Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ointments, Balms, Herbs (oh, my)

One of the wonderful things in writing a character like Abelia Brody is learning things that I never knew. Of course, in writing any historical novel one must do research into how people lived in the past--in this case, 1917.  I've learned how to start a car in 1917. The types of stoves that people had in their homes.  How they fed their pet dogs in the age before commercial dog food.  Phonograph record players ("talking machines," as they were known then). Popular Mississippi River excursions. Prohibition. Movies.  Charlie Chaplin. To name just a few.

But Abelia is a gardener. Her favorite place to be is in her garden, butterflies fluttering playfully around her head. She knows her plants and herbs and makes good use of them. Before starting on this journey, I knew nothing about plant grafting, for instance. Or the difference between lilac and lavender. But, in order to write Abelia's story, I needed to know these things and much more: like how to make a basic salve:

Abelia had learned much from Rima Reiniger, not just how to make gazpacho. From Rima, she learned about the healing nature of herbs and flowers. She learned which plants were poisonous and which poisonous plants could be made medicinal by merely adding another herb or flower. She learned how to set bones and deal with scrapes and abrasions. After all, Rima’s husband often boxed on the weekends and on many occasions had come home with swollen limbs, near-broken ribs, black eyes and cuts. In fact, Heinrich was a much better brewer than boxer. He was very popular in Over-the-Rhine, however. After bouts he would often accompany his fans, sometimes carried heroically on their shoulders, to the local pub to down pints of his own brew. Whether he won or not was immaterial: it was really about the celebratory beers.
     When Rima returned for Spain, she left Abelia the collection of old medicinal tomes that she often consulted for her knowledge. “These books,” Rima stated with her typical dramatic flair, “have been passed down from my great-grandmother’s mother. Take good care of them.”
     Abelia smiled when she cracked the books and noticed that they were written in English. Rima winked knowingly and patted the girl on the head. It was those books that Abelia had digested over the years, pouring over every page and hand-written note in the margins. As a result, she was able to distinguish comfrey from the poisonous foxglove, knew how to make a red clover tea to aid in conception and produced a very popular basil infused headache remedy that Ellie was worried would take away business from her husband’s pharmacy. Ellie had once even complained to Gerald about this but was forced to give up when boxes of the light green elixir failed to materialize from Abelia’s two-story farmhouse. Never during this time did she once ask Abelia if she could sell the elixir in the store; she just wanted to keep Abelia out of the pharmaceutical industry.
     Due to her success with plants it was unavoidable that Abelia was sometimes consulted for her knowledge when it came to those seeking basic remedies. People didn’t like to admit this, however, and were only willing to talk to her when they desperately wanted something. And then when she provided the necessary balm or ointment, she would be left alone until the next crisis, whether a colicky child or a downed postal carrier. Doc Foster often came to her but sometimes did so on the sly, as a handful of people in Lily Springs were still unsure whether or not Abelia processed some other-worldly powers of a dark nature. Plus, most people in Lily Springs would rather not face the wrath of Ellie, who, even after all of these years, still saw Abelia as competition.
     Black eyes were nothing new to Abelia, but she sure wasn’t expecting to see one when Robert came around the following afternoon delivering the mail and newspapers.  (Lilac Wine, Chapter 18)

So here it is: Abelia's recipe for a a basic salve for bruises:


Several Marigold flowers
Several Arnica flowers
Olive oil
Beeswax (in honey)

1. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil on the stove. Be careful not to bring to a boil; don't make it too hot. Just hot enough to bring out the essence of the flowers.
2. Chop the marigold and arnica flowers as finely as possible. Add to the oil. Stir. Take off stove. Let it sit for about ten minutes.
3. Add a segment of beeswax. Let the honey drip off as much as possible before adding.
4. Stir. If necessary, add to the heat until the beeswax melts to smooth consistency.
5. Remove from the stove and place in a dish. Let cool.

Then, apply to bruised area as needed.

Marigolds have been used for centuries in healing, as they contain anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents. The Greeks actually made a marigold tea to help relieve tension. Commonly, marigolds are used to to aid in the healing of bruises. But they are also used to treat varicose veins, sore nipples and diaper rash.

Arnica, from the sunflower family, is a flower that has anti-inflammatory properties. This flower should only be used externally, as it produces harmful effects on the kidneys and liver so should never be eaten or used on unbroken skin. This is important.


Lilac Wine is a novel in progress.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Researching the Battle of Cantigny

On the morning of May 28, 1918, the Americans made their first offensive in the Great War by attacking the German-held village of Cantigny, located some 70 miles north of Paris.  Leading the attack was the 28th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. First Division--the "Big Red One," as they will come to be known.

From the beginning, I knew that Cantigny would be central to the novel, Lilac Wine.

Over the last year, I have done much reading about the battle.  But I needed to know more.  Today, I took a trip to the research library of the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois.  The museum is located on the estate of Robert McCormick, the one-time publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a veteran of World War I.  He renamed his estate after that famous battle and, according to his will, had it dedicated as a public park after his death.  The research library, which is open to the public, houses artifacts, pictures, diaries and all things military.

There, I discovered some treasures that have helped me shape the narrative of Lilac Wine.

I was able to examine pictures I had never seen before related to the Battle of Cantigny, including aerial shots of the battle in progress:

Aerial view of the Battle of Cantigny.
Aerial view of the Battle of Cantigny. 

German soldier emerging from the ruins of Cantigny.

Wounded American soldier at Cantigny.

But the most notable find was a history of the 28th Regiment annotated by a soldier who had been there.  His annotations give a glimpse into the battle that texts cannot recreate.  The soldier's name was Floyd Henry Weeks.  He served in M Company of the 28th regiment.  The book dates from 1920 and the annotations are in pencil and ink.

Here is what he says about Martin O'Connor:  "The 1st man in M co. to give up his life.  3-28-18"

And Maniphe Stonecipher:  "I never saw a braver man in all my life--he died at Paris-Soissons Road 7/21/18 after attacts [sic] against machine guns that were holding up everything on the third day of the Ainse Marne offensive."

According to Weeks, Robert Purdy was "a prince.  Killed at Soissons."

2nd Lt. William Payne was "some guy.  A heartbreaker with the froulines.  Boy, I'll bet when he gets home he'll have some explainin."

He called Major Willis Tack  "West Point Willy."

Gerald Tyler was "a good scout and a fine officer.  Never gave you hell and always furnished an alibi for you."

It's one thing reading about a battle.  But reading the notes from a soldier scribbled in his own hand adds a different dimension to the story.  The people become more than just names on a fading page.  They become real.
Thank you, Floyd Henry Weeks.

During the assault on Cantigny, 199 doughboys were killed, including 13 officers.  652 men were wounded.  200 men were gassed and 16 men went missing and were never found.

Beating all expectations, the Americans held the town.


Lilac Wine is a novel in progress.

The First Division Museum, located in Wheaton, Illinois, is a great place to visit.  It is one of the best museums in the area.  There, you can walk through the ruins of of Cantigny and visit a reconstructed World War I trench.  You can walk the beaches of Normandy and the jungles of Vietnam.  For more information, click here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Anti-German Hysteria in the First World War

Anti-German sign outside of Edison Park, Chicago, 1917.
At the outbreak of the First World War, anti-German hysteria swept the United States.  Symphonies refused to play the works of Beethoven and Bach.  Saloons stopped serving pretzels.  Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.”  The teaching of the German language was removed from schools.  City streets with German names were changed in Chicago and other cities throughout the United States. 

And it gets worse. In April of 1918, German-born Robert Prager was seized by a mob in Collinsville, Illinois. He was stripped of his clothes, wrapped in the American flag and led to the center of town. Along the way, he was forced to kiss the flag several times. Then, he was hanged before a cheering crowd of several hundred. Newspapers applauded the lynching. At the trial, the men accused of his murder were acquitted. The jury wore red, white and blue ribbons to court and took only 25 minutes to find the perpetrators not guilty.

Shortly after war was declared on Germany, Robert Bishop was sitting in his favorite saloon, Conrad’s, in the South Loop in downtown Chicago. Although the proprietor, Conrad Mueller, had been in the United States for many years, his business was seeing a slump. And, like many German nationals at the time, he found himself the target of abuse:

Robert had never seen that man in Conrad’s before. He was a short, balding man with a well-trimmed mustache---no one out of the ordinary. He certainly didn’t raise suspicion like some people did when they walked into bars. Upon hearing the accent of the barkeep, however, he launched into a tirade against “huns” and “krauts.” It had been a relatively quiet evening up until that point. Robert sat by himself at the bar, warm with beer. Like others in Conrad’s, he had attempted to simply ignore the man. But when the loudmouth started blaming Conrad for the sinking of the Lusitania, he had had enough.
     “You’re a fucking baby-killer! Go back to your own country!” the man screamed.
     And with that, Robert lost it. He jumped from his seat and punched the man squarely in the face. The man was startled and when he lunged for Robert in return, Robert pummeled the man’s face with his fists. It wasn’t much of a contest. The man was drunk and disoriented. Some of the other patrons, who had sat not saying or doing anything when the incident began, started cheering and applauding. Robert got lost in the moment, caught up in the energy of the fight. He swung viciously and pushed. At one point, he had the man on the ground and was about to smash a bottle into his face when his arm was stopped. He flashed in anger at the person who had dared to stop him at this crescendo.
     Conrad, who held his arm, didn’t need to say anything. His eyes said it all. There was no anger in those eyes. No resentment. If those eyes could speak, they spoke gentle words, as if to say, “enough. No more. It is done.”
     And all of the anger rushed from Robert like air. His knees almost gave out. He felt exhausted. He staggered over to a barstool as the man on the floor coughed and rolled over in the sawdust. Conrad walked over to him.
     “My name is Conrad Mueller,” he said. The bar was silent. “I own this place. I may not be from here. But I am an American. I love this country more than you can possible imagine. This country has given me much to be thankful for.” He knelt down beside the man, who recoiled nervously, expecting another punch, no doubt.
      “When the Lusitania was sunk, you have no idea what that did to me. I gave up my homeland. Do you understand? Six months later I became American citizen. So, be careful who you tell to go back to his country. This is my country.”
     Conrad then turned, retied his apron and took his place behind the bar. Slowly the other patrons resumed their conversations, clinked their glasses together in cheers and began laughing once again. No one even saw the man get up and leave the bar.
     Conrad set a mug of Edelweiss in front of Robert.
     “There are ways to do things, my young friend,” he said. “And most of the time, you don’t need these.” He held up his fists. “Using these is too easy. And that is the problem with the world today, I am afraid.” He then set his hands gently once again on the top of the mahogany bar and, reaching for a white rag, began wiping it down.
     “But the things he said----“
     “Words is all. I have been around for a long time. And I have been called worse things. Trust me.”   (Lilac Wine, Chapter 17)
In terms of anti-German sentiment, Chicago was not quite as bad as other areas, probably due to the high concentration of German-Americans within the city.  In 1900, 1 out of every 4 Chicagoans were either born in Germany or had at least one parent from Germany.  Nonetheless, Germans living in Chicago also found themselves the object of scorn and suspicion.  The conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was forced to step down due to his German nationality.   Beer gardens, a staple in German bars throughout the north side, closed.  And many German-Americans Americanized their names so as to alleviate any suspicion cast upon them. 

In periods of war and conflict, such reactions are not uncommon.  Many may look back on the situation facing German-Americans during World War I as an anomaly; a relic from the past.  Yet recent events regarding Muslim Americans prove otherwise.

In Lilac Wine, Robert Bishop, a young man with no enthusiasm for the war, finds himself on the wrong side of public opinion.  Outspoken and loyal to friends, Robert faces this sentiment head-on, with disastrous results.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Abelia's Talking Machine: Music on Vinyl in 1917

Abelia Brody had a love for music. One of the few people in Lily Springs to even own a phonograph, Abelia often sat on her back porch into the evening hours, melodies blossoming from the horn of her "talking machine" and carried beyond her yard by the breeze of a summer's night. People on the other side of town could sometimes hear the soft voice of Enrico Caruso through their open windows, the curtains moving in the light breeze as if dancing to the music. She had a ritual on summer nights: music on the porch, the morning's paper from Dubuque and a bottle of her home-made wine. Her elderly neighbor, Rose, also enjoyed the music, although she was loath to admit it.

Abelia lifted the tone arm from the disc and slid the brake, stopping the turntable in its rotation. Her talking machine was a Harvard model, purchased from the Sears catalog in 1906 for $15.90. It had a large external horn and a nice oak cabinet that was now scratched and faded. The player was well worn but still produced good sound---good enough, anyway, for quiet summer evenings on the porch. She thought about buying one of the newer models that no longer had the external horn, but most of those were heavier and harder to move. The Victrola, for example, was contained in a large, wooden cabinet. It sounded better, she was told, but she rather liked her old model in that it could be moved to the outdoors rather easily. It sounded good outside and even Rose commented that she sometimes liked to fall asleep to the sounds of Abelia’s machine on a summer’s night. Except when she played ragtime music, that is. So, once the sun went down, Abelia refrained from ragtime and played some of the music that Rose said she enjoyed. Although Enrico Caruso was Rose’s favorite, Abelia usually capped the evening with “Ave Maria,” by the famous castrato Alessandro Moreschi.

When I started to embark on this journey with Abelia and Robert, I had recently dusted off an old turntable and began going through my collection of records. I also began researching the history of phonographs and records. That's when I stumbled across Alessandro Morreschi. As a castrato, Morreschi had been castrated before puberty in order to retain his boyish voice. This was often done to boys since the middle ages and almost happened to famous classical composer, Haydn---that is, until his father stepped in and refused the request from the choral director in Vienna. Morreschi is the only known castrato to have made recordings. And, quite frankly, there is something amazing (and disconcerting) about his voice:

"Ave Maria" by Alessandro Morreschi

I love vinyl records. Unlike music today where everything is digital, listening to an album on a phonograph was a full sensory experience. Of course, you have the music. And unlike music today which is too perfect--too clean--music was always accompanied by hiss and crackle.  But in never seemed to matter.  You heard through the imperfections.  In addition to the music, there was also the tactile experience of gently holding the album and examining the record sleeve and album art. I often did that lounging in a bean bag chair with the record playing on the phonograph. And I imagined Abelia doing the same basic thing. Records at the turn of the century were, of course, played at 78 rpm. The records were a little smaller than the LP standardized during the 1950s and lacked album art. These records were thick--very thick. Luckily, one of my turntables is able to play 78's and I have several of them from my grandfather's collection. However, nothing as old as what Abelia would have listen to.

Abelia had quite a collection of music. I have scoured the internet trying to find some records that I thought would have pleased Abelia. One enormous collection of old records can be found at There, I discovered a tune that would become one of Abelia's favorites:

She had a box of records on the table and shuffled through them to find another one. She had been buying records since getting the Harvard and had acquired quite a collection over the last decade. Her love of music came from her mother, Colleen Brody. Her fondest memories were of her mother singing to her in bed or humming a tune in the garden.
     Near the back of the box she stumbled upon one of her favorite discs: “She is Far From the Land,” recorded by Irish tenor, John McCormack in 1911 on the Victor label. This was an old Irish tune that her mother sang to her when she was a child. Lifting it from the box, Abelia delicately placed the record on the turntable. After giving the arm a couple of cranks, she placed the needle onto the record and released the brake. Instantly, the melodic sound filled the porch. Abelia picked up her wine and turned down the lantern. Leaning against the porch post, she looked out over her garden, the light in the western sky fading into darkness. The first of the lightning bugs were out, glowing softly around the Evening Primrose.
She is far from the land
Where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers are round her, sighing;
But coldly she turns
From their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.

"She Belongs to the Land" by John McCormack:

Like Abelia, I can sit for hours just listening to music (Abelia and I have a lot in common, actually). After cutting the grass in the summer, for example, I like nothing better than to sit on a bench, soaking in the sun with music playing through the iPod.  My iPod has become much like Abelia's box of vinyl 78s.  Pretty much every type of music can be found there.

Everything, that is, except Alessandro Moreschi.

I think Abelia would love iPods.  I can picture her in her garden, walking among the fruit and butterflies, the white cords dangling from her ears.  Abelia would fit nicely in the 21st century.

Writing the chapters in Lilac Wine dealing with record players and music awakened in me a desire to listen to my music on their original vinyl.  I recently fixed two turntables and have been cleaning and playing old albums. And I have taken it one step further: in addition to this blog, I have recently started an internet radio station dedicated to the playing of music on original vinyl. The radio station is called The Vinyl Voyage. There you can hear several different genres of music, just like the box of records in Abelia's dining room.