Sunday, September 8, 2013

Captains & The Kings By Taylor Caldwell

Captains and the Kings is an amazing story of an Irish immigrant who discovers the dark side of America and himself.
Joseph Armagh arrives in America in 1854, an impoverished orphan with a younger brother and sister to provide for. In his drive to pursue success and money, Joseph makes powerful allies and enemies, practically alienates his family, and gets involved with conspiracies in his drive for success.
Caldwell tries to accomplish two things with Captains and the Kings and she does at least one very well. The first accomplishment that this book has is it tells a memorable sprawling story with fascinating characters. Standing at the center of this large cast is Armagh himself.
Joseph is an easy person to be fascinated with or drawn to, but not an easy person to like. He is a completely contradictory character. As he gets involved with dangerous circumstances like slave trading, bootlegging, and shady business deals, he wants more of what these people have to offer. He is a very dark character who scoffs at any hope or optimism. Joseph orders the death or disgrace of most enemies with very little conscience. He marries an unstable woman for position and ostracizes her in pursuit of another woman. He dominates his brother and sister and becomes furious when they begin lives of their own.
But Joseph is not a one-dimensional character. He is a very multi-faceted man with a bit of humanity that shows every once in awhile. He has a very romantic and chivalrous side which he shows in his scenes with Elizabeth, a vulnerable woman with a cruel husband.  At first dismissive of his children, he slowly begins to accept them and take pride in them up to the point where he tries to make his eldest son the first Catholic President of the United States (about 50 years before John F. Kennedy would do this in real life. One of the most touching scenes that shows Joseph’s better character is where he shows real regret in disgracing a senator, whom he realizes is a truly good man. Joseph isn’t aware of the ramifications of this moment until years later after he loses some family members.
Where Caldwell does not succeed so well is in wrapping his fascinating story around conspiracy theories, and offering them in real life.   Joseph comes into a world of The Committee of Foreign Relations; shadowy men who make decision that affect the world around them. While it is fascinating reading for a novel, Caldwell’s theories show a bit of paranoia, especially her introduction. Nothing kills a work of fiction faster than the writer insisting “these are based on actual events.” Conspiracy theories are great in many works of fiction, but become tiresome when repeated and believed in reality.
In the parameters of the novel however, these scenes are quite well written simply because of how Caldwell portrays the Committee members. Joseph and later his son, Rory, become involved in some chilling meetings where these men discuss upcoming world wars, stock market panics and crashes, and Communist uprisings in a nonchalant matter as though they were items on a shopping list. Unlike Joseph, the other members of the Committee of Foreign Relations aren’t near as defined or faceted but they aren’t supposed to be. They are neither good nor evil. They are more like living forces of nature that shape the world to fit their needs. Joseph despite all of his money, and cynicism is at heart a naive character and doesn’t truly realize how dangerous they can be until they turn on him and his son. That’s when he truly sees the darkness of these business acquaintances.
Related Links & Activity Suggestions
The Gilded Age- Much of the action of this book takes place during the Gilded Age, a time in post-Civil War America when industrialism was on a rise and millionaires and robber barons did whatever it took to make their money. This link is for the PBS American Experience special on Andrew Carnegie and the Gilded Age. What marks of the Gilded Age are featured in Captains and the Kings? What marks shape the current era that we live in? How would you want people to remember it?
Joseph P. Kennedy-Some believe that Captains and the Kings is a fictionalized account of the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy family. This website explores “Old Joe’s” life and legacy towards his family as well as the experience of Irish immigrants in America. What similarities and difference can you find in the fictional, Armaghs vs. the real, Kennedys? What other immigrants have left their impact upon this country? What obstacles did they go through for their new life in America and their pursuit of the “American Dream?” What legacies did they leave behind for their descendants? What about your ancestors, what obstacles did they endure, stories did they remember, and what legacy did they leave behind for you?
Literary Discussion Questions
1.      Discuss Joseph’s character. What early events shaped the man that he would eventually become? Do you think that his cynical outlook makes him as smart and as worldly wise as he believes or do you believe that he is actually naive and more susceptible to temptation, why or why not?
2.      Discuss the way that Enfield Bassett’s curse plays into the events. Do you think that the curse is real or are Joseph’s later sufferings results from his own earlier actions and those of others? Do you think Joseph’s life was fated or do you think that things could have changed if circumstances had been different? Would his life had turned out differently, if for example, Sean and Mary Regina stayed with him when they were children, or Joseph had a kinder outlook on life, would he have ended up the same way?
Cover, LibraryThing

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lolly Willowes, Or The Loving Huntsman By Sylvia Townsend Warner

cover, LibraryThing

Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926, is a little known classic, but deserves to be remembered as a well-written feminist parable of a middle-aged woman learning to embrace independence, her own identity, and paganism in the process.

Laura "Lolly" Willowes is the product of a stifling middle-class Edwardian upbringing. After her beloved, but stern father's death, Laura becomes shuffled between her siblings’ families who are alternately vain and foppish or rigid and uncompromising. To her nieces and nephews, she's nothing but strange spinster Aunt Lolly. To her siblings and in-laws, she is just an afterthought, someone to take up space in the spare room and awkwardly be introduced to at parties and family gatherings.


In almost supernatural coincidence (probably intentionally so considering later events), Laura finds a way out of her confining existence. She takes up residence in a small cottage in the Great Mop, a village near Cotswold, England, supplements her own income with creating herbs and potions, encounters some very eccentric friends including a mysterious figure that may or may not be the Devil, and learns to embrace witchcraft.


Lolly Willowes works well as the story of a woman finding her own individuality.  There are parts that don't work quite so well. One of Laura's nephews comes to live with her and wears out his welcome within the first few lines perhaps to remind Laura of her family looming over her, a constant presence in her life. While I enjoyed Laura's interest in witchcraft, I could have done without the link to Satan. That is more of the stuff of horror films and the witch trials and unnecessary in feminist literature.


However, the witch angle is mostly fascinating, partly because of the lack of theatrics making her decision to become a pagan as natural as the other choices she makes. A cat appears and though Laura is at first apprehensive that it is a minion of Satan; she is matter-of-fact as though it’s just the natural way of things. When she is invited to her first coven meeting, she is just as shy and as much a wallflower as at her family parties. She becomes a pagan, not through some magic spells, but because of her closeness to nature and for the freedom paganism provides for women.


Lolly Willowes is similar to the character that many of us knew and feared as a child, or that some of us were fascinated with and grew up to become: the strange woman who lives alone, the odd lady who talks to her animals as though they were children, who grows weird plants and herbs, and who never goes out except at night, the woman who is the stuff of rumors and gossip: the witch. Warner however does us a favor, by taking the reader into that character’s mind shows us the whys and how she became that way. Instead of giving us a hoary stereotype, Warner gives us a full and complete character, one in which we are proud to share with the journey towards her independence.


Related Links & Activity Suggestions

The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society-This website’s mission to “provide a wide readership and better understanding of Townsend Warner’s readings.” It includes a biography, bibliography, and an ongoing list of scholarly writings about her life and works. Has there ever been a little known book or author that you would like to tell the world about? How would you promote them? What would you want to say about them?


Witches in Pop Culture & Witches: Depiction through Art History  - These websites offer a few glimpses on the way witches have been portrayed through art, literature, film, and television. What other depictions can you think of? Compare these with how Warner views witches, how are they similar and how are they different? What about other supposedly frightening creatures such as vampires, zombies, werewolves, what noted portrayals are there? What do they have in common and how do they differ from each other?


Discussion Questions

1.      Discuss Laura’s life before and after her move to the Great Mop. How does moving to the country give Laura her freedom? What impact does it have on her family? How do you think Laura and her family will treat each other in the future?

2.       Analyze Laura’s interactions with witchcraft. What advantages does it give her? What questions does it answer for her? How does the treatment of witches differ in this than in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown?” Do you think the authors’ genders may have made a difference in how Hawthorne and Warner wrote about the witches? Why or why not?