealed. He is none other than a respected university professor, Charles Rankin. To top it off, on the day our hunter and bait arrive in this most tranquil of academic communities, the Nazi, and not just any Nazi, but an architect of mass-extermination, is about to marry the daughter of a respected Judge. At one point, the Nazi cat is out of the bag though it takes Mr. Wilson a few hours to reach the correct conclusion. In the middle of the night he recalls the point made by Rankin: “Who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew.”
What follows is a grotesque dance of deception, discovery, death, and dénouement. In other words, fairly common noir results.
The Stranger is a most unsettling film. There is even a film within the film. At one point, Mr. Wilson shows excerpts from the 1945 US War Department documentary, Death Mills. The short bits shown by Wilson are difficult to watch. Even as he shows the film to Loretta Young, playing a bride who is very slow to accept that she has married evil personified, one has to be concerned about the effect on the viewer. I’ve provided the link to the 21 minute doc but be warned.
A concluding thought:
By most measures of longevity, any Nazi war criminals still not accounted for are probably not amongst the living. A few do pop up cinematically, most frequently as zombies in film of that genre although they do resurface, like JAWS, in more mainstream films. (*See my seriously, actual last thought comment).
One of them, Helmut Oberlander, is still in Canada. Oberlander has been ordered deported but apparently the ravages of time are saving him from that order being acted upon.
Another concluding thought:
John Demjanjuk: On a personal note (more of a personal awareness note, I suppose) I became fairly aware of the secret lives of Nazi war criminals all through the 1980’s and 1990’s when the Demjanjuk case occupied a huge slice of the news.
Demjanjuk’s journey to justice, to finally pay his unpayable debt to countess victims, was epic. It literally took decades and even then, he was permitted to spend his final year of life in a nursing home. However, it was not in America where he had lived and prospered for decades. Rather his final year was spent in Germany where he waited, and finally met, the grim reaper.
Valerian Trifa: As I wrote this post, I encountered the name of a war criminal new to me. There are of course many I know nothing about. Trifa, as a younger man, was a propagandist whose words led/assisted in a murderous pogrom against over one hundred Jews. Trifa became a cleric in the Romanian Orthodox Church and after the war, immigrated to the States where, in time, he became Archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Church in America and Canada. His is a complex story and I’ll leave a link.
Bruno Dey: The day after I completed the post (I thought) it was announced that Bruno Dey, a teenage guard at the Stutthof Concentration Camp had been found guilty of 5232 counts of accessory to murder and one count of accessory to attempted murder. Because of his age at the time he committed the crime, his trial was held in juvenile court in Hamburg. His sentence: two years suspended.
The article mentions a trial for a second guard at Stutthof is in the works.
*Seriously, the actual last thought:
In 1978, Ira Levin’s imaginative novel, The Boys from Brazil, was released in film form. Gregory Peck, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and James Mason starred. Peck won the questionably dubious role of Joseph Mengele.
Though the film is more flavoured with the horrors of eugenic science possibilities and is definitely not noir, I mention it to reflect on how, in the 1970’s, Nazi villains were still alive and kicking. Cinematically, at any rate.
A more noirish film from the seventies’ is 1974’s The Odessa File. Based on a great thriller from Frederick Forsyth, we bear witness to a Third Reich that never gave up, never accepted defeat and that clearly, in 1963, where the film begins just as the world is learning about the assassination of JFK, is planning a comeback.
Fact of fiction, it is a heck of a movie.
Whether post war noir or seventies blockbuster, films that remind us about the capacity of man to commit horrendous acts of evil serve to give us a constant heads up to our responsibility to call out that evil. I think both The Stranger and Cornered represent an earlier post war effort to do that. They certainly are worth a look.
I have provided a you tube link to the full version of The Stranger but only a trailer link to Cornered.
About Bill Engleson:
I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.
I write flash fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews and have two larger projects including my first novel’s prequel, Drawn Towards the Sun
My website/blog is www.engleson.ca
Diversity is the hallmark of the Ranch, with an international group of writers bringing our unique perspectives to the weekly flash fiction prompt. But what about diversity in our reading?
There is some evidence that reading diverse benefits our brains, and, if language affects thought, there can’t be a better way of accessing a mindset different to one’s own than reading novels in translation. Unfortunately, far less fiction is translated into English than from English, with the former comprising under 3% of the translation market. Furthermore, only about a quarter of literature translated into English is written by women; thankfully August’s Women in Translation Month, can help us get our hands on those rare gems.
Following on from my guest post in April on facing, fleeing or forgetting the virus through fiction, and June’s post on sleep, pandemics, healthcare and political satire, may I offer you some recommendations of novels by female authors translated into English (and/or American)? As physical international travel remains difficult, it’s a great way of virtually visiting other countries. If any of these novels seem promising, clicking on the link will take you to a longer review on my blog.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Keiko has worked in a convenience store since it opened, eighteen years before. That’s half her life. Considered odd since early childhood – although she perceives herself as logical and accommodating – she seems to have found her niche. The beep of the tills is soothing and the rigid phrases with which she’s been trained to greet the customers removes all the messy uncertainties from social interaction. The management injunction to maintain her mind and body in a fit state to do the job ensures that she eats properly and gets enough sleep. Unfortunately, Keiko is about to be pushed out of her comfort zone.
If you relish the zany, be sure to grab a copy of this novella about the pressures to conform to societal norms of female identity, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Portobello Books.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors
Sonja is learning to drive, but her first teacher won’t allow her to change gear and her second covers her hand on the gear stick with his. Now in her 40s, Sonja moved from rural Jutland to Copenhagen as a student, but now feels lonely, unable to reconnect with her sister and nostalgic for the dramatic landscapes of her childhood. It’s perhaps no coincidence that she finds herself better at reversing than driving forward, but can she embrace the future without backtracking on life?
With a perfect balance of poignancy and humour this, in Misha Hoekstra’s translation from Danish, is another lovely story about navigating contemporary life as a single woman, published by Pushkin Press.
The Unit by Ninni Holnqvist
Dorrit isn’t needed. With no dependents, no long-term cohabiting relationships and a patchy employment record, she’s never been needed. Relishing the freedom to please herself and having ample thinking space for her writing, she was fine with that. Until her fiftieth birthday loomed. Not because she was afraid of ageing but because at that point she’d be decreed dispensable and obliged to relocate to a community of similarly economically worthless men and women …
This dystopian novel, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy and published by Oneworld Publications, explores whether lives can be sacrificed for the greater good.
Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Eitan Green, a promising neurosurgeon, has relocated with his wife and two young sons from Tel Aviv to the culturally and geologically dusty city of Beersheba. One night, after an exhausting shift at the hospital, he knocks someone down in the desert. Seeing that the man, a migrant from Eritrea, is beyond help, Eitan drives off. He is still battling his guilt when the victim’s widow knocks at his door. There’s a price for Sirkit’s silence, to be paid not in money, but in sleepless nights running a makeshift hospital for illegal immigrants, which will risk his health, his marriage, his official job and, eventually, his life.
This engaging novel about the lengths to which we go to evade our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings is translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published by Pushkin Press.
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
At four and a half, the child is blissfully content in the Paris apartment she shares with her mother. The war means little to her and, while her grandmother disapproves of her freedom, her mother always takes her side. The only cloud in her blue-sky world is the lie told by the two older women when they insisted she’d imagined the baby sister presented to her mother in a Normandy hospital. Now the war is coming to an end and the father she’s never met will be returning home. The child is unable to share her mother’s excitement. All too quickly, this stranger has taken over the apartment. His standards are exacting, his rage when they are not met terrifying.
This poignant story of lost innocence, and of the casual mistreatment of children, is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and published by Peirene Press.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen
Cousins Roland and Edgar have grown up together, although they’ve never seen eye to eye. But they find their paths crossing as they hide out in the forest of their native Estonia, on the run from the Red Army. When the Nazis drive out the Communists, Roland goes deeper into hiding, while Edgar reinvents himself with a new name, and a post in the new regime. Edgar’s wife Juudit finds the love that he has never been able to give her in the arms of Helmuth, an officer in the German army. Roland realises he can use her to help members of the resistance escape to safety …
Moving back and forth between the early 1940s and 1960s, this complex novel, translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers and published by Atlantic Books, examines the near-impossibility of living a moral life under occupation by forces at both extremes of the political spectrum.
Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Lonely, and sick of life, forty-nine-year-old Jónas decides to end it all. Considering it far too messy to kill himself at home, he buys a one-way ticket to an erstwhile tourist destination, recently ravaged by civil war. But he can’t hold himself aloof from the horrors: a traumatised child; the assumption that everyone still alive has killed someone; rape as a tool of war. Then there are the opportunist entrepreneurs who perceive the chaos as potential profit, like the unpleasant man in the room a few doors down. Will Jónas rethink his decision?
Despite the painful topic, the tone is light: a quirky upbeat story of a handyman who takes his toolbox and thoughts of suicide to a troubled country, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon and published by Pushkin Press.
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
Under a bridge in Leibniz, East Germany, alongside the canal that has been part of her life since childhood, Gabriela writes her autobiography on stolen scraps of paper in the pauses between her daily struggles to find warmth and food. The only child of a top vascular surgeon and a popular society hostess, Gabriela’s early years are characterised by loneliness, obsession and the confusing contradictions of the State. As the years go by, her story is defined by a series of disappearances, unexplained to her but likely to result from the individual’s unpopularity with the Communist regime, such that, in the end, she can’t be sure she hasn’t been disappeared herself.
Translated from German by Jen Calleja, and published by Peirene Press, this is another cheerful novella about a cheerless subject: a woman who identifies as a writer and poet whose homelessness challenges the Communist ideal.
The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg
Raped by her father since the age of seven, and witnessing her mother’s chaotic dependence, it’s perhaps not surprising Valerie Solanas dreams of a world without men. Leaving home with the typewriter she got for her fifteenth birthday, she finds a soulmate in a male prostitute she befriends on a campsite, but only she has the wherewithal to get to college. Then it’s on to grad school to study psychology, which seems to consist of tinkering with the physiology of mice. It’s here, along with her lover, Cosmogirl, that the seeds of the SCUM Manifesto – a radical feminist thesis which is both satirical and deadly serious – are sown.
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by Maclehose Press, this is a literary fantasy derived from the life and work of Valerie Solanas, radical feminist and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.
The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
Although now an adult, Johanne is still preparing for life to begin. Sharing a cramped Oslo apartment with her mother, she’s studying hard at the university, dreaming of, and saving for, her future as a clinical psychologist in an idyllic woodland setting. While the mother-daughter relationship is enmeshed, the pair spending their leisure time together, they have separate lives during the weekday 9-to-5. The mother also has a lover – albeit one who is unlikely to leave his wife and family – but the relationship sours when Johanne acquires a lover too.
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin and published by Peirene Press in 2014, this is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s sexual awakening conflicting with her desire to please and protect her mother.
The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada
It’s ten years since Reverend Pearson abandoned his wife and her suitcase by the side of the road, and he’s been travelling with his teenage daughter, Leni, across northern Argentina ever since. When their car breaks down miles out of town, he trusts that God, through the mechanic, Gringo Brauer, will put it right. While he waits, he tries a spot of evangelising with the mechanic’s assistant, Tapioca. At sixteen, the boy is the same age as Leni, and also without a mother, having been left at the isolated garage half his lifetime ago. Brauer has treated him well enough, although, given he could already read and write, saw no need to send him to school, or church.
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and published by Charco Press, this is about the unexpected intimacy forced upon four lonely people – two motherless teenagers, an evangelical preacher and a cynical mechanic – when a car breaks down in the pause before a storm in rural Argentina.
Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette
Life’s hard for sheep and cattle farmers on the bleak Patagonian steppe, but it’s rendered yet harsher for four boys brought up on a ruined estancia without love. Especially for Rafael, born after their father’s departure, and relentlessly bullied by his big brothers from almost the moment he emerged from the womb. Raised on thrashings herself, the mother turns a blind eye to the child’s maltreatment and pins the blame on him when he staggers home, dirty, scratched and bruised. When the mother gambles one of the boys in a poker game, it seems that things can’t get any worse. But it could be that leaving the homestead is exactly what he needs. Although it might be too sentimental to expect an altogether happy ending, this is nevertheless an uplifting story of endurance and survival against the odds.
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson this is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.
Sorry I’ve got a bit carried away here! So many great books! And all of them read before August 2019. If you’d like to know about the women in translation I’ve been reading since then (18 novels at the time of writing), come and visit my blog towards the end of next month.
I hope you’ve found something here to whet your appetite and do use the comments to add recommendations of your own. If you want advice on finding a novel on a particular theme or in a specific location, just ask. If I can’t help you, someone else probably can.
In my next slot at the Ranch:
September 22: Fictional therapists (because I reckon half the world will be having therapy and the other half delivering it after this)
This post comes from Rough Writer Anne Goodwin
Anne Goodwin posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal, with around ten novel reviews a month. A former clinical psychologist, she’s also the author of two novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill. Her second novel, about a man who keeps a woman locked up down in a cellar is another potential lockdown read.
Subscribe to Anne’s newsletter for a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.
When Americans like me think of famous female rulers, we tend to imagine the queens of England: either of the Elizabeths, perhaps Victoria. Elizabeth I, especially, holds a place in people’s hearts because of her speech to the soldiers when facing the Spanish Armada.
Of similar hardcoreness, though for very different reasons, is a female monarch from a world and a millennia away: Wu Zetian (武则天) (or other names such as Wu Hou, depending on what time period of her life you’re talking about). Empress Wu was the only female ruler of China in the recorded 3000 years of its dynasties, from the first Emporer Qin to Emperor Puyi. Sure, some women were powers behind the throne and used puppet Emporers to perform their schemes, but Wu was the only one to do it outright.
And, if the non-contemporary tales about her are to be believed, she did it with a trail of blood. Writers said she killed her infant daughter in a ploy to gain leverage over the previous empress and have her executed. They claimed she poisoned people, some of them her own family members, and had many people executed in order to have her way. By a combination of scheming, murder, and religion, Wu Zetian took the throne for herself.
That trail of blood story, however, is a little strange. Some scholars, as mentioned in this Smithsonian article, mention the suspiciously similar tales between Wu Zetian’s rise to the throne and what a genuinely horrible woman did many years earlier. There are no contemporary records of the murders, but no one can say whether it was because Wu had them all destroyed or (my personal opinion) they were fabricated later.
Why make up these lies, though? After Wu Zetian’s son, the “true heir” as son of the last male emperor, rose to the throne, it became important for him to quash chances of rebellion. In order to prevent rebellion, emperors and their bureaucrats would need to malign any usurpers, of which Wu Zetian obviously was one.
Not only that, but life in China’s royal courts was already volatile at best. With empresses, concubines, eunuchs, brothers, uncles, and other schemers skulking about, the emperor had to be vigilant. Backstabbing was the norm, and executions to stay in power or gain power were commonplace. Emperors not only quashed rebellion by stifling positive memories of Wu Zetian, they reduced the chances of women “stealing” power from the man they considered the rightful ruler.
Whether for good or ill, recent interest in Wu Zetian has prompted research into her reign and a new look at who she was and what she accomplished. These efforts, of course, are told through a modern lens and can see Wu Zetian without the lens of monarchical maintenance getting in the way. One of her most lasting contributions was her establishment of China’s famous meritocracy, wherein especially talented people – even those not of the noble class – could take an examination and rise high within the power structure. This test, or at least one similar to it, was used to recruit bureaucrats and ministers until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912.
Wu Zetian peacefully (on a large scale if not on the small, imperial family scale) held together a huge nation, passed policies to increase agricultural output, and contributed to the arts by commissioning works such as biographies of famous women and books of poetry. It is possible that these biographies and poetry were intended to compliment her order that children lament the deaths of their mothers just as they lament the deaths of their fathers. While it could be seen as a move against sexism, others have seen these efforts as ways to legitimize her reign, since women were considered deontologically incapable of reign prior to her.
It’s quite possible we’ll never be able to really know whether or not Wu Zetian floated to the throne on a veritable river of blood, or if she used her pen and quick wit to get there. The records of her time period are plentiful enough that she couldn’t be erased, but sparse enough that exactitude cannot be expected. In all likelihood, it was a combination of the two. However it happened, Wu Zetian has something on that aforementioned Queen Elizabeth I: she didn’t just fall into power on accident.
She owned it.
For more information, there are several articles available online. Here’s a few free-to-access articles I found interesting and on semi-trustworthy sites.
Smithsonian Article – Caution: this site has a ton of pics, so it loads SLOW
BBC Article – Short, but interesting
China Culture – A random site out there, but it fits a lot of what I already know about Wu Zetian
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, H’s greatest passions are writing and history. 她也正在学习中文. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.