Stopping to Give Thanks

by pamela on November 25, 2014

Best wishes for a good Thanksg... Digital ID: 1588370. New York Public Library

It’s almost Thanksgiving and things are hopping at Margin Central. The first out-of-town guests have arrived. I have turkeys thawing in the refrigerator* and lists of my lists on the kitchen bulletin board.

It’s going to be a busy few days, so I’m taking this week off from blogging. But I wanted to take a moment to thank all you who read History in the Margins, send me e-mails, make comments, ask hard questions, point out my mistakes, and generally keep me on my toes. Without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

*Yes, more than one turkey. And a ham. We’re going to be a big group this year.



by pamela on November 21, 2014

The Pritzker Military Library offers a smaller event alongside its On War symposium: a chance for a limited number of people to meet with the winner of the year’s lifetime achievement award to discuss one of his books.  Last year I wasn’t bright enough to sign up. This year I didn’t hesitate.  The chance to hear Antony Beevor* discuss one of his most popular books, Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 was too good to miss.

Soviet soldiers waiting for the German attack

Reading Stalingrad in preparation for the “book club”, I noticed that Beevor tends to stay in the German point of view.  Listening to him talk about writing the book made it clear why he does.  As he tells it, he researched the book in the early 1990s during a brief window of opportunity when Russia opened former Soviet archives to foreign researchers**–a period that a fellow researcher described as like the wild west, complete with bribery and the archival equivalent of cattle rustling.  The military officers who controlled the archives were not happy that they had been ordered to open them and they greeted researchers with what Beevor described as a mixture of paranoia and naiveté.  I found his description of the limitations the “archivists” put on his research, the ways he and his Russian research assistant stretched those limits out of shape, and his fears that they would seize his notes as gripping as any thriller.

The result of his research is an extraordinary book.  Stalingrad is more than simple military history.  Beevor places the battle in its political, social and military context, beginning with the events leading up to the Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941 and ending with post-war Stalinist paranoia.  He describes not only  troop movements and military strategy, but the impact of those movements on civilians and soldiers alike: German soldiers ill-equipped for the Russian winter stealing clothes off dead and dying Russians, women and children digging defenses outside the walls of Moscow and later Stalingrad, peasants harvesting tomatoes and melons as fighters take off and land on a field converted to an airfield. He offers quick portraits of individuals from both sides of the conflict, from the highest officer to the lowest man on the front line, soldier and civilian.  He gives us instances of personal courage, political cowardice–and vice-versa.  Above all, he is the master of the telling detail.  (Want to know how cold it was on the march to Moscow?  So cold that Germans used the frozen bodies of Russian soldiers to build corduroy roads when birch trees weren’t available.***)

Beevor’s image of war on the Eastern Front is brutal on almost every level.  Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Beevor’s Stalingrad is his portrayal of the conflict between Germany and Russia in terms of the competing megalomania, paranoia and obsessions of Hitler and Stalin.  Tragedy doesn’t begin to describe the results.

*  Yes, this is the same Antony Beevor I argued with in a recent post.  Just because I disagree with him on a point of historiographical policy does not lessen my admiration for his work.  The man can write.

**The previous day, historian Gerhard Weinberg had pointed out that British and American scholarship on World War II traditionally focused on the western front not only due to national chauvinism but because prior to 1989 much of the source material dealing with the Eastern Front was inaccessible to Western scholars.  So obvious, and yet something I had never considered. *head smack*

***That image may stay with me forever as an illustration not only of extreme weather, but of the fact that it is easier to wage war if you do not think of your enemy as human.

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In A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps, Chris West took the concept of micro-history to a new degree of micro, using a chronological series of postage stamps as “tiny rectangular time machines”.   In his newest work, West uses the microscopic lens of the postage stamp to examine American history.

West cleverly opens A History of America in 36 Postage Stamps with the image of an eighteenth-century British revenue stamp—explicitly making the point that the history of the United States begins with a stamp. He ends with a self-designed stamp from, a statement of discomfort about including a picture of himself in a collection that includes portraits of figures such as Washington and Lincoln, and a thoughtful discussion of the personalized stamp as the logical extension that all men are created equal.   Along the way he discusses themes of American history drawn from the stamps, including westward expansion, innovation, and individualism. The themes themselves hold no surprises for anyone familiar with the broad outlines of American history, but West consistently chooses quirky or unfamiliar details to illustrate his story and occasionally draws unexpected connections. Perhaps the most interesting element of the book for American readers is the way West uses the history of America’s postal service to illuminate social history. (Who knew that post offices became targets for hold-ups during the Great Depression?)

A History of America in 36 Postage Stamps is an engaging read that will appeal to both history buffs and stamp enthusiasts.  If you happen to fit either of those categories,* I’m happy to offer you the chance to win an ARC of one of West’s two books.  If you want your name to go into the hat,** make a comment here on the blog, send me an e-mail, or comment on my Facebook post on or before December 1.  Two books.  Two ARCs. Two chances to win.


* If you’re a regular reader here in the Margins I assume you’re a history buff.  Or one of my parents.

** Or more accurately, into the medium-size mixing bowl.


Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


On War, the Symposium– Year 2

by pamela on November 14, 2014

Last week My Own True Love and I attended the Pritzker Military Library’s second annual On War Military History Symposium.  Last year’s symposium blew me away.   Perhaps I’m a little jaded since I’ve spent a lot of the last year reading, writing, and thinking about World Wars I and II, but this year wasn’t quite as extraordinary.   Don’t get me wrong, it was a worthwhile afternoon. I still think Tim O’Brien is the berries.  I took lots of notes.  I came away inspired to write–more, longer, harder, faster, better.

Here’s the short version:

  • I’ll go hear Tim O’Brien speak anytime I get the chance.  The man is brilliant.
  • Biographer Carlo D’Este gave me hope that I still have time to write a substantial body of work.  He wrote six major books after a 20-year  career in the military.   His piece of advice for writing successful historical non-fiction:   four little words, “Tell me a story.”   So important to remember.  So easy to forget.
  • I’m still arguing in my head* with historian Antony Beevor, winner of this year’s Pritzker award for lifetime achievement in military writing.  Beevor stated that he worries about “outsiders”** writing military history because they don’t “understand what armies are about.”  [Insert sputtering here]  Really, Mr. Beevor? Obviously my annoyance with this position is personal as well as theoretical. But leaving aside the question of whether an outside perspective can be valuable,*** it seems to me that “what armies are about” changes from century to century if not decade to decade.  Anyone want to weigh in here?
  • The symposium is organized around the Pritzker’s lifetime achievement winners, which means that the speakers tend to be of a certain age.  More specifically, the history of the history business being what it is, the speakers tend to be men of a certain age.  Without any disrespect for the panelists, all of whom are accomplished by any standard, by the end of the afternoon I was ready to see some different faces (and perspectives) on the podium:  younger, browner, not male.  Surely it’s possible to cast the net a little wider for interviewers.

Grumbling aside, my big takeaway from the conference was the resonance between statements made by Tim O’Brien and Carlo D’Este in two different panels.

  • According to O’Brien, “History deals with abstractions.  Literature is the reverse of history.  It focuses on the individual.  History can’t report to us LBJ’s dreams.  His private conversations.  It can’t report what it does not know.  Literature reports what we do not know and cannot know.”
  • According to D’Este, “When you write about war, what you’re really writing about is people.  What men and women endure.”

Thinking about the relationships and disjunctions between those two statements will keep me amused for months.  What do you think?

*And occasionally out loud.  My Own True Love is very patient.

** i.e. people who never served in the military.

***Yes.  The answer is yes.


Time Traveler Tours and Tales

by pamela on November 11, 2014

BMLGcover_684x1024 I met Sarah Towle in an on-line class last year.  We were quick to realize that we had interests in common beyond the scope of the class: history, story, travel, and the place where all three meet.  At the time, Sarah was in the process of developing an intriguing form of e-history*:  an interactive travel/story app she called Time Traveler Tours and Tales.

As those of you who hang out here in the Margins** know, I’m a big fan of traveling through history, so I’ve watched the birth of her idea and new company with great interest.  Now that she’s up and running, she took some time to answer questions for fellow history fans.

Pull up a chair and give Sarah a time-traveler’s welcome.

You describe the apps and books you produce at Time Traveler Tours & Tales as as “mash-up” of the American Girl books, “Horrible Histories” and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” That’s quite a combination. What’s the element that brings them all together?

Story. It all starts with story. That’s the common, and most important, ingredient of each TTT&T mash up. History told through story, and interactive games. Because that’s what history is: a collection of wonderful stories, many still yearning to be told.

What inspired you to take the leap from author/educator to publishing interactive history apps and books?

It was 2010 when a US editor I admire very much – and to whom I was pitching the TTT&T concept for publication – told me that I was 5-10 years ahead of the publishing industry. He said that I could either wait for it to catch up or produce my stories myself. I bridled at the suggestion; self-publishing was then still very much anathema. But he offered me the services of his editorial team, and therefore provided me both validation that my debut story was ready to be launched into the world, as well as legitimacy when it did.

I then hoped that the success of the story, Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, would land me a multi-story deal with a publisher or, even better, a job bringing my concept to life for a major publisher. As I waited for either of these dreams to come true, authors started pitching me their ideas for historic Tours and Tales. Then a development firm offered to partner up with me to build a publishing engine. Art design, editorial, and marketing professionals started to coalesce around me. Then a curriculum developer came on board. So before I knew it, I had added ‘digital publisher’ to the various hats I now wear on a daily basis.

I never imagined myself in this role, but I’m strapped in and thoroughly enjoying the ride!

Your first product is an interactive historical tour of Paris during the French Revolution, told from the viewpoint of Charlotte Corday. How does that work? Do you need to be in Paris to enjoy it?

You don’t. Plenty of teachers and librarians have downloaded the app for use with their students in the classroom. But it does work best as originally conceived: A site-based tour of a seminal moment in history through the lens of one who lived it.

The way it works is that you follow Charlotte through Paris of 1793, during the Reign of Terror, as she explains her motives for stalking, and eventually murdering, Jean-Paul Marat. The Tour begins at the Palais Royal, the birthplace of the Revolution and the place where Charlotte bought her murder weapon. As her story unfolds, you progress from the Palais Royal to the scene of the crime to Charlotte’s prison. Each stop in the walking tour begins a new chapter, which you can read and/or listen to in English or French. Plus, each story segment is enhanced with some sort of interactive game: a hunt for existing historic artifacts that relate to Charlotte’s; a Q&A prompt that extends your higher-level understanding of the Revolution; or a map-reading challenge to advance you to the next location.

Charlotte’s StoryApp Tour is intended for use by family and educational tour groups. It compels them to interact with each other as well as historic Paris in a meaningful way. When I learned that teachers and librarians were using the app in the classroom, and just skipping over the site-based activities, I re-published the story for them as an interactive book. It’s now available for iPad as well as print.
Then, to enhance the classroom experience further, I brought in author/curriculum developer Marcie Colleen to create a curriculum handbook complement to the interactive book. Her work guides teachers and students in recreating the streets of Paris during the Revolution within the classroom walls.

Charlotte Corday is famous for stabbing Jean Paul Marat in his bath. What about her story caught your imagination?

I was looking for a way to bring the history of the French Revolution to life for young readers. It’s a very dense and very complicated period. Yet its historical significance cannot be disputed. Its social and political ramifications rippled around the globe for centuries. Even today, we continue to be influenced by humankind’s first definitions of universal human rights.

But my early attempts at telling the story were… well… boring. It clearly wasn’t working with my teenaged beta-readers. They’d say, “Nice. I like it.” But I could tell they didn’t. That I still hadn’t nailed it.
Then one day I fled my desk and computer in frustration. I decided to wander the Palais Royal gardens. It was raining. I’ll never forget it. And for some reason I drifted over to the address where Charlotte bought her knife.

There, on a 300+-year-old stone pillar, about to be washed away by the weather, was a crude chalk picture portrait of Charlotte. Suddenly, it felt as if Charlotte had reached through the ages. She grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Let me tell the story. Give me a voice in death that I never had in life.”
So I went back into research mode to learn everything I could about Charlotte. And I was thrilled to discover that her story’s arc coincided with the tale I was trying to tell. Her voice became be the perfect vehicle through which to convey a broader big idea.

To that point, I’d been writing in the 3rd person, historian’s voice. But 1st person is a much more compelling voice for young readers. And who can resist a murderer? And a 24-year-old woman at that!

What other projects are in the works?

At the moment I’m working on a Time Traveler Tour & Tale to the Versailles gardens. There are so many discoveries to be made in the gardens, yet most people miss them as they head straight to the Chateau. They wait for hours to get into the building; then they fight the crowds to get through the rooms and into the Hall of Mirrors. Once they’ve finished, the palace spits them out into the gardens. But they’re too exhausted to go beyond the initial terraces before their sore feet drive them into the cafés or back to Paris.

But the gardens tell the final 100 years of the French Monarchy, the era that begins with the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and ends with the Revolution and the death of feudalism in France.

This story is the prequel to Charlotte’s. I’ve got the sequel to Charlotte’s story in the works as well, and I’m researching the tale to follow that: the story of Paris as we know it today. I hope to eventually publish the Time Traveler Paris Tours & Tales as a series.

Is there anything else you wish I had asked you about?

I’d rather end with a question for you and for your readers: Do you have a Time Traveler Tour and Tale to tell?

I’m only one author and Paris is only one city and even I can’t exhaust all the Paris stories. Do you have a story to the American Revolution? Or to medieval London? How about Rome during the Romans? Or San Francisco during the gold rush? Do you happen to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Berlin Wall? Do you live near a local museum whose collection begs to be brought to life through story and games?

If so, Team TTT&T and I are looking forward to your pitches and submissions. Let’s make history together!
Thanks so much for inviting me to participate on History at the Margins, Pamela. I really appreciate it!


*If that’s not a word it should be.

**What should I call you? Margin-ers?  Marginalia? Any suggestions?


Sarah Towle is a teacher turned author, digital media developer, and indie publishing entrepreneur. Her mission is to Turn History On. She writes and produces digital-first creative nonfiction stories that bring history to life through first-person storytelling and interactive games. Her concept marries the traditional power of narrative with the latest in digital technology and represents a new model in publishing. Find out more about her innovative concept and submissions policy at

Sarah blogs about the writing craft, app development, digital publishing, and technology in education on her author blog at She presents at industry events in Europe and North America (O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing, SCBWI-LA, NESCBWI, SCBWI-Europolitan, SCBWI-FR). She can be found regularly in schools around the globe as a visiting author, guest teacher, and lecturer. A US expatriate, Sarah splits her time between Paris and London where she time travels in the company of her husband and devoted four-legged friend, Gryffindog.

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Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

by pamela on November 7, 2014

In recent weeks, Ezidis, Druze, Mandaeans and other Middle Eastern religious minorities have appeared in the world’s headlines. For the most part, these groups, unfamiliar to most Westerners, have been no more than names attached to tragedies. Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East appears just in time to answer readers’ questions about some of the world’s most ancient and least understood religions.

Russell describes Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms as a series of personal and informal investigations, begun during his fourteen years as an Arabic- and Farsi-speaking diplomat in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Much of the book’s considerable charm rests in Russell’s accounts of his often-uncomfortable travels into remote regions of the Middle East and his interviews with members of the seven religions he discusses. He pursues his investigations in places as diverse as the Zoroastrian ruins of ancient Persepolis and a Chaldean community center in Detroit. But make no mistake, this is not a dilettante travelogue.

Building on extensive knowledge of both comparative theology and the region’s history, Russell places each religion in historical context and describes them as they exist in the 21st century. He considers both how these faiths have survived and why they were endangered even before the current attacks began. He considers ancient languages, long traditions of secrecy–and the difficulties both present to diaspora communities attempting to practice their faith away from its historic heart.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is an important and engaging book for anyone interested in the Middle East.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


The Thrill of the Vote

by pamela on November 4, 2014


This post first ran on election day in 2008. My feelings on the subject haven’t changed:

It’s election day in Chicago. I just walked home from voting for a new mayor and a new alderman–and I miss my old neighborhood.

For ten years I lived in South Shore: a white graduate student/small business owner/writer in a neighborhood dominated by the African-American middle class. My neighbors were police officers, schoolteachers, fire fighters, electricians, and social workers. We didn’t have much in common most of the year–except on election day.

As far as I’m concerned, voting is thrilling. My South Shore neighbors agreed. Voting in South Shore felt like a small town Fourth of July picnic. Like Mardi Gras. Like Christmas Eve when you’re five-years-old and still believe in Santa Claus. No matter what time of day I went to vote, my polling place was packed. Voters and election judges greeted each other–and me–with hugs, high fives, and “good to see you here, honey”. First time voters proudly announced themselves. Elderly voters told stories about their first election. People made sure they got their election receipts; some pinned them to their coats like a badge of honor. An older gentleman sat next to the door and said “Thank you for exercising your right to vote” as each voter left. The correct response was “It’s a privilege.”

Except for occasional confusion when the machine that takes the ballots jams, my current polling place is low key. Election judges are friendly and polite, but hugs are not issued with your ballot. When the young woman manning the machine handed me my receipt, she told me to have a good day. I said “It’s always a good day when you get to vote.” In South Shore, that would have gotten me an “Amen.” In politically active, politically correct Hyde Park, it got me an eye-blinking look of surprise and a hesitant smile.

I started home, thinking maybe I was the only one in the neighborhood whose pulse beat faster on election day. A block from the polls I ran into a young man walking with a small boy, no more than six years old. The little boy stopped me, with a grin so big that he looked like a smile wearing a wooly hat.

“Did you vote yet?” he asked. “My dad is taking me to teach me how to vote.”

“It’s a privilege,” I said.

He gave me the highest five he could manage.

* * *

So tell me, did you exercise your right to vote today?


History on Display: En Guerre

by pamela on October 31, 2014

I’ve spent most of this week in a small carrel in Regenstein library, head down and fingers flying as I try to push my way through a mini-proposal for a book I’d like to write.* It’s not my favorite way to work. Instead of getting up at the end of a stint to make a cup of tea, take care of a task and dance around my study for a few minutes, I have to plan breaks that will let me stretch body and brain.

Yesterday afternoon my brain was dead and my eyes were aching when I walked into the small gallery space connected to the Special Collections department to see an exhibit titled En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I. Instant wake up!

I’ve been fascinated by the art produced in connection with the First World War for a long time, but this work was new too me: magazine illustrations, postcards, children’s books and prints in the crisp brightly colored style that I associate with advertising posters and children’s illustrations –but with a bite. I was particularly fascinated by the pieces designed to illustrate the diversity of the Allies: pictures of Allied soldiers in uniform, illustrations of national anthems and–my favorite–an odd depiction of the various Allies as flowers** threatened by worms and beetles wearing the distinctive German pickelhaube.

The exhibit is small, but thoughtfully curated–definitely worth a more thoughtful visit than I was able to give it yesterday. I’ll be back.

The exhibit will remain on display through January 2 for any of you in Chicago, or planning a visit. For those of you who aren’t going to be in Chicago anytime soon, the library offers a related on-line exhibit and an excellent catalog.

* Crossed fingers welcome.

**England is a thistle–a subtle suggestion of the prickliness that marked Anglo-French relations for several centuries.

Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Library


One of the ways you can tell that your blog is starting to gain an audience* is that you start to get random offers of content from people you don’t know. Most of it is inappropriate (though I was tempted by the gorgeous interactive map of the kingdoms in Game of Thrones). Some of it is actively offensive. But now and then someone sends you a gem, like this quirky history of luggage by Case Luggage**

Personally, I’d like to see Nelly Bly‘s famous carpet bag added to the timeline: the intrepid reporter traveled around the world in less than 80 days with one carefully packed piece of hand-luggage.

Any great moments in luggage you think should have been included?

*The best way is getting comments and e-mails from readers. Have I mentioned how much I love hearing from you people?

** Not an ad. Recognition of intellectual property. Copyright is important.



Pirates of the…Mediterranean?

by pamela on October 24, 2014

Barbary corsairs

In response to my recent post on nineteenth century Chinese pirate Cheng I Sao, Margins reader Davide reminded me of another highly successful pirate* and then made the provocative comment that the subject of piracy in the Mediterranean is very interesting and often  neglected by historians.

Challenge accepted. It’s a big question, but let’s take a quick look:

Piracy was a problem in the Mediterranean as early as ancient Egypt** and remained a problem for the next thousand years.   By 67 BCE, pirates were such a threat to Roman navigation and commerce that the Roman senate sent  Caesar’s ally and rival  Pompey to find a solution to the problem.  They agreed to provide him with up to 500 ships for up to three years.   Pompey divided the Mediterranean into thirteen zones, which he systematically cleared of pirates over the course of three months using fifty warships and fifty transports.  (He also used the war against the pirates as the jumping off point for Roman expansion into Syria and Palestine–but that’s another story.)

Pompey reduced piracy to a low grade irritant during the lifetime of the empire,  but it picked up again during the Middle Ages when there was no central power strong enough to patrol the seas.  Muslim and Christian corsairs alike attacked merchant vessels and sold captives as slaves–sometimes in the name of religion, sometimes because they could.  (There is of course, always a question of whether a ship was a pirate or a legitimate warship of a hostile power: both sides were quick to point fingers and say “pirate”.)

The “golden age” of Mediterranean piracy dates from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries when the Barbary corsairs (and their European counterparts, the Knights Hospitallers) terrorized the waves.  Just as Elizabeth I of England used licensed privateers as an economical way to  fund her lifelong battle against Spain , the Ottomans co-opted the corsairs of Algiers and Tunis as a way to strengthen their navy and expand their influence westward.

The Barbary corsairs were finally repressed in the early nineteenth century, but piracy remains a problem today on a smaller scale, as a quick Google search will reveal.

Anyone have something they’d like to add?

* Barbarossa (Redbeard), a sixteenth century Barbary corsair who worked his way up from pirate to emir of Algiers (1519)  and eventually grand admiral of the Ottoman fleet (1533).   A successful pirate by any standard and worth a blog post in his own right.  Coming soon to a history blog near you.

**At least that’s our first documented reference to piracy. An Egyptian document from 1075 BCE describes the voyages of an Egyptian emissary from Karnak who narrowly escaped an attack by pirates from the Phoenician city of Dor, located in modern Israel. In fact, pirates probably existed from the moment that humans tried to ship valuables by water.