December 2007

Adrienne Kress, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (Weinstein Books, 2007)

I had thought that, unlike librarians, local history folks didn’t have any real stereotypes to combat, that we suffered from obscurity rather than an image problem.  But here comes Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, a swashbuckling middle-grade fantasy, to prove me wrong.  Shushing is nothing to the fear that you’re going to kidnap people and make them give you foot massages.

Alex lives above her uncle’s doorknob shop and attends the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy.  But trouble arrives in the form of thugs searching for her beloved sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Underwood, who is actually the heir to the fortune of the Infamous Pirate Wigpowder.  The treasure map is hidden in the historic Steele mansion, administered by the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society, a group of brilliantly-named malevolent museum ladies.  They capture Alex when she crosses the red rope into an off-limits section of the mansion.

You know those doors in public places that read Staff Only or Restricted, Authorized Personnel Only?  Well, I’ve always imagined that behind those doors are Joys Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings…So despite feeling slightly anxious as to what was going to happen to her, Alex couldn’t help being kind of excited…

She needn’t have been.

The mansion has a “horrible, musty smell” and the Daughters (only five of them, true to life in that at least) have yellowing dentures, wheeze, laugh witchily, drink the wine from the historic wine cellars, manhandle Alex and force her to serve wine and give them foot massages (their feet are disgusting), and are generally caricatures of disgusting old ladies.  They do bully the pirates, though.

The book is a charming picaresque, though the world is not extremely coherent, with movie-star cephalopods, a kind refrigerator, an suspiciously endless party on a train, a bar called The Gangrene run by a dentists’ daughter, and of course, the titular pirate ship, the Ironic Gentleman, all co-existing in the story.  The narration has a Lemony Snicket tone to it. Through her entire journey, Alex is pursued by the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society, who, though irredeemably evil, show themselves to be resourceful, indefatigable and dogged in their desire to make Alex pay for crossing the red velvet rope (and get the treasure for themselves).  But despite the various murders, tortures, and daring escapes, the book wasn’t super emotionally compelling (Alex is a bit of a Mary Sue)—except, of course, if you work in a historic house museum, in which case you’ll be filled with crusading desire to prove to the world that local history folks can be under eighty and a force for good in the world.


In an excellent article last week in the Star Tribune, Nick Coleman discusses how the state sesquicentennial must encompass commemorations of the Dakota War.

This brutal war lasted five months in 1862 and was part of the conquest of the Minnesota River Valley. The war ended with the largest mass lynching in US history, when 38 Dakota men were hanged as war criminals, on December 26, 1862. (A few placesto start.) We in the history of medicine are implicated too: many of the bodies from the war’s massacres and from the mass execution were dug up for anatomical study, some by William Mayo.

And as we prepare for next year’s 150th anniversary of statehood, we should remember history is a living and often painful thing.

Minnesota was baptized in blood, and reminders are scattered across a vast landscape: A monument in a cornfield that marks the spot of a small settlement whose settlers — all of them — were surprised and killed on the first day of the war. A marker in a woods where more than 1,000 Indian women and children were imprisoned in a pen. A barren place on the Missouri River where hundreds died of starvation and disease after being “deported” by a new state that exiled the people whose language gave the state its name.

At the time of our Centennial in 1958, the story was reduced to Manifest Destiny skits about brave pioneers and wild Indians. Fifty years on, how do we talk like grown-ups about the war that made Minnesota at the same time we are celebrating the Eelpout Festival?

Anniversaries are the bread and butter of local history–a good publicity hook, a useful theme for an exhibit, and an easy fit for a kind of historical practice based on timelines. We’re coming up to 150 years since the Dakota War. I remember Tim Glines suggesting last spring that as well as the state sesquicentennial, the next thing local historians and the public would have to think about, tackle, engage with would be the war. As Coleman suggests, we can’t wait.

Today and tomorrow, every public library in the Twin Cities metro is closed (and public librarians deserve a break!), so I thought I’d give you all something to read while you wait.  Theme:  all new!

There’s a new online history and philosophy of science journal with an excellent title, Spontaneous Generations (which would also make a good band name), published by grad students at the University of Toronto.  The first issue looks heavy on the philosophy side, and also has Sage Ross talking about Wikipedia.  I admire his ability to get published talking about HST and Wikipedia in every possible forum.
The Chemical Heritage Foundation has a new podcast, also with an excellent name.  Distillations: Extracts from the Past, Present, and Future of Chemistry covers contemporary scientific issues, with a focus on the history of chemistry.

Nina Simon announced that the Tech Museum in San Jose has launched their Virtual Museum Workshop.  This would be a great opportunity to play in Second Life.

The Tech Virtual is a project that allows people to conceptualize and prototype exhibits online. The online platform has two parts: a website, where all projects originate, and a Second Life presence (“The Tech” in Second Life), where participants can communicate in real-time, share ideas, and build virtual prototypes. All participation is under a Creative Commons attribution license, which means that all ideas are available for use by anyone with no financial obligation–only an obligation to credit the originators of said ideas.

For The Tech, this is a new way to conceptualize exhibits. We don’t have traditional designer/developers on staff; instead, we have a team facilitating this process and liaising between project participants and fabrication staff to develop these virtual ideas into physical reality. To that end, there’s an added incentive for this pilot stage (through June 2008): $5000 to any exhibit concept deemed spectacular enough to develop into a real exhibit here at The Tech. To be eligible for the prize, your exhibit must be on the theme of “Art, Film, Music & Technology.”

Metadata 4ever!:  A new list of metadata events.  Collect them all!  (via hanging together)

History Nexus is like digg for history articles and places on the web.  For some reason, the tags are divided into these categories: “England and Wales,” “Scotland,” “Ireland” and “Rest of the World.”  And they say Americans are parochial!  (via found history)

Happy holidays to all.  I’m going to go read the new Kiki Strike.

I just sent a (mostly) full draft to my advisor, including the monstrous chapter 1, which I just finished wrestling into shape!  Hurrah!

Last night I went to a fascinating talk by Mark Dimunation, head of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress, on his project on the reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s library. Dimunation, a Minnesotan and St. Olaf grad, spoke at a well-attended program of the Friends of the U of M Libraries (at which I was the youngest person in the audience, natch).

When the British burned Washington City in 1814 (as revenge for the earlier American sack of Toronto), they destroyed every public building in town, including the fledgling 3000 volume congressional library. The next year, Thomas Jefferson, owner of the largest book collection in North America at the time, offered to sell his collection to the nation: thus was born the Library of Congress. Jefferson had some 6500 books on almost every conceivable topic, an e universalist library, organized bibliographically by Jefferson along Encyclopedian lines of Memory, Reason and Imagination, which he took to mean History, Philosophy and Fine Arts.  There was dissension on the floor of Congress about buying Jefferson’s library, given its high proportion of “immoral” (aka French) books, but it was finally sold and drawn by carriage to Washington in carriages taking two different routes, in case of robbery.  Unfortunately, the library building burned down thirty years later, destroying two-thirds of the library.  Dimunation’s project was to reconstruct Jefferson’s library.  Some three hundred books still elude the LoC, including a 12-page Italian pamphlet on growing pomegranate trees, but the bulk of the collection is on display at the LoC in a circular arrangement of bookshelves, the whole of knowledge surrounding the reader.  Dimunation told other stories about the RBSC’s amazing collections–a great program!

Suzanne Harper, The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney

Wendy Corsi Staub, Lily Dale: Awakening

Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that talks to the Dead

Lily Dale, a small town in Western New York, is possibly the last remaining spiritualist outpost–not (necessarily) New Age-y spiritualist, but practitioners of Swedenborgian spirtualist religion like it was 1879, which was, in fact, when the town was founded. Two young adult novels set in Lily Dale just recently came out, and while there has been a resurgence of YA supernatural fiction in the last few years (Twilight, etc.), two books set in a small town near Buffalo seemed like more than coincidence. After reading Suzanne Harper’s charming Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney (as well as Rob McDougall’s recent posts on spiritualism), I set out to read all the recent books on Lily Dale.

Sparrow Delaney has a problem. She lives in Lily Dale, and her mom, grandma, and all six sisters are mediums, and they want her to be one too. As the seventh child, she’s supposed to have special gifts, but she hates the attention and she doesn’t tell them that she sees and talks to ghosts all the time–and they’re extremely irritating. They won’t stop talking to her and asking her to do trivial, boring things for them, like tell someone’s granddaughter she’s putting too much garlic in the soup! Sparrow is starting at a new school where no one knows she’s from “Spookyville” and she wants to pass as a ‘normal teenager,’ but one spirit proves unexpectedly persistent and involves her in the life of a boy at the new school. I won’t run the down the plot, but Sparrow ends up accepting her gifts, learning to be true to herself, finding happiness and so on, and there will hopefully be a sequel. Lily Dale in this book is like the Delaney family’s ramshackle Victorian, sprawling, charming, a little chaotic, filled with people and spirits who may be persistent or inconvenient, but they’re family. Harper also gets points for putting a funny set piece in the local history museum, which is filled with old spirit trumpets and spirit photography. Sparrow Delaney comes closest to how I think of spiritualism in the nineteenth century, full of earnest enthusiasm.

Lily Dale: Awakening is a pretty straightforward teen horror story. Calla Delaney (I don’t know how she got the same last name as Sparrow) grew up in Florida, but when her mother dies unexpectedly and horribly she is sent up to Lily Dale to stay with her grandmother, who she barely knows, who turns out to be a medium. There are various waverings about whether or not ghosts exist, whether Calla is going crazy or not, and then she ends up saving the day but putting herself in danger. There are various teenager things included, such as going to WalMart and worrying about how to get email access. It reminded me of Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You? books, plot-driven scary paranormal mysteries. Lily Dale in LD:A is more modern than in Sparrow Delaney, like a contemporary small town.

The only non-fiction I’ve found on Lily Dale is the religion journalist Christine Wicker’s Lily Dale: the Town that Speaks to the Dead, which is very interesting as a book about how Lily Dale has changed through the years as well as as a memoir of Wicker’s time there. Now as in the late nineteenth century, during the summer season the town is filled with visitors, seekers after all sorts of things. Wicker explores spiritualism as a religion, as its residents and founders described it, rather than as a cultural popular science movement, as I’ve always considered it. Recommended for the stories, the journalistic style, and the depth of Wicker’s research (though she starts the story with the Fox sisters, rather than in Europe). You can still visit Lily Dale to see a medium, attend a “message service,” or, as I might do, visit their library and museum, which has excellent collections around spiritualism, metaphysics, and local history, including suffrage and pacifist history. I’m still on a mission to put marginalized stuff, “pseudoscience,” “quackery” and so on, back into the history of science and medicine: historians should pay attention to Lily Dale.