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BREAKING NEWS

A local hero

I know for a fact that many of my readers hold a deep interest in the Civil War, and involvement in that event by people from our own area is especially interesting.

For several weeks, I have been holding onto a locally written history of one of our heroes during the Civil War, and this week, I’d like to tell you all about it. The full title is “William B. Cushing in the Far East: A Civil War Naval Hero Abroad, 1865-1869.” The author is Julian R. McQuiston, retired chairman of the history department at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

In many ways, Cushing’s life was so short, it reads like a condensation. Born in Wisconsin, the future hero spent most of his childhood in Fredonia. The Civil War broke out before he was 20 years old. He won honors and was noted for a rather reckless courage in several naval battles before achieving his most famous victory at the tender age of 22, for which he was voted the formal gratitude of the U.S. Congress.

A principal part of the Union’s attempt to defeat the southern states was to blockade their coastline, so they couldn’t get money from selling their products – especially cotton – to foreign countries, and they couldn’t obtain arms, ammunition and other manufactured goods by sea from other countries. The Confederates had a ship called the Albemarle, which they kept in the Roanoke River, in eastern North Carolina. The Albemarle had ventured out often and staged attacks on the blockading Union ships, which punched temporary holes in the defense.

Cushing developed a plan in which he commanded a small craft up the Roanoke by night, and blew up the Albemarle, along with his own craft, with the result that his entire crew was either killed or captured. He took off his uniform and swam to shore, and eventually was rescued by Union craft. That combination of extreme bravery and resourcefulness, with carelessness with the lives of others, recurs several times in his later history.

McQuiston’s book focuses on the period of his life after the end of the war, when he was stationed aboard the small steamship U.S.S. Maumee as captain. The ship was sent from the East Coast halfway around the world, to patrol as a gunboat along the coast of China and to protect American interests in Japan, which had only recently been forced to allow foreign ships to enter its ports.

During a shore leave, before departing for his four-year stationing in the far east, Cushing was in Fredonia, where he attended his sister’s wedding. There, he was smitten by the beauty of one of her very young bridesmaids: Katherine Forbes, to whom he made a hasty and passionate proposal of marriage. The vast majority of the book is a summarizing of the dozens and dozens of letters which he wrote to his Kate during his Asian wanderings. Sadly, if he ever preserved her letters in reply – and the book suggests that her frequency of response was significantly less substantial than his – they appear in this book only when he quotes them or refers to them in his writing. We never really hear Kate’s voice.

His writing ranges back and forth between beautiful descriptions of the realities of exotic locations, as seen through the eyes of a young and impetuous man with little experience of the world, and pleadings with Kate to honor their engagement, and to resist the attentions of young gallants who seem to have offered many invitations to picnics and games of croquet.

In his writings, it is easy to detect his plans to continue to rise through the ranks of the Navy, and to feel his hand at work, trying to shape his future bride into a proper Navy wife, who will assist in his planned ascent. Even today, there are extensive rules regarding who must entertain whom when a naval officer arrives at a new posting, who must call upon whom, and the appropriate means of dress, table service, and more. In the late 1800s, the rules were far more rigid and extensive.

From his letters to Kate, it is clear that Cushing went so far as to initiate a correspondence with her music teacher regarding what seems to him to be her failure to develop sufficient skill at playing the piano, for example.

The author has done a good job of avoiding what must have been a great temptation to comment upon and explain his sometimes charming and sometimes horrifying hero. He does remind us that some of Cushing’s harsh descriptions of people of other races would be common during his lifetime, rather than having the shocking effect it tends to have on contemporary readers. Other than that, we are free to admire him or be shocked by him, as we interpret his own words.

Cushing’s disdain for the rural qualities of Fredonia is a bit extreme, as is his sincere characterization of anyone voting for any candidate except his worshipped Ulysses S. Grant as a traitor. His frequent taking of souvenirs, from pulling loose a brick from the Great Wall of China to pocketing a small statue of a deity from a Chinese temple, makes a modern reader uncomfortable.

When guards at a garden which he wishes to visit refuse his bribes to allow him to enter, and tell him they will be beheaded if they allow foreigners inside, he finds a way over the wall, then comes back to the opposite side of the gate he was trying to enter, to jibe at the men whose deaths he might be causing, because he wants to see a garden. This was not a nice guy.

Cushing’s descriptions of Asian cities is rich in detail, and usually extremely interesting. The situation is always comfortably explained by McQuiston, filling us in on events such as the Opium Wars in China, the civil war in Japan between the emperor and the Shogun, etc., to appreciate the situations in which the young ship’s captain is involved.

The book ends with the 1870 wedding in Fredonia’s Trinity Episcopal Church, between Cushing and his Kate. It doesn’t go on to describe the birth of their two daughters, nor his period as Commander of the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, nor his early death, at age 34, possibly from cancer or tuberculosis of the bone.

Although Cushing and his wife are buried on the grounds of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, there is a giant monument to him and his family in Fredonia’s Forest Hill Cemetery.

“William B. Cushing in the Far East” gives us a fascinating view, both of our own area, and areas all across the planet, in the last half of the 19th century. I enjoyed reading it, and I recommend it to you.

The book was published in 2013 by McFarland Publishers. The book has 206 pages, in paperbound edition, and is available for sale on a popular computer bookseller’s site for $24.

Find it with ISBN number 978-0-7864-7055-6.

THE WOLF GIFT

Good news for anyone who reads for entertainment. Author Anne Rice, who has sold approximately 100 million books to date, has found her way back to Gothic novels. Between 1976, when she published “The Vampire Lestat,” until “Blood Canticle” in 2005, anyone who wanted to venture through fantasy and tales of vampires, witches and the like, could find her books on sale at any bookseller.

They made perfect reading for long plane trips, hospital waiting rooms, and situations where we needed to sit quietly, but could allow our minds to wander around the world, and beyond, especially in the blessed days before people began installing televisions in public places, which spouted nonsense at us when we were defenseless. She herself seemed to revel in her fame and fortune, often performing outrageous stunts like having herself delivered to a book signing by a hearse, from which she emerged from a coffin to greet her fans.

In 2005, though, following the death by cancer of her husband of more than 40 years, she announced that she was through with the fantasies, and would use her writing to explore her personal religious faith. Born a Roman Catholic, she had renounced her religion in her late teens, yet her writings made clear that she retained strong elements of her faith. After 2005, she published two novels which she believes illuminate elements of the life of Christ, and two dealing with the nature of angels. In modern years, she has proclaimed her faith in Christ, yet her dissatisfaction with organized religion, in interviews and essays.

In 2012, she returned to the supernatural, publishing her novel “The Wolf Gift,” which changes her focus slightly from vampires and witches to werewolves, and her choice of locations from New Orleans to the redwood forests of Northern California.

Some themes from her many books remain constant. Her characters, both male and female, remain wealthy beyond one’s wildest imaginings, and physically beautiful. They become caught up in the supernatural through no fault of their own, but once they become part of another reality, they are indestructible and capable of living for thousands of years. They have strong social consciences and never harm the innocent, although they feel completely entitled to judge others and to savagely kill those from whom they get a smell of evil.

Her hero, this time, is Reuben Golding, a handsome and physically imposing young journalist, in his mid 20s. Reuben is sent to Northern California by his newspaper to cover the sale of a vast mansion by the woman “of a certain age,” who has inherited it when her uncle failed to return from a trip to Africa. Marchent – which is the woman’s name – is delighted by the young man’s earnest nature, his sharp mind and his passionate interest in her house’s history.

They spend a night of passionate abandon, but she leaves their bed and drifts away to her office, off the kitchen of the giant house. Reuben is awakened by screams and runs to their locale, where he sees Marchent dead, and what appear to be her two attackers being torn limb from limb by what appears to be a huge wolf. He rushes into the conflict, and suffers bites from the creature. By now you’re figuring out what happens next.

Rice’s imagination is so vivid, and her choices of words is so delicious that it’s difficult to put the book down. Reuben learns that in her short stay in her office, Marchent has made a new will, leaving her house entirely to him, and he has no trouble tapping two of his trust funds to pay her estate hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase the contents. Then he is assigned to write a feature story about his attack for his employer, along with a long series of features about the Man Wolf who was seen by witnesses before he was attacked.

Amazingly, his writings are filled with examinations of the moral lapses of a society, in which people are soon wearing shirts emblazoned with verbal celebrations of the Man Wolf and there soon are jokes, catch phrases and advertising slogans cashing in on the creature.

It’s exciting. It lifts the reader immediately out of his surroundings and takes him to exotic locations. It offers some moral musings which aren’t as minor as some critics have imagined.

In short, if you liked the early novels, you’ll love this one. Author Rice has already completed a second werewolf/California novel, scheduled for publication in 2013. The title is “The Wolves of Mid-Winter.”

“The Wolf Gift” has 502 pages in paperbound edition, plus it includes 18 pages from the second wolf novel. It was published by Anchor Books, and is marked for sale at $15. Search for it with ISBN number 978-0-307-74210-0.

DAVID & WINSTON

We, who live in an age when politics are usually accompanied by deep hatred and extreme methodology between political rivals, are often drawn to the previous century, when political rivals often formed deep personal friendships and a spirit of compromise and accommodation, even in situations of deep political differences.

One such friendship occurred between David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England during the First World War, and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second War.

Historian Robert Lloyd George, great-grandson of the prime minister, has utilized a huge quantity of family archives as well as the unusual access granted to a family member, to papers and objects held by museums, libraries and other institutions, to give a very personal history of the personal relationship between the two politicians.

In some ways, the two men could not have been more different. Lloyd George was Welsh, a minority not always respected by the English, and prided himself on his humble roots and on his understanding of and unity with the working man.

Churchill was a descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough, owners of Blenheim Palace, one of the most elaborate and elegant private homes in the world. Indeed, he was born there. His ancestors were famed generals, and known since well before the American Revolution as rich, noble and powerful.

Also, Lloyd George was a Liberal and Churchill was a Conservative. Unlike American politics where those terms are thrown around like curses, they are the actual names of the political parties in Great Britain.

Both, on the other hand, were outsiders, who were often plotted against by the central authority of their own separate political parties. Neither of them went to a university. Both were willing to include the people they considered the most talented from the rival party in high offices in their governments. They enjoyed each other’s company and they respected each other’s thinking.

The book takes us through British history, clearly explaining the political crises and how a parliamentary system deals with them.