Have you been to Nebraska in the late nineteenth century and met its German, Czech and Yankee settlers? Willa Cather’s My Antonia, paints the exquisite beauty and loneliness of the landscape, the power of its changing seasons, and the captivating resilience of Great Plains settlers who forged a life there. Have you wondered if you’d be tough enough to leave your warring homeland and begin somewhere else? Read Isabel Allende’s new triumph A Long Petal of the Sea, which chronicles a family fleeing Spain’s Civil War (1939) and making new lives in Chile. Are you curious about the Belgian Congo in the 1950s? (Aren’t we all?) Read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and when you finish, you may weep that this fine book had to end. Are you seeking a first-hand account of justice gone wrong and forgiveness extended? Read Anthony Hinton’s spellbinding The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row -- an eye-popping account of an innocent black man sentenced to death in Alabama, who endured thirty years in prison before lady-justice removed her blindfold.
If you just want some place new to go, and a fresh, funny take on it, try any of Bill Bryson’s travel books: I’m a Stranger Here Myself (Hanover NH), In a Sunburned Country (Australia) or A Walk in the Woods (Appalachian Trail). And, last of all, if you long for Christmas in July, don’t miss Gretchen Anthony’s hysterically funny and touching Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in which Violet Baumgartner, type-A matriarch from a distinguished family, channels her family’s (mis)adventures through the annual holiday letter. You’ll end up loving her.
This summer, when so much of the news is dark and heavy and worrisome, take time to recharge and restore. Get above it. Read novels. Read poetry and more. And let Langston Hughes be your guide:
So since I’m still here livin’
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love --
But for livin’ I was born.
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry –
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!
P.S. Telling Our Stories is written for our adult readers, but if you’re looking for great reading for your kids, just peruse any of our month-related tabs and/or our chapter book section. See you in September….
Mary Beth Klee
But what an unlikely star. First, there was his name – nearly unpronounceable to his American pals. So, he Americanized it to “Danny Thomas” by adopting one name from each of his brothers. Then there was his nose, the caricature feature that cartoonists loved to mock.
Though urged by studio execs to “get rid of the schnoz,” he declined and decided to take his chances. He went on to become a renowned nightclub entertainer and a TV star. The series Make Room for Daddy and then The Danny Thomas Show brightened two decades, as he made us laugh at ourselves. And yet relatively early in his career, Danny provided his most lasting legacy, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That was hugely heroic.
In the 1950s, Thomas, though famous, was not rolling in dough. He was raising a young family of his own, but his philanthropy sprang from two sources: his humility and his heart. He never considered his success in show biz as truly his own. He knew his desired path was a long shot, and when it looked like he might have to leave show business to get a steady job, Thomas, a devout Catholic, prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. “If you allow me success in this life path, I will build you a shrine,” he promised. And then “what about a hospital to save kids, whose future is threatened in the very dawn of life?”
St. Jude came through for Danny and Danny came through for St. Jude. The research hospital in Memphis, TN broke ground in 1962, when Thomas himself could not afford to endow it. Instead, in 1957 he mobilized the Lebanese and Syrian immigrant community that he grew up with to work on its behalf. ALSAC, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, came into being as a way of expressing gratitude to a land that had given them such opportunity. But Thomas didn’t stop there. He enlisted every funny man he knew (and he knew them all: Milton Berle, George Burns, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Sammy Davis Jr.) to host benefits for the new project. Soon a sprawling campus of medical energy sprang from the ground. Scared young children and their parents would arrive to receive new treatment and new hope.
Today St. Jude’s thrives and its mission is simple: to find cures for childhood diseases (mostly cancer) and save children. They’ve been spectacularly successful, recognized internationally as a major center of research and treatment. The overall childhood cancer survival rate in 1962 was 20%. Thanks to research at St. Jude's and elsewhere, today’s survival rate is over 80%. St. Jude’s itself has a 94% survival rate, which is up from 4% in 1962. Not only do physicians and staff attend to the young patients, but family travel, stay, and meals are all paid for at St. Jude’s. No family receives a bill. “Because all a family should worry about,” at this time they tell us “is helping their child live.”
Thomas wanted to make people laugh, lighten the heavy burden of life with a funny bit that left people howling and clamoring for more. “Did you kill ‘em?” is the classic question to a comedian. “I murdered 'em!” comes the reply from a successful comic. But deathly imagery is only a way of signaling momentary relief from the burden of life. Make Room for Danny! Ultimately, this Hollywood star used his gifts and fame not for himself, but to give children hope. His work ensured that the young would enjoy the burden and adventure of life, and that their laughter would live on. Seems to me that’s heroic, wise, and exemplary.
Mary Beth Klee
The Core Virtues Foundation is unaffiliated with St. Jude’s Research Hospital, but congratulates Marlo Thomas on continuing her father’s work and urges generous readers to read about their efforts at https://www.stjude.org/.
Hope plans. Though she clung to the dream that American troops would soon liberate them,
Hope did not put her trust in imminent release from danger. By late 1944, STIC prisoners were dying each day of starvation: she herself (5’3”) weighed less than 90 pounds. On September 22, 1944, the day after the first American planes overflew the camp and bombed Manila harbor (signaling to internees that help was on the way), Hope was on her knees outside her shanty, planting a little garden. When confronted by incredulous friends, who demanded to know what she was doing when liberation was only “days away,” she reminded them of the story of the Little Red Hen, and begrudgingly some decided to help her. Indeed, for the next four months that garden bore fruit (actually, spinach-like talinum, garlic, and mint) to tide them over.
Hope draws on memory. Hope Miller’s memories were partly those of her Granite State
girlhood at the foot of Mount Sunapee and of her husband, George. But hers was also the shared American memory: a sense of her nation’s story and her connection to it, a deep conviction that she was part of her country’s historic quest for freedom, liberty, and the wide open spaces that epitomized those qualities.
For a Thanksgiving Day performance, after ten months of captivity, Hope had her fifth
graders memorize and perform Stephen St. Vincent Benet’s, “The Ballad of William Sycamore.” In that poem, a Great Plains pioneer laments losing his two sons in battle -- one, at the Alamo and another at Little Big Horn, but “still could say, ‘So be it.’ But I could not live when they fenced the land, for it broke my heart to see it.’” On folding chairs, behind the iron bars of Santo Tomas, there was not a dry eye in the house. On Washington’s Birthday in 1944, Hope participated in a reading of Maxwell Anderson’s play, Valley Forge. Freedom, the play reminded these Americans in captivity, was often forged in time of trial. Endurance was part of the national drama.
In mid-February, days after they were liberated, a young soldier sat next to Hope in the halls of Santo Tomas, staring at the emaciated men and women newly rescued and quietly taking in the cracked walls and squalid living conditions. While other GIs joked and chatted with internees, this “Still-Waters-Run-Deep” fellow put his hand on Hope’s forearm and said quietly, “Tell me. Did you ever despair?” In her written memoir, Hope writes, “My answer seemed very important to him.” And truth be told, if anyone had reason to despair it might have been Hope, who would return to the United States at age forty-one, widowed, childless, and penniless … to start all over. But instead, she couldn’t suppress a smile, took a drag from her cigarette and exhaled with satisfaction. “No. You see,” she turned toward the young man as if it were very important that he understand each gravelly word, “We knew you’d come back. We just knew it.” She held his eyes for a long moment and relished the childlike smile that suffused his face.
Faith, hope, and love. Maybe in May of 2020, our time of national confinement, the
greatest of these is hope. Hope is not a cheerful Candide, but a gritty Can-Do. True hope
teaches us to endure, leads us to work, prompts us to lose ourselves in the needs of others, and draws strength from memory: our own treasured stories and those of others in our land who persevered in times of adversity.
Mary Beth Klee is the author of Leonore’s Suite, a recently published novel about the experience of American civilians interned by the Japanese in Santo Tomas. Hope Miller's story is told therein and draws on Hope Miller Leone’s unpublished manuscript, Nor All Your Tears.
“For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad….” The traditional wedding vows lay bare the meaning of faithfulness: to stand by the beloved in bright and bountiful times, and in privation and peril. “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” J.R.R. Tolkien reminds us.
Faithfulness (an attribute of both love and justice) is a hard virtue for us moderns. Contemporary culture prizes the individual and autonomy. Should we really be bound to each other or some abstract ideal in good times and in bad? For better or for worse? That’s fine for dogs, maybe, but what if such bonds seem to anchor us to a dead weight?
Maybe we can learn something from dogs (the traditional symbols of fidelity in art). This month our K-6 literary selections feature the true story of Hachiko, the Akita companion of a Japanese professor. From 1923 to 1925, Hachi waited each day at the Shibuya Train station in Tokyo for his master to return from work. The young dog was daily rewarded with the embrace of Dr. Ueno, who showered him with affection and treats. But the professor’s sudden death in 1925 could not be explained to his canine companion. For the next ten years, until the end of his own life, Hachiko went daily to the train station to stand vigil for his master. Vendors and those who frequented the station fed and sustained him, but he would not be removed and died standing vigil.
Only a dog would do that we think. And what good was it? He missed out on his whole life watching for someone who never came. Still, a bronze statue in front of the station honors his faithfulness and young couples pledge their love to each other before it. And, there is something in the human spirit that honors this sacrifice. Did he lose his life or find it?
I have two friends (one on each coast) married for more than sixty years each, who are caring in the home for their physically failing husbands (92 and 85 respectively). The men both have dementia and are increasingly non-verbal and immobile. Neither woman leaves the home overnight anymore. Neither travels. Both rely on a network of family and friends to assist occasionally, but they are on duty 24-7 and living out what many of us think of as “for worse” in their 80s and 90s. And what strikes me about both these remarkable women is that neither complains, and both have a joyful spirit. “I took the good times. I’ll take the bad,” one of them told me. “I am so grateful for his life and that we're together,” said the other. To me it seems they have each become more fully themselves through their faithfulness, which in this case involves both service and sacrifice.
Not everyone could do this, and not all spouses should, but faithfulness to the beloved, to our ideals, and our communities remains a timeless virtue. “We are born to unite with our fellow man and to join in community with the human race,” Cicero wrote. Could he have envisioned the faithfulness of women such as these? Or the example of our “heroine” this month, Annie Sullivan, who gave her whole life to make possible the full life and growth of Helen Keller? These role models "hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles," and we are all better for it.
PS: My eighty-two-year-old friend and her eighty-five-year-old husband just adopted a puppy.
Her name is Grace.
Mary Beth Klee
He resolved to stay and pay what he owed. Lincoln joked that he had his own “National Debt.” It took him several years, but he paid it all back, every penny. “His straightforward conduct in this and other dealings earned him the nickname ‘Honest Abe,’” wrote Lincoln historian Benjamin Thomas.
As a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he always tried to treat people fairly. Once a client sent him $25 for drawing up some papers. “You must think I am a high-priced man,” Lincoln wrote him. “You are too liberal with your money. Fifteen dollars is enough for the job.” He sent $10 back.
Another time, he discovered that one of his law partners had charged $250 for a case representing a young woman who was mentally disabled. “Lamon, that is all wrong,” he said. “The service was not worth that sum.” He made his partner to give half the money back. “That money comes out of the pocket of a poor, demented girl, and I would rather starve than swindle her in this manner,” he insisted.
Integrity mattered. “The Lincoln of reality seems to match the Lincoln of myth in this regard: that he tried to be scrupulously honest and honorable in his personal dealings, and cared a great deal about his reputation for being so,” wrote Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller.
Lincoln, of course, was a politician, and he could be crafty. No doubt about that. But as a legislator and as president, he tried hard to stick to his word. “I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it,” he told the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Douglass met with Lincoln in the White House during the Civil War to discuss policies regarding, among other matters, black soldiers. After his visit, Douglass told an audience: “Now, you will want to know how I was impressed by him…. He impressed me as being just what every one of you have been in the habit of calling him—an honest man.”
Some people thought Lincoln would never go through with his pledge to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a politically risky act. “I trust to prove true to a principle which I feel to be right,” he said, and sign it he did. “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” he said before he wrote his name.
When the war went badly, his critics called him a confused, incompetent rube. But his allies, including millions of Americans, sensed that he was a good, decent man. And that helped them know that the cause they were fighting for was good and decent.
Lincoln’s log-cabin-to-White-House story is still one of the most compelling in all of American history. So let’s hear it for Honest Abe this February 12, his birthday, and all this month. He’s a great example for young people. Let’s make sure they know Honest Abe really was just that.
John T.E.Cribb is the author of Old Abe, a novel about Abraham Lincoln, forthcoming in Fall 2020. He is co-author (with Bill Bennett) of The American Patriot's Almanac and The Educated Child.
How did this come about? Before World War II, as many as ten thousand American expats were living and doing business in the Philippines. Officially American territory, the islands were slated for independence in 1946. But after the Japanese pummeled Pearl Harbor, they targeted the American military strongholds closest to Japan—Manila’s Clark Air Force Base, Nichols Field, and the U.S. naval fleet at Subic Bay. For Allied civilians living there, three years of captivity, overcrowding, squalor, disease, cruelty, and hunger followed. My mother, Lee Iserson, thirteen-and-a half at the time of their imprisonment, was among the children interned, along with her mother and sister.
Internees showed courage and pluck throughout the three years: within three weeks of internment, they'd established a K-12 school for the more than seven hundred children. They organized a sanitation committee, a health committee, an education committee, a religious services committee. They printed an “Internews” newspaper, manned a Central Kitchen, and haggled with the Japanese for buying privileges outside of camp. They mandated camp duties and had their own patrol system set up within the camp. Conditions and Japanese “magnanimity” worsened dramatically as time went on. True grit was required in January 1945.
Days before Christmas 1944, American pilots dropped leaflets on the camp, proclaiming “American forces of Liberation in the Pacific wish their gallant Allies, the People of the Philippines, all the blessings of Christmas and the realization of their fervent hopes for the New Year.” Surely, the liberating forces were about to free them.
But January became a crucible of suffering. No Christmas Red Cross packages supplemented camp rations, as had been the case in December 1943. Breakfast and dinner now consisted of one scoop of lugao, a thin rice gruel. In January internees were dying of starvation at the rate of one per day. School, a perennial distraction for the camp’s children, had ended partly because internees could not afford the calorie expenditure to climb stairs to their classrooms.
Dr. Ted Stevenson, attending the dying in the Camp’s hospital, exemplified courage when he refused to falsify death certificates. He had been indicating “malnutrition” and “starvation” as causes of death, but was told by his captors (who feared Allied accusations of war crimes) that those were no longer acceptable, and other causes should be substituted. Dr. Stevenson dug in his heels and said “no.” He risked being carted off to Torture Central, Fort Santiago, by refusing to do so, but found himself thrown into the camp jail instead.
For women and children struggling to survive, courage was closely linked to imagination and hope. The topic of food dominated every conversation, and many internees had taken to writing recipes and planning menus, as a substitute for actual food. My mother kept a thin-lined, spiral-bound notebook with more than three hundred seventy recipes written in tiny script. Her January entries were for Pineapple Raisin Ice Cream, Stuffed Pork Shoulder, Ham Pancakes, and Chocolate Mint Roll. Some of the little children played restaurant. When asked for their order by their big sister waitress, one little girl replied she’d like a sandwich. “What kind?” big sister asked. “I’d like a sandwich with some bread on it,” said the four year old, all earnestness. (There had been no bread for eighteen months.)
Ex-internee Curtis Brooks has written: “we shared a common moral experience, the loss of home and possessions, the loss of country in the defeat of ’42, the almost palpable sense of waiting. Waiting for the liberation which we all believed in…[we were] a community with a single purpose, to survive to the day of liberation.”
Survival in January 1945 required every ounce of courage those internees could muster. At a 2015 conference in Manila celebrating the 70th anniversary of Santo Tomas’s liberation, surviving internees (most of whom were children at the time of liberation) described circumstances at the end. A high-school student in the audience asked: “I struggle with depression, and sometimes think of suicide. Were you ever tempted to suicide?” Joan Bennett Chapman, the presenting internee, seemed genuinely taken aback by the question. Then said, “No. Never. We were certain our boys would be back for us. Our job was to hold on to hope.” They did so with courage.
Mary Beth Klee. Mary Beth is the author of Leonore's Suite, a novel about the teen experience of internment at Santo Tomas. Forthcoming February 2020.
Great age-appropriate stewardship opportunities can be found in local communities too. When children work on local litter pick-up days, they experience first-hand what it means to be good stewards of their environment (and learn a valuable lesson about what NOT to do with trash). When they donate or organize canned goods for the neighborhood food pantry, they learn what it means to be “my brother’s keeper.” When they thank service members or first-responders (with written notes or treats), they extend not just gratitude, but care to those who keep them safe.
Too often we’re tempted to downplay these important acts of daily stewardship. Why not have young children march for action on climate change? Or write letters to Congressmen about gun control? Or contact state reps about minimum wage legislation? Because there is a difference between stewardship and political activism. Elementary schools (with parents on both sides of any given issue) should avoid the latter. Children have much to learn--academic and moral--and at this age, the important lessons of stewardship are best learned through the things they daily see, touch, and control. First and foremost, even as adults, quality lives are mostly about stewardship of the specific tasks entrusted to our care.
The classic nursery rhyme “For want of a nail” drives home that very point. The rhyme is based on the cautionary tale of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). Undersupplied and in haste, the cobbler failed to shoe the king’s horse properly, trusting that three nails rather than four would do the trick. In the heat of battle, the horseshoe flew off; the steed stumbled, threw its rider, and bolted. The King’s men, already in retreat, left their sovereign to his ignominious fate, and the battle was lost. Shakespeare has the fallen Richard cry out: “My horse, my horse! A kingdom for a horse!” Mother Goose recounts it this way:
For want of nail, a shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For want of a horse, a battle was lost,
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The small acts of stewardship matter. They give rise to a lifetime of habits that move beyond home and classroom, and ultimately create a better world.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.