At last month’s UW-Madison Writers’ Institute, I met Barbara M. Britton, author of a growing series of Bible-based romances, published by Pelican Book Group. Astounded to learn that there even is such a thing as Biblical historical romance, I bought a copy of Providence: Hannah’s Journey, the first of the series.
Providence opens in Jerusalem in 849 B.C. It tells the story of Hannah, daughter of the Levite priest Zebula. Hannah is cursed with congenital deformities which, though not very visible, bring her great grief. She lives in a society that interprets such things as frowns from God. Her priest father seeks a miracle cure at the hand of “the Prophet of Israel,” but the Prophet declines, saying only, “It is not her time.”
Shamed and forlorn, an outcast from her family and community, Hannah goes on a quest to track down the wandering prophet and press her case with renewed urgency. She meets a virile protector named Gilead, a young hero whose own uncertain parenthood is the burden he must bear in life. Hannah and Gilead are captured by the mighty military state of Aram and undergo severe trials on their way to a new encounter with the Prophet.
This compelling story is based (loosely) on the case of Naaman, an Aramean army commander who suffered from leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease) and had his life change by an encounter with the prophet Elisha, as told in the fifth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. It’s worth reading that chapter of the Bible either before or after reading Providence, for the sake of context.
Most of what happens in Providence is pure invention by Britton but is based on her view of the ancient Hebrew and Aramean societies. In that sense it is “Biblical” though obviously not literal. Is Barbara Britton’s depiction of that setting accurate and authentic? Who am I to say? Old Testament scholars would find a bone to pick soon enough—that’s why they’re scholars. But the story is moving and fast-paced, with a lot of heart, and with a firm foundation of faith at its core. Hannah and Gilead are strong and interesting characters, the kind of people we want to cheer for, and if this is an example of romance, it makes me want to read more.
. . . in my merry DeLorean–but, of course, modified with nuclear fuel compartment, flux capacitor, and date/time indicators!
Time travel is nothing new. People have been doing it for eons. Everybody from H.G. Wells to Doctor Who. They travel in time machines; they leap across time by hypnosis; or sometimes, they just stumble through an unseen portal that happens to be in their path.
You can travel Forward into the Future, or Backward into the Past. Travelers to the future discover new civilizations, which are either utopian dreams or the stuff of nightmares—seldom anything in-between. (The most shocking plot twist would be if the hero landed in a future society just as ho-hum as our own, differing only in trivial details. I suppose it’s already been done.)
Into the Past
The other kind of time travel, Backward into the Past, is more interesting to me because it is based on reality: a real world that we know did exist, once upon a time. People who travel to the past either want to right some wrong in the present; or they simply hope to be detached observers . . . but somehow, they can’t quite avoid Interfering with the Fabric of Time and Space. Often with amusing consequences.
One of the best time romps of recent decades seems to go both directions—at least such is the implication of its title: Back to the Future. Everybody has seen this film, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis with Bob Gale.(NOTE: If you are the only person in North America who has NOT seen it, put down this blog right now—just leave it open, face down, on your reading table—and go see the film. Then come back and finish reading this post.)
The title is a bare-faced marketing ploy. The filmmakers knew people would not have much interest in the Past—just mention “history” and observe the yawns—so they put the word “Future” in the title. To support that concept, they filled up the early scenes with gee-whiz gadgets, most notably Doc Brown’s gull-winged sports car with the Y-shaped gizmo inside that makes time travel possible.
But then, Dear Reader, the bait and switch: When Marty McFly climbs in and steps on the gas, the souped-up DeLorean takes him straight to the 1950s—an era when his own dorky parents were mere angst-ridden teenagers.
This movie is all about the past and how its influence seeps into the present. Setting it in the Fabulous ’Fifties gave Zemeckis and Gale dozens of cute cultural references to make viewers smile. But this tight screenplay has no room for idle nostalgia. There’s no archival footage of Chuck Berry doing the Duck Walk while performing “Johnny B. Goode”—but we do get to see Marty McFly do a fair imitation of it in a scene that helps move the plot forward in an entertaining way. All the while, Messrs. Zemeckis and Gale exploit every nostalgic-comic possibility from the situation.
Reality is Bumpier than Fiction
Marty’s task is to rescue his father, a teenager in the ’Fifties, from the personality flaw that made the McFly family’s subsequent life a disaster. Through the simple device of having the brilliant, eccentric Doc Brown inhabit both time frames, Marty is led to shred the pre-formed shape of the Time-Space Continuum and write a new future. That is, you know . . . a new present.
Marty’s woes of today trace directly to his parents’ woes in the past. If only the past could be fixed, the present would turn rosy.
But real life is not that simple. What if a great heartache of the present stems directly from a triumph or blessing in the past? What if you must do your grandfather an injustice in his boyhood to prevent injustice to your family in the present?
Such imponderables make me dizzy. Which is why I will probably continue trying to write fiction that only suggests the depth and complexity of life in earlier times, without trying to trace the tangled skeins of causality through decades or centuries.
Nevertheless, reading time-travel adventures can be a delightful diversion. I’ve mentioned before the intriguing works of Jack Finney, who had a time-travel fixation. Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s experiment with time travel, titled 11/22/63. Maybe I’ll comment further in a future edition of this blog. Stay tuned.
And now, for something completely different:
What do you suppose this thing is? Any guesses? Tune in next Tuesday, and I’ll try to remember to tell you the answer!
We show up for choir rehearsal fifty minutes before the Good Friday evening service, ready to do our time-hallowed chore.
Our pastor, with a smile, points out something new. In the entry hall, on exactly the corner of wall where your eye would naturally expect it:
It is astounding. Our Strategic Planning Team has installed signs to assist first-time visitors. They give just the information that visitors have been needing ever since the church opened its doors!
This sudden case of our old congregation Doing Something Right For a Change, and with only six months’ prior discussion, lifts a corner of my spirits, unexpectedly. Our church has been shrinking for at least thirty years; I have lost hope for its survival beyond the next crisis. But now, this new lettering stands against my creeping despair, stuck boldly on the wall, staking a claim on the Kingdom yet to come.
When the shock of it subsides, we go ahead and rehearse our music.
At seven o’clock the service begins. We are thirty-one souls, counting the pastor, the music director, the guest musician, the ten choir members, and two small children. The twenty-nine adults are mostly grayhairs, but there are also a few middle-aged stalwarts and even a college student home for the weekend.
Good Friday Worship
Good Friday is the most somber day in the Christian year. We’ve been remembering the death of Jesus on the cross for two thousand years. There is nothing light or hopeful in it. But we mull it over with God in worship once a year. It’s always pretty much the same.
Our church’s usual Good Friday evening service is a modified “Tenebrae” service. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, amid scripture readings and music. When all the light has been snuffed out, we will go our ways in silence, to wait for Resurrection morning.
This year’s Good Friday music includes five hymns for all to sing: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “What Wondrous Love Is This?”, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” There are two piano solos from our music director, Robert Eversman; and oboe and English horn solos by Claire Workinger.
About the middle of the service, we regulars in the choir sing “Worthy Is the Lamb.” Accompanied expertly by Robert on piano and Claire on oboe, our anthem reaches a solemn grandeur two steps above the potential of our imperfect voices.
Church members stand in the pulpit and read scripture—familiar words from Matthew, Luke, Isaiah, and John, telling of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake. The pitches, the tempoes, the accents and articulations of their voices are all different, but their seriousness of purpose is all the same. Terry’s old voice wavers and weaves its way through the text, suggesting more truth and light yet to break forth from ancient verses; Becky’s young voice is clear and declarative, grounded in the present, looking forward.
When Jesus has once again been crucified and prepared for burial, we turn out the remaining lights and go home.
From my seat in the choir I have watched and listened to my friends in faith. Most are people I have known for years or decades, in holy covenant with the Lord. Two or three are more recent friends, but as a general thing I have many years’ accumulated exposure to the diverse outlooks of our members.
Their approaches to religion—the private religion deep in one’s heart—are quite varied. Some are conventionally pious, all the way through (yes, that really is who they are). Some are imbued with a secular outlook that largely conceals the “religion” or “spirituality” living in their souls. There are many blends of the sacred and the profane. Some members may be just confused; others, awestruck observers of life.
What strikes me tonight is their steadiness in attending to the task of worship. Liturgy is said to be “the work of the people” in worshiping God. And so it has been on this night. Each member of this tired, dwindling, cranky, much-loved church—from the freshest/tenderest to the oldest/most battle-hardened—came here to voice a shared agenda of ancient worship, right smack in the midst of all the uncertainty and mayhem of life. Just to do what we have always done, because that’s what we do . . . because God matters to us.
Thank you, Lord, I hear myself pray—thank you for these people, my friends, who come at your call to worship even in the darkest times.
However few in number, however poor in spirit, there is something real, authentic, and perpetual—not duplicated elsewhere in our lives—when we gather for worship.
Never imagine, Dear Reader, that these treks into our common past are the sloppy rants of a senile mind deranged by worship of the roseate past. I seek a narrative in which the past informs the present and even the future.
Still, nostalgia can’t help creeping in. It’s only natural. That’s what nostalgia does.
Some folks think we are damned lucky to have stumbled into the light of the present from out of the stinking cesspit of the past; others see that same past as a golden age casting its fading twilight beams on the regrettable present. These are, seriously, two competing theories of history. Both are fueled by powerful emotions as much as by objective facts.
Two Views of History
A confused undergraduate at Knox College in the 1960s, I mumbled through a seminar taught by Prof. Douglas Wilson, which compared the writings and worldviews of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain,” 1835-1910) and Henry Adams (1838-1918). The two men were contemporaries; they lived through pretty much the same history. Yet they brought with them different backgrounds, and they reached different conclusions.
In those days I was not paying much attention to scholarship, but I seem to recall hearing that Clemens, who when young had piloted the era’s most advanced riverboats, undeniably belonged to the forward-looking 19th century. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written by one who saw antiquity as not merely quaint but benighted and probably dangerous. Even in his literary life he embraced modernity, from the typewriter to the Paige compositor, an early typesetting machine. A modern man.
Henry Adams was the scion of New England’s most distingished family. The great Adamses—Samuel, John and Abigail, and John Quincy (Henry’s grandfather)—were denizens of the recent past, imbibers of the heady wine of revolution and republicanism. But Henry’s own eyes had seen the disastrous Civil War and the rapacious, ugly “Gilded Age” that followed. These alarming developments neither Henry nor his scholar-diplomat father, Charles Francis Adams, could prevent. In later years, Henry adored the High Gothic period—the last time, as he saw it, that mankind was united around high Christian principles. The Gothic arch symbolized, to him, the rapid plunge from an unsustainable zenith. All the glories of the West were doomed to perdition.
In times of stress and disintegration, people yearn for simpler, more graceful and natural times. This came to mind on a recent reading—in some cases, a re-reading—of short stories by Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney, 1911-1995), collected in a 1986 book called About Time.
Finney, another Knox College alum, was a successful fiction writer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He specialized in evoking the pleasant reverberations of days gone by. Many of his stories featured time travel, in one way or another. Most of them were a little spooky—paranormal, if you will. He is fondly remembered for his novel Time and Again, in which a 1960s ad agency man is selected for a secret government project to travel back in time—back to the New York City of 1911, to be precise. His other major work was The Body Snatchers, which was adapted for film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is, as far as I can tell, the locus classicus for the concept of “pod people” intent on replacing Earth’s citizens, one by one, with exact but soulless duplicates. Told through Finney’s trademark regular-guy persona, the prospect is remarkably chilling.
Even in Body Snatchers, Finney displays a concern with the gradual deterioration of a gracious social and physical environment over time; but it’s even more prominent in Time and Again and in his many short stories, such as “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” On nearly every page we sense, through his fictional characters, the author’s yearning to be back “in the good old days.”
Finney was not the only twentieth-century writer sounding that theme. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had a streak of it, as shown in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Serling’s own favorite story from the first season of the series, “A Stop at Willoughby” shows a modern New Yorker under pressure at home and at work, who discovers an special stop on his commuter train that leads to an idyllic town of the 1880s, a place where he longs to escape. I won’t spoil the ending, in case you wish to access it here.
Old codgers like me are easily beguiled by the charms of old times. We remember those times, and it is easier to remember the good bits than the other bits. But an honest understanding of history must include the dark spots. There were too many of them, and they contributed too much to our present straits, to think of omitting them.
At the same time, it seems to require the perspective of age to affirm, praise, and if possible rescue essential goods of the past that have been too easily swept aside, left bobbing in the wake of society’s mad rush to perfect the human beast in the present for the sake of a utopian future.
Somewhere in the weighing and balancing of these conflicting claims, some valid, actionable truth of history may reside. I wouldn’t know. I only write the stories.
Daisy smiled at the uniformed operator, an old black man, as she and about twenty well-dressed men and women squeezed into the car, closer together than decent folks ought, even in this new century. Or maybe decency was different here. Still, she would not let the yoke of her new sailor-style blouse get crushed on her first full day in Chicago.
The door clanged shut. The operator moved his handle and the car rose, pushing up on the soles of Daisy’s feet. She had ridden an elevator before. The Palmer House, where she and her parents were staying, had one. But this one, in the Montgomery Ward office building, scaled a full twenty-five stories—and Daisy was determined to ride it clear to the top.
She floated almost off her feet as the driver slowed to let a man off at the fourth floor. He cranked the handle to bring the car up even with the approaching floor, his bright smile never dimming. The serious man in the gray suit got off, brandishing papers. The operator pulled the door shut and started the car hurtling upward again. Daisy tried to act nonchalant.
Most of her fellow passengers stayed on. They were going where she was going: the observation deck, under the ornate pyramid, lantern, and statue at the peak of the tower.
They reached the twenty-fifth floor and the operator opened the door. The crowd around her dispersed and headed for the large observation windows. Daisy stood stunned with wonder. Light flooded in from huge windows all around. Near the elevator stood a sales counter, where ladies sold sandwiches, soft drinks, and souvenirs. How could Daisy have guessed, when ordering goods from Montgomery Ward’s catalog, that her custom supported all this grandeur?
After hours of gawking at the spectacle spreading out beyond Chicago to all points of the compass—most especially the endless blue, coruscating expanse of Lake Michigan to the east—she left the windows and visited the sales counter. She was not hungry. The sandwiches did not even look good; better food would be on offer back at the hotel. Still, she wanted to buy something. She wanted to spend a little money here, at the pinnacle of American commerce.
Cheap trinkets were on display—mostly little molded replicas of the building itself. Wholly inadequate, and pointless besides. Then she spotted a rack of photographs. Some were side-by-side stereopticon views, others simple postal cards. But sepia and white could not capture the magic of the view. One of the cards, however, was a line drawing of the building itself. Now she recalled that Cousin Millie had begun collecting postal cards.
Daisy put down ten cents—outrageous!—to buy one of the cards that showed the building. “For only twenty-five cents more,” said the saleswoman, “our calligrapher will inscribe an elegant, rhymed message on it for you.” She pointed to a woman at a writing desk, who smiled and chatted as she wrote on a customer’s card.
“No, thank you.” Daisy smiled. When she got back to the Palmer House, she would pen her own thoughts to Cousin Millie.
A fictionalized account of true events.
Professor Randall Rhoades of Ashland, Ohio, coined the word “deltiology” in 1945 to mean the study and collection of postcards. But my grandmother, Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers (1889-1971), was done with the hobby eight years before it was named. Grandma was always ahead of her time.
Mail Order Headquarters
The earliest card in Grandma’s collection made it through the mail without a postmark, but the sender dated it by hand: July 27, 1906. The card shows a corner view of the Montgomery Ward & Co. Building in Chicago, “one of the largest commercial buildings in the world.” Several electric streetcars navigate the intersection of North Michigan Avenue and East Madison Street; a couple of early automobiles are also depicted. But most of the traffic in the picture is pedestrians, cyclists, or horse-drawn commercial wagons.
Ward’s was the first big mail-order catalog and department store retailer and operated for 129 years, from 1872 to 2001. The headquarters building on Grandma’s postcard was designed by architects Schmidt, Garden, and Martin and was built in 1898. It was superseded as corporate headquarters in the 1920s but survives to this day—minus its ornate pyramidal cap. In fact, you can rent the penthouse apartment at the top of its now-truncated tower for $20,000 a month. (Good location.)
Write on the Picture, Please
Grandma was unmarried, a few days shy of seventeen, when she received the Montgomery Ward postcard, with its message: “How are you by this time? I am up in this tower twenty five stories high. The view over the lake is so fine I can hardly leave it. I am going home next Tuesday. Give my love to Lizzie and John and all the children. Daisy.”
“Lizzie and John” referred to Grandma’s parents. I have no idea who Daisy, the writer, was, but in the fictional vignette above I have made her out to be a young cousin from downstate, about Millie’s age but traveling, probably for the first time, to Chicago.
Daisy had to write her message in the blank areas on the front of the card, along with the picture, because postal regulations reserved the entire back of the card for the address. The Postmaster General hadn’t figured out picture postcards yet. The following year he changed the rules, dividing the back side of the card into two spaces, one for address and the other for message. Thus began the modern age of postcards.
In Grandma’s heyday, picture postcards were a novelty but also filled a real need. They were social media, the perfect way to send a bit of chatter to a friend, just to let her know you’re thinking of her.
“Hello! This is what they call Lovers Lane. How would you like this for a change. How is Billie—Ta Ta.”
“Hello Millie—How did you enjoy the 4th. Myrtle.”
Many messages, different in content but similar in spirit, adorn the rest of Grandma’s saved cards, from 1906 to 1937, when the collection ends. In her early years Grandma was a shrinking violet, so she would have doubly appreciated all these sociable greetings from friends. Maybe that’s why she kept them.
Mail was efficient. On every fast passenger train, U.S. postal employees stood through the night in a swaying mail car or “Railway Post Office,” sorting letters and cards by hand even as the train carried them toward their destinations. Mail almost always arrived the next day—unless it was sent across the whole country, in which case it might take two or three days. Airmail service would not begin until 1918, and then at a significant extra cost.
In 1906 a postcard cost one cent to mail and a first-class letter two cents. When I was a child in the 1950s, the “penny postcard” was still in use, but letters had gone up to three cents. They went to four cents in 1958; since then rates have increased every two to five years, except for one small decrease in 2016.
Home Town Boosters
The art on postcards became more and more captivating. Monochrome gave way to color; color gave way to better color; and many of the cards became downright artistic.
When people traveled to exotic places—Chicago, Omaha, Denver, or Seattle—they sent postcards to show the home folks their experience. “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.” But picture postcards showcased the wonders of every city, county, town, and hamlet. So you could say “Hi” with a postcard of your local bank, park, or grain elevator. By making contact with your friend in another city or state, you also boosted your own hometown’s image.
Even when folks stayed at home and sent postcards of purely local wonders, I imagine Grandma was glad to get them.