Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: Witches, Rakes and Rogues

If you're interested in Boston's Colonial Era naughtiness, this is the book for you. Salem didn't have all the witches, and adultery, illegitimacy and divorce were not unknown to Boston's Puritans. Mix in swindlers, thieves and fraudsters, and the City on a Hill looks a little less upright. The book does suffer from a lack of documentation - we are going back three hundred years and more. This leaves some of the stories a bit thin. Not what I'd call a thrilling read, but interesting in a mild way.

Witches, Rakes and Rogues

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Review: Boston's Cycling Craze, 1880-1900

I read a book on the history of the bicycle last year, and wanted to get into greater detail about cycling in the United States, and especially here in Massachusetts. The title of this book made it seem exactly what I was looking for. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the sub-title: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society. Actually,  with chapters about the bi-racial Kittie Knox, and chapter headings like Women's Cycling Clubs and the Movement to Oust Women from a Boston Club, Ethnic Cycling Stories, and African American Cyclists, this book would be more accurately titled A Progressive Whiggish History of Boston Cycling. And yes, I must confess that when I see the word 'gendered' in print, my sixty year old eyes roll back in my head. I'd love to know what Umberto Eco would do with the semiotics of such language. But that's just me.

If your interest in local history consists of reaching into the past to support your own political/ideological beliefs, and said beliefs are of the left-progressive color, then you should enjoy this book. It seems well documented, although it's not particularly systematic in its approach. That being said, history by anecdote is quite popular these days, so give it a try.

If, after I find a good book on the cycling craze of the late 19th century with a focus on Massachusetts, I want to look further into the subject, I'll come back to this book. The problem I have with it is no doubt the fault of the editor or marketing manager, not the author. The main title is simply deceptive, and led me to disappointment.

Boston's Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: King Philip's War

During some recent reading, I was reminded that I had little or no knowledge of the period and events known as King Philip's War, so I with this book to correct my ignorance. The book is structured into three sections. The first is a concise history of the events leading up to and including the war itself. Second is a guide to locations where various events occurred. The third gives excerpts from contemporary descriptions of the events, written by those who were there.

The closest Indian raids got to Boston were attacks on Braintree, Hingham and Sudbury. So why review this book on a Boston-centric blog? Both because Boston men fought in various militias, and because Indians were brought to Boston and executed on Boston Common. And as a final surprise to me, the author states that men mustered and trained on the Dedham Plain - that being the same site in today's Readville where the famous black 54th Regiment trained for the Civil War.

Although King Philip's War didn't reach Boston otherwise, it did scare the bejesus out of residents of Boston, Roxbury and other surrounding communities, and its outcome ended the need to deal with the native peoples in the area permanently. Recommended for those who want to know about the history of Massachusetts beyond the Tea Party and Paul Revere.

King Philip's War

Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: Between Two Worlds How the English Became Americans

My grasp on early Boston history is probably representative of that of many people: the Puritans arrive in 1630, and then the Tea Party happens. I've often wanted to take the time to increase my knowledge on the subject, and this book gave me the opportunity to do so. The author covers New England, Virginia and the British Caribbean islands, but New England gets the greater amount of content.

Malcolm Gaskill emphasizes the connections between New England and Old England - the religious and political controversies shared across the Atlantic. And in New England, the conflict between English and Natives is well laid out. And finally, at the end of the time period covered, the Salem Witch Trials are put into context.

This book gets one of my rare 'Buy' recommendations - it's one for the bookshelf.

Between Two Worlds

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

A book about the building of Boston's subway? Sounds cool. Unfortunately, this book isn't the one we've been waiting for. When three of five praising blurbs on the back cover are from Boston Globe colleagues, you have reason to be skeptical. And sure enough, this book does not pay off it's title.

The 'race' - between New York and Boston to build the first subway in the country - turns out never to have happened. Both cities saw the benefits of getting streetcars off their gridlocked roads. The author does try to connect the two efforts by virtue of the efforts of the Whitney brothers, one in each city. Except that they seem to have had little contact during the relevant period. And more importantly because Henry - Boston's Whitney - ended up retiring from his West End Railway Company before Boston build it's subway.

There is a photo section in this book, but you can see much more today on the Internet with a few keystrokes. I was surprised by the absence of streetcar line maps - one would have made the need for a subway clearer in one view.

I get the sense that this book started as an effort to write about the opening of Boston's first subway, and got extended to the New York/Boston thing by an editor wanting a larger possible market for sales. As the author points out, there are already books about the New York system, so it's a shame that this effort didn't end up Boston-centric.

If you know nothing of the building of Boston's subway, or at least the opening of the first section, which is all that's covered here, this book is worth a look. I'd get it at the library.

The Race Underground

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Rogues and Redeemers - When Politics Was King in Irish Boston

Gerard O'Neill does a very good job in this look at some of the leading Irish politicians of 20th century Boston. This is less a general history than a story of prominent individuals, chapter by chapter. It would be a story of Irish mayors, but for the chapters on Ed Logue, the BRA Bulldozer, and Judge W. Arthur Garrity. While I would have preferred footnotes, the 'Notes' section at the back does give sources for each chapter.

What I liked about Rogues and Redeemers was that it provided the full sweep of Irish leadership in Boston politics, from Honey Fitz to Ray Flynn. At 375 pages, you get enough information on each era to make sense of the changes that occurred over time. Both John F. Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley have been dealt with in other books, so it's nice to see John Hynes and John Collins get their due here. Collins was the first mayor I remember, and lived a block away from us along Centre street in Jamaica Plain.

Now for the Quibble Department. I was surprised to see Gerard O'Neill get a famous quote wrong. Somehow, Martin Lomasney's   much-quoted "Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink" becomes "never write it down if you can talk, and never talk if you can nod." Maybe he knows something I don't, but I've never seen his version of the Lomasney wisdom.

Next, in a very common mistake, more than once he refers to Scollay Square's Cornhill as Cornhill street. Why did Cornhill lack the Street appellation? I dunno - it's just one of those accidents of history that students of Boston history have to know.

Finally, in a puzzler, is this quote: "In a contemptuous slight by the Yankee authorities, the El overshadowed the Holy Cross Cathedral's grand portico while providing nary a stop in the South End." The truth is that the choice of the South End for the Archdiocese's Cathedral was recognized as a poor one long before the Elevated line was erected. If there was going to be an elevated line through the South End, it was going to go down Washington street, as it runs under Washington street downtown. And as to 'nary a stop,' it was a rapid transit line. Too many stops would have made it a not-so-rapid transit line. And in fact, both the south and north sides of the South End were covered, with Northhampton and Dover streets receiving stations.

No, wait... another definite quibble. The treatment of Louise Day Hicks is typical of what we get today - knee-jerk distaste, but I have to call out O'Neill for his language. When Hillary Clinton is criticized for her wardrobe, the Sexist Alarm goes off, but O'Neill feels free to refer to Louise Hicks as 'frumpy.' And feel safe from criticism because, you know, SHE'S RACIST! While there's barely a word on Kevin White's late term scandals. Cause he Had A Vision.

My quibbles took longer to cover here than my praise, but Rogues and Redeemers is definitely a book to read.

Rogues and Redeemers

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Portland Gale

I usually feature buildings and sites lost to current memory, but Boston's long life as a seaport (as opposed to the non-seaport 'Seaport District') leaves us a remarkable history of lost ships to explore. The Portland Gale of 1898 - named for an eponymous lost passenger steamer - was one of the great Nor'easters of Boston's history. The great Perfect Storm of its day came up the coast, reaching New England on November 26. Warned to stay in port, the Captain of the Portland decided to go to sea, confident that he could outrun the storm. Somewhere off Cape Cod, the Portland went down, with the loss of 192 lives.

One hundred and fifty ships were wrecked along the New England coast, and four hundred lives were lost. Please note: As a result of the recent Superstorm Sandy, an estimated two hundred and sixty eight people died.

I was reminded of the Portland Gale by a mention in David Traxel's 1898: The Birth of the American Century. He describes how, while at the Boston dock,  a mother cat carried her kittens one by one off the Portland and into a shed.  Hmmm....

The Portland Gale Blog