[Warning: Blatant self promotion ahead]
Last July I had a writing predicament. I had signed a contract to write my book about Sigrid Schultz, but the archives I needed to access were closed thanks to the pandemic and no one knew when they would re-open.*
In order to fill the gap, I agreed to write a book for HarperKids’ Great Escapes series. Around here, we called it the “little book,” as opposed to the "big book" on Sigrid Schultz. The timing turned out to be perfect. The first archive opened in mid-August, just as I turned in the first draft on the little book.
The “little book”, Across the Minefields, came out earlier this week. It’s the real life story of a woman army driver in Africa in World War II, who later became the first--and as of the last time I looked, the only-- woman in the French Foreign Legion. (Could a story be any more in my wheelhouse?) Here’s the official description:
June, 1942--Libya. Free French Officer Susan Travers was one of the few women on the frontlines in Africa during World War Two. After the Germans surrounded the military camp of Bir Hakeim, a shocking order was issued. The French troops were going to break out in the middle of the night--crossing through dangerous minefields and enemy territory--to reach their British allies. And Officer Travers would be leading the charge.
With the lives of thousands of military men at risk, stakes were high. But Officer Travers didn't face rejection and break gender barriers to back down now. Her country needed her to fight. And win.
If you’re eight-to-twelve years old and like true adventure, or know someone who is, Across the Minefields is available wherever you buy your books.
As for the big book, the second archive will be open next week. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
*In all honesty, I wasn’t completely dead in the water. I had plenty of background reading to do, and I had large stash of relevant books. Thanks to a heads-up from the privileges manager at the University of Chicago’s main library I made a raid just before they closed. Library people rock!
I have spent far too much time over the last week working on a blog post about the Siberian Intervention: a minor American military expedition at the end of the First World War that has been crossing my path for more than a year. It just isn’t working. Even though I regularly reduce complicated stories to their essentials for this blog, I don’t seem to be able to do it this time.*
But even though I couldn’t move the big story along, I found myself fascinated by one minor question: Why were the anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War called White Russians?
It turned out to be a delightful little research rabbit hole for a late summer afternoon.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is one of my regular stops for such things, the color white has long been associated particularly with royalist and legitimist causes, beginning during the French Revolution, when the white flag of the Bourbon family became the symbol of the royalist cause. Having been the symbol of royalists, white became the symbol for many counter-revolutionary, anti-communist, reactionary, or conservative parties. (For example, the Finnish White Guard.) The White Russians were all of the above.
Interestingly, the use of red as the color of revolutionary groups, including the Bolsheviks, also has its roots in the French Revolution, in the form of the bonnet rouge or Liberty cap—a complex bit of symbolism that might be worth a blog post of its own.
*Often when I bang my head against the wall of a story, it means that I don’t have a solid grasp of the material. When that happens, I have two choices. Buckle down and do more background work, or walk away from the story. In the case of chapter three on my current book, I have chosen door number one and am now reading my way through a stack of books on the revolutions at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, happy as a clam.** In the case of the Siberian intervention, it makes more sense to walk away.
***Though I am uncertain as to just how happy a clam might be, now that I think about it. More accurately, I am as happy as a historian who has settled into the groove of the work and has several uninterrupted hours to devote to it. Which is pretty dang happy.
For those of you who are interested in learning about the Siberian intervention, I recommend the following:
The episode dealing with it in Elizabeth Lunday’s excellent podcast, The Year That Was: Eggshells Loaded with Dynamite: Allied Intervention in the Russian Revolution
Anthony Brandt. First Shots of the Cold War.
In the weeks since we got home from our Big Road Trip back in June,* I’ve been immersed in the years between the end of World War I and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. One of the things that has captured my imagination is how fascinated people were by aviation in those years.
The two big aviation stories from this period are the ones you’ve heard about: Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927 and the crash of the zeppelin the Hindenburg at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in 1937. (Sigrid Schultz wasn’t in the right place at the right time to report on either event directly, but two days after the Hindenburg disaster she had a front page story reporting Germany’s response to the crash, and their intention to resume air service to the United States by year end. The headline screamed across the page: RUSH NEW GERMAN AIRLINER. )
Lindbergh’s success and the Hindenburg disaster were not the only aviation stories to make international headlines in the period between the wars. There were other attempts to sail across the Atlantic, to the Arctic, around the world. (The Chicago Tribune sponsored one such flight in 1929: the round trip flight from Chicago to Berlin of the ‘Unting Bowler. The airship went down in the Hudson Straits on the first leg of the journey. The ship was lost; the crew survived. ) Aviators went missing. Even the release of new airships was news.
Robert McCormick, the Chicago Tribune’s owner and publisher, was a huge aviation booster, so Sigrid Schultz reported lots of stories on aviators as they went through Berlin and on German advances in aviation technology. (Helped by the fact that her father was a friend of Graf von Zeppelin, the inventor of the eponymous zeppelin.) She even took a spin in the air with World War I ace, Ernst Udet, early in her career. **
After awhile, I realized that I wasn’t quite clear on the difference between airships, blimps, dirigibles, and zeppelins. Assuming that some of you might be in the same hot air balloon, I offer you the following:
- An airship is a gas-filled aircraft that is steerable. (Unlike, say, a hot air balloon.) A dirigible, from the Latin dirigere, to direct, is an airship with a classical education. It started as an adjective—as in dirigible aircraft. (And in fact, dirigible is still used as an adjective meaning steerable, though not by anyone I know personally.)
- Both blimps and zeppelins are airships/dirigibles. But blimps are not zeppelins, and vice versa, though they look a lot alike to my untrained eye:
- A blimp does not have a rigid internal structure. Blimps get their shape from the pressurized gases that fill them and make them lighter than air.
- A zeppelin has a rigid metal frame, so it keeps its shape whether filled with pressurized gas or not. The rigid frame made them suitable for longer trips and zeppelins because a important form of commercial transportation between the wars. They routinely made transatlantic flights. One enormous zeppelin, the Graf Zeppelin, flew around the world in 1929. (As you can probably guess, this was a huge newspaper story.)
Just to add to the confusion: the famous Goodyear blimps are in fact now zeppelins. The company switched out its fleet in 2014, though the company, and everyone else, still calls them blimps. There are some cases where being technically correct is more trouble than it’s worth.
*Stops to check calendar. Yep. June. Time flies when you’re sitting at your desk writing.
**He offered to turn that metaphorical spin into a literal spin and fly some aerobatics with her. She declined.
NOTE: If you’re reading this in email, click on the title and go to the browser if you want to watch the footage of the Hindenburg crash, click on