Monthly Archives: November 2014

J.B West – Upstairs at the White House (1973)

Upstairs at the White House

In honour of American Thanksgiving, I’ve included one of my favourite books about the Presidency, AND a recipe for apple pie. Enjoy!

It is not easy to write about the Presidency and not get political. West does just that however, and while some might be looking for more of a political slant, West does not, and will not provide it. This book must be read for what it is, an account of the presidents and their families who occupied the White House for the years that West was in service there. West’s loyalty as a White House Butler is to the White House and the Presidency itself, not to the individual men or their families.

West came into service at the White House just as Roosevelt was entering his final years. He then served in the house through the Presidencies of; Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Each family getting its own set of chapters with details about their decorations, family traditions, favourite meals, and personalities. West provides charming details into the lives of the families he worked for including how different having the Kennedy’s in the White House was, simply because they had young children, and how Mamie Eisenhower’s style broke with that of earlier first ladies in that she wanted everything to be pink and frilly. Throughout his writing however, West maintains his professionalism and never writes anything that betrays the confidence of the families he worked for.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book was the financial side of things. Presidents have a very limited salary and were always allocated a specific sum to be used to redecorate the White House. I find that even though we see the President as having a domestic life, we don’t always think about things like managing a household budget. The anecdotes that make up West’s work make this book worth reading; he puts a more humane face to the Presidency (even Richard Nixon) and provides and compelling behind-the-scenes look at life in the White House

Serve With

Homemade Apple Pie!

While there are a number of White House cookbooks and websites that provide information about the favourite meals of various Presidents, in honour of American Thanksgiving I decided to make a traditional all-American apple pie.

Special Post – A Victorian Christmas

Christmas is officially one month away! I decided to look into how 19th Century Torontonians would have celebrates this time of the year with a trip to Mackenzie House. You can read all about it on the Musings Blog. For anyone looking for something to do in Toronto this weekend I highly recommend visiting one of Toronto’s Historic Houses. (Complimentary Cider and Cookies at Mackenzie House!)

Jim Fergus – One Thousand White Women (1998)


Jim Fergus’ book has so much potential; an alternative history about what would have happened if the United States government had granted the request from the Cheyenne Indians and sent them one thousand white brides. Unfortunately Fergus was not up to the task and this book did not impress me. While I am willing to concede that Fergus is passionate about his subject matter and has clearly done a lot of research on it, his writing style simply made this book almost unbearable.

Firstly the fact that Fergus, as a man, is writing a series of diary entries from a female perspective makes this whole story unbelievable. While I certainly do not know how a woman in May Dodd’s situation would act and think, I also do not believe Jim Fergus is the expert either. Secondly Fergus uses every and stereotype in the book, May Dodd’s husband is the strong silent Indian chief, and May’s compatriots comprise of a set of wily Irish twins, a racist Southern debutante, and a wise and kind Black woman. The cast of clichés sets the book up in an incredibly predictable fashion as May Dodd struggles to adjust to life amongst the Cheyenne’s first viewing them as savage but finally comes to the realization, through falling in love with her husband, that the Indians are no so different from herself.

I have no idea how the book ended as I simply stopped reading but my guess is that everyone is transformed for the better through their experience amongst the Cheyenne.

Update – Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge

Watching Gilmore Girls has made me realize how many books there are out there, and how many I haven’t read! I’ve added a page to this blog for the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge, that includes every book that is referenced on the show. It is a huge list, but I’m in no rush. It’s a fun way to read and a great way too work through the classics. Let me know if I’ve missed any!

Susan Bordo – The Creation of Anne Boleyn (2013)


By far the absolute best book I’ve read on the Tudor’s and specifically on Anne Boleyn. Bordo is not so much interested in providing the reader with a biography of Anne Boleyn, but rather with exploring the reasons why Anne Boleyn has become the most famous of Henry VIII’s wives. It is quite true, while some will know the names of Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour, the names of the later wives, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr fade into history, even for those who study this time period. Why has Anne Boleyn become for some a figure of such fascination? Why does she, more than any of the other wives arouse such strong feelings among those who either love or hate her?

One reason is that Anne Boleyn was seemingly at the center of Henry’s decision to break with the Church. While there was a great deal of background maneuvering and other politics involved, the traditional narrative is generally that Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church because they would not allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Bordo examines Anne Boleyn however as a cultural construct and how most of what we know about her today comes from pretty recent knowledge.

Bordo takes issue with the way Anne Boleyn has been portrayed in recent popular culture, in things such as The Other Boleyn Girl, or The Tudors. Bordo’s problems with these portrayals of Anne is not that she thinks they are wrong, but rather these two cultural objects, a historical fiction novel and a dramatized TV show, claim to be representing fact. Bordo especially attack’s Philippa Gregory’s claim that her novel is “historically accurate,” in terms of its portrayal of the life of Anne Boleyn. In reality, we can not be sure of anything when it comes to Anne Boleyn because the sources are so scarce; We can only rely on knowledge that has been twisted and formed throughout the years, most of which came from people who had ulterior motives.

Throughout her study Bordo does not seek to condemn Anne to live on in history as a “harlot” but nor does she seek to rehabilitate Anne. There is no way of knowing for sure what happened during Anne Boleyn’s life and the events that led to her rise and downfall will remain to be clouded by politics and betrayal. We’ll never know if anything about Anne is 100% true, and that reason, the mystery and allure that can be ascribed to her, is why Anne Boleyn occupies such an important place in the historical imagination.

Margaret Atwood – Maddaddam Trilogy (2013)


Growing up in the Canadian school system, Margaret Atwood was a name that was thrown around a lot. Her books never really appealed to me however and I made it though high school without having to read any. It wasn’t until a summer in university that I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale and absolutely devoured it. I decided to try another one of Atwood’s dystopian futures, Oryx and Crake and while I did not love it as much as The Handmaid’s Tale, I decided to stick with the series and read the other two books. I was not disappointed as, for me, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam were spellbinding.

The trilogy takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States with flashbacks to they way things were before the breakout of an epidemic that wiped out a majority of the population. In Oryx and Crake, you meet Crake and Jimmy, childhood friends who grew up together in a government compound where pharmaceuticals were manufactured. The society that the two boys grow up in is a morally depraved one where the government manufactures a drug for everything and popular forms of entertainment include watching public executions and various lewd sexual acts. Crake as the more gifted of the two creates his own “species” of humans called “Crakers” who were devoid of all the flaws he saw in his own species. You find out (Spoiler) that Crake is responsible for the epidemic released, but he left Jimmy alive to watch over the Crakers. The story is told alternating between Jimmy’s point of view in the present post-apocalyptic work, and a third person during flashbacks to Jimmy and Crake growing up. This wasn’t my favourite as I didn’t like either character and found them both to be annoying.

The Year of the Flood however was more interesting as it parallels the events of Oryx and Crake but takes place in the “Pleeblands” the area outside of government-run compounds and follows two characters, Toby and Ren and how they survived “The Flood.” This novel was more interesting as it brought in elements of religion with the “God’s Gardeners,” and the characters were more likeable with more interesting backstories. The third instalment, Maddaddam picks up where The Year of the Flood leaves off, but fell short of my expectations.

While the trilogy is full of hokey language (pigoons: a pig-racoon genetic hybrid; bimplants: breast implants, etc) Atwood paints a vision of the future that is entirely possible. Her world in Maddaddam differs drastically from her world in A Handmaid’s Tale. In the latter novel, the world is run my puritanical evangelists while in her more recent work drug companies and big businesses run the world. Think of it as a much more sobering version of Idiocracy (a great and fairly underrated movie). Juxtaposing the two books also says a great deal about Atwood’s activism and her response to the times. A Handmaid’s Tale was published in the late 1980’s when Evangelical Christianity was seeing a rebirth in North America. Now with Maddaddam Atwood is responding to current trends in entertainment, as well as the health and food industries. It is an entertaining read but underneath a very thought provoking one. Atwood’s view of the future is a realistic one, which is a very terrifying thing indeed.

Elliot West – The Last Indian War (2009)

The Last Indian War

American historiography is stocked full of literature covering the Civil War and Reconstruction. The story of the Nez Perce is also and oft-told one, but in his book The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, Elliot West seeks to reconsider the history of the United States during the period between 1845 and 1877. For West the phrase “Greater Reconstruction” encompasses two great events in the United States – The Civil War and its consequences, and the movement of Americans into the West – that reconstructed the nation. In revisiting this event West argues that the 1870s conflict between the Nez Perce and the US federal government should be viewed in the broader study of the Greater Reconstruction.

After giving an ethnographic study of the Nez Perce people, West divides his work into three parts. The first details the growing tensions between the Nez Perce and incoming white settlers that let to the outbreak of violence. He discusses white settlers and missionaries, as well as events, such as the Gold Rush, that brought additional settlers to the area. The second and longest sections details the beginning of war on the Idaho-Oregon border in June to the final battle in Montana the following October. During this section of his book, West’s grip on military history is clear. He gives long detailed accounts of the Battles, tactics, and maneuvers that characterized the year at war. The final section deals with the final battle and Indian defeat in Bear’s Paw Mountain, the exile to Kansas and Indian Territory, and the return of the Nez Perce to Idaho and Washington territories in the 1880s. In this section West provides an intense biographical sketch of Joseph, the Nez Perce leader who surrendered to the American government. West details how at the time Joseph received a great deal of press coverage and popularity as he was considered a curiosity.

In his narrative account of the Last Indian War, West makes use of standard military histories, memoirs, congressional records, newspaper and journal articles, and published Nez Perce accounts of the war. The published works compiled by Lucullas McWhorter, who interviewed several survivors of the war, make up an important part of West’s work. In his review of West’s work however, RW Swagerty, criticized West for not making use of new information that continues to surface years later through family oral traditions.

This flaw aside, West summarized the war and significance for the United States by tying it to the greater questions surrounding the Civil War Reconstruction Period, especially questions surrounding the nature of citizenship and how it should extend (if at all) to freed blacks and Native Americans. For West, during these years, ironically the nation became more inclusive of blacks and immigrants, while becoming more exclusive of cultural diversity, especially its indigenous population. This era, he writes, “began in conquest and expanded promise. It unfolded through appalling bloodshed, liberation, consolidation, and cultural assault. It ended with the nation fighting its last Indian war against its most persistently loyal native ally”

West in his narrative on the Last Indian War and the period of Greater Reconstruction seeks to show how the new nation of the United States was emerging and needed to find a place for the non-whites. Unfortunately for the Nez Perce there was no place for them in the new nation.

Presenting On the First World War: Memory and Remembrance

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to present at the Humber Liberal Arts @IFOA Conference, “Representing World War I: Perspectives at the Centenary. The First World War was a monumental event and the way it is remembered is important. Recently it has become important to look at the way the war is remembered by those outside the dominant narrative. The paper I presented on, titled “Red Man On The Warpath”: The Problem of Native Canadian Enlistment During the First World War,  dealt with these themes:

Close to 4,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were of Aboriginal descent, a very high number given the limited civil rights afforded to Aboriginals in the early twentieth century. This number is especially striking given the problems that many Native men faced when attempting to enlist in the war.

When war broke out in 1914, Canada did not have a clear military policy and the Militia Act of 1904 was especially ambiguous regarding the role Aboriginals were to play in the military. Much of this ambiguity was due to the idea at the turn of the century that Aboriginals were “a disappearing race.” Because at the state of the war, recruitment centres were flooded with volunteers, local recruiting officers could afford to be very picky, and most agents would have relied on their own personal prejudices against Natives when considering their attempts to enlist.

This paper will build on much of the scholarly research done on Native Canadian contributions to the war effort, but focus purely on the early days on the way and the problem of recruitment by looking at popular images of Aboriginals in Canada at the time. Within these popular images includes the reoccurring tropes of the “Nobel Savage” or the “Bloodthirsty Redskin.” Local recruiting officers would have accepted or rejected Native recruits based on personal prejudices, which would have been necessarily informed by the dominant images of Native Canadians at the time.

The response to the paper was largely positive and I fielded some really engaging questions from the audience. The question on everyone’s mind however, seemed to be “Why did they fight?” It is a difficult question to answer, and can be applied to almost everyone in the First World War. The truth is I don’t think we’ll ever really know. Native Canadian men enlisted in the First World War to show their support for the crown, to better their own communities, for a sense of adventure, and for many other reasons that we may never be aware of. Not knowing the reasons for enlisting makes remembering the war difficult. We remember those who fought and died, but do we remember what they died for? With the case of the First World War it is quite tricky and the reasons for fighting were not as clear as they would be 20 years later. As many others who spoke mentioned we need to re-evaluate what we remember on November 11th. Yes we remember the Canadians that died in battle, but we also need to remember that they died to ensure a lasting peace. Peace. That is what the remembrance of the First World War, and any war for that matter, should be about.