Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us

              Does the current state of the world seem overwhelming? Do our leaders often seem to be all about themselves and not about us? Is it easier to turn on a sitcom rerun than to sit through the news because we feel so helpless to change what’s going on?

            You’re not alone. Brian Klaas, a columnist for the Washington Post Assistant Professor of Global Politics at University College London, and author of the new book “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us” (Scribner 2021; $28), has taken on the task of interviewing more than 500 world leaders from the best to the worst– to answer questions like the following. Does power corrupt or is it that corrupt people are drawn to power? What personality types are drawn to power? Why are so many dictators sociopaths and narcissists? And why do even good people, once in a position of power, become authoritarian?

            Here is a brutal fact that will make you reach for remote and flip to an episode of “Green Acres” where the biggest problem of the day is whether Arnold the Talking Pig can take that trip to Hawaii he won.

            Democracies are dying with more and more countries sliding towards authoritarian rule says Klaas who writes that there are no countervailing forces.

            Indeed, Klaas who created and hosts the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast, says “There’s nothing that rewards being a sober moderate who believes in democracy and tries to govern by consensus.”

            Describing democracy as being like a sandcastle, one that can be easily wiped out by a big wave or successive small hits, Klaas gives Turkey as an example.

            “Initial coverage of Erdogan’s 2002 election was positive, showing him to be someone was a populist who would shake things up, go up against the elite and status quo, and bring democracy to Turkey,” says Klaas who looked back through New York Times archives to highlight how that country has changed for the worse. “For 19 years now, he’s chipped away at democracy instead.”

            Though the book’s subject matter might seem dull, it’s not. Klaas is a strong writer with a sense of humor and he is very capable of delivering telling anecdotes that reflect the changes a democracy can encounter and how quickly that can happen in a compelling way.

            “If you lose the battle for democracy, you don’t get to battle for taxes, infrastructure, healthcare, or any of the policies that change lives,” says Klaas, who earned a MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford (New College) and an MPhil in Comparative Government from the University of Oxford (St. Anthony’s). “In the places that I’ve studied where democracy has died, it’s still dead pretty much everywhere.”

            How to fix it?

            Klaas suggests becoming active. Call your congressperson or senator, run for local office, become politically active, and in general, participate in making changes to bring about change.

            “That’s the type of activity that ultimately can transform the political system at the national level,” he says.

            But there’s no time to delay.     

            “If we don’t fix it in the next two to four years,” he says, “it probably won’t get fixed.”

Follow Brian Klaas’s podcast Power Corrupts.

Windy City Blues

In her fun very readable Windy City Blues (Berkley 2017; $16), Chicago author Renee Rosen again takes another slice of the city’s history and turns it into a compelling read.

Rosen, who plumbs Chicago’s history to write such books as Dollface, her novel about flappers and gangers like Al Capone, and What the Lady Wants which recounts the affair between department store magnate Marshall Field and his socialite neighbor, says she and her publisher were racking their brains for her next book which encompassed Chicago history.

“She suggested the blues,” says Rosen, who didn’t have much interest in the subject.

But Rosen was game and started her typical uber-intensive research.

“When I discovered the Chess brothers, who founded Chess Records, I fell in love,” she says, noting that when researching she was surprised about how much she didn’t know about the subject despite her immersion in Chicago history for her previous books. “I thought this is a story.”

“As part of my research, I drove the Blues Highway from New Orleans to Chicago,” she says. “I also met with Willie Dixon’s grandson and with Chess family members.”

Combining fact and fiction, Rosen’s story follows heroine Leeba Groski, who struggling to fit in, has always found consolation in music. When her neighbor Leonard Chess offers her a job at his new Chicago Blues label, she sees this as an opportunity to finally fit in. Leeba starts by answering phones and filing but it soon becomes much more than that as she discovers her own talents as a song writer and also begins not only to fall in love with the music industry but also with Red Dupree, a black blues guitarist.

Windy City Blues was recently selected for Chicago’s One Book project, a program designed to engage diverse groups of Chicagoans around common themes. Rosen says she is very honored to be a recipient.

“I put my heart and soul into this book,” she says. “I think it’s a story with an important message. In it are lessons of the Civil Rights movement, what it was like for Jews and people of color along with the history of the blues and the role of Jews in bringing the blues to the world. After all, as the saying goes: Blacks + Jews = Blues.”

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness

A Norwegian farm girl, her family so poor, they often went hungry, is seduced by a rich landowner’s son. But despite her dreams, he has no plans to make her his wife. Abandoned, she sees only one path forward or she’ll sink into the black hole of her family’s poverty. But her first goal is revenge and after the landowner’s son dies a horrid death amidst whispers of poison, she boards a boat and sails to America. Norway’s gain is America’s loss.

Her name changed through the years but after the mysterious deaths of two husbands, numerous men, women, and children, she goes down in his as Belle Gunness.  An entrepreneur whose business was murder, Gunness felt no qualms seducing men for their money and dispatching them with her axe—filling her farmland with her victims.

As her crimes were about to be discovered, her solid brick home burnt to the ground and workers battling the smoke and flames discovered the bodies of her three children and a woman without a head.  Was it Belle  or did she get away with one more murder, absconding with close to a million dollars. It’s a question the world has been asking since 1908.

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness (Indiana University Press/Red Lightning Oct. 4, 2021; $20).

What people are saying about America’s Femme Fatale.

Ammeson uses astute research and punchy prose to chronicle Belle’s transformation from destitute farm girl to one of history’s most egregious female serial killers. . . . Compact and captivating, this salacious tale of murderous greed during the early twentieth century will be devoured quickly by true-crime fans.– Michelle Ross ― BOOKLIST / Amer Library Assn

It’s a mesmerizing cautionary tale I had to keep reading despite the late-night hour. . . . Ammeson writes narrative nonfiction with a sense of drama to propel us along the unbelievable.– Rita Kohn ― NUVO

America’s Femme Fatale is the detailed story of Belle Gunness, one of the nation’s most prolific mass murderers. Ammeson recounts the horrific events with dry wit and corrects many errors found in previous accounts. Gunness stands out in an infamous crowd because she was a woman; she killed men, women and children rather than choosing from among one narrow section of victimology; and her murders seem to have been rooted in greed rather than lust, the serial killer’s usual motive.– Keven McQueen, author of Murderous Acts: 100 Years of Crime in the Midwest

Jane Ammeson will be on Hoosier History Live talking to the show’s host Nelson Price about Belle Gunness. The show airs live from noon to 1 p.m. ET each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis. Or stream audio live from anywhere during the show. For those who miss the show, it’ll be available by podcast as well.

Capote’s Women: The Story of the Writers’ Swans

“There are certain women who, though perhaps not born rich, are born to be rich,” author Truman Capote wrote about the beautiful, well-dressed, and style-setting women he called his “swans.”

The ultimate arm candy for the wealthiest and most powerful of men, these women of the mid-20th century were trophy wives before the term existed. And they counted Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and creator of the true crime genre with In Cold Blood, his chilling recounting of the brutal murders of a Kansas family, as their best friend.

In Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, New York Times best-selling author Laurence Leamer takes us back to a time and a world where jet-setting, making the best-dressed list, attending and giving A-plus list parties, and dining at the most wonderful places whether in New York, Paris, London, or wherever your yacht happened to be moored were what these exalted women excelled at.

Obtaining their lifestyles depended upon a confluence of beauty, wit, moxie, and marrying and knowing when to discard husbands as they worked their way up and up. At times, divorce papers were barely signed before the next wedding was held.

“You have to enter into their lives,” says Leamer, explaining how he so succinctly captured the personalities of the swans: Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Slim Hayward, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill who constantly seethed because of the attention her older sister, Jackie Kennedy, always received.

“Even though,” Leamer points out, “unlike Jackie she didn’t want to do the hard work that it takes to achieve something.”

These women knew how to climb to higher heights. Gloria Guinness had transitioned from a childhood of constant motion in Mexico and marriage at age 20 to a man 27 years older to marrying a German aristocrat and a romantic involvement with a top Nazi during World War II. Her third marriage was to the grandson of an Egyptian King and her last, the biggest prize, was to a scion of the Guinness beer family who was also a member of Parliament. Other wins were modeling for big time designers and the best of the fashion magazines as well as being on the International Best Dressed List for several years.

But ultimately, she wasn’t happy says Leamer who believes she committed suicide.

There was also Barbara “Babe” Paley whose mother raised her   three daughters to marry money. Paley, who had been badly injured in an automobile accident when young, spent her life in considerable pain. Her husband expected perfection in all things and so she never slept in the same bedroom, so she could the loss of her front teeth.

But being the best wasn’t always the answer to happy life. The swans may have had uber-wealthy husbands, but they didn’t have good husbands. Frequently husbands and wives were flagrantly promiscuous, and the swans often led separate lives not only from their spouses but also their children.

“For them, to be a mom was to be hands-off,” says Leamer. “And the children often paid a price. They didn’t necessary learn to do anything because they were going to inherit a lot of money.”

Ornamental to the max, these were women who did nothing but did it extremely well. And Capote, despite his great literary successes, spent a lot of time doing nothing with them. He listened to their secrets and ultimately decided to write a book revealing what he had heard. When an article he penned revealed some of those stories, the swans all turned against him, and he was exiled from the society he craved.

“I went to a family wedding recently,” says Leamer noting the warmth and connectiveness that everyone had. “These women and Capote never had this.”

It’s such a cliché to say money doesn’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it certainly is delicious to read about the lives of women who many thought had it all even though they didn’t.

Online Book Event


Join Laurence Leamer in an online event hosted by the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago when he reads from and discusses his new book.”

When: October 13 at 6:30 p.m.

How to Join In: This program will be hosted online via Zoom. To register, visit americanwritersmuseum.org/program-calendar/laurence-leamer-capotes-women/

Pullman: The Man, the Company, the Historic Park by Kenneth Schoon

               Kenneth Schoon, professor emeritus at Indiana University Northwest, has immersed himself in the history of the Greater Chicago/Northwest Indiana area for decades, writing books starting from the area’s earliest beginnings such as “Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan” and “Swedish Settlements on the South Shore of Lake Michigan.”

               In his latest book, “Pullman: The Man, the Company, the Historical Park” (History Press 2021; $21.99), he showcases what once was among  the ultimate company town and is now a Chicago neighborhood. George Pullman, whose last name became synonymous with plush railroad sleeper cars, believed that happy workers were productive workers and so developed his town along the western shore of Lake Calumet in the late 1800s.

               I thought I knew company towns having grown up in East Chicago, Indiana my friends whose parents worked at Inland Steel lived in Sunnyside in Indiana  Harbor. On the East Chicago side there was Marktown built in 1917 by Clayton Mark, for those employed at the company he owned, Mark Manufacturing.

               But they’re different Schoon tells me. Both Marktown and Sunnyside were residential neighborhoods. But Pullman was an actual town with its own schools, library, churches, Masonic Hall, businesses, and even a band. Garbage and maintenance was paid for by the company.

In 2015, then President Barack Obama proclaimed Chicago’s Pullman District as a National Monument, encompassing many of its surviving buildings such as the former Pullman Palace Car Works, the Greenstone Church, formerly the Greenstone United Methodist Church, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, workers’ homes, the Pullman Administration Clock Tower Building, Arcade Park, and the Florence Hotel, named after Pullman’s oldest daughter.

               Though I vaguely knew about the town of Pullman, it had never been on my radar as a place to visit even though it was less than eleven miles from where I lived.

               “The same with me,” says Schoon who remembered going to the Florence Hotel, one of the fanciest structures in town, to eat when young never to return until hired by the Historic Pullman Foundation to write about the history of the town for their brochure.

               Today we talk about experiences, but that’s what Pullman was all about back then. His sleeper cars were luxurious, but the brand also meant great service. After the Civil War, he hired recently emancipated African American men, to work as porters becoming the largest employer of Blacks in the U.S. Their jobs were to attend to passengers needs by serving food and drink, shining shoes, tidying up the train, making sure the temperature was just right and that lighting fixtures worked.  Black women were hired as maids to take care of women guests on the most expensive cars—babysitting children, helping with their baths, giving manicures, and fixing their hair.

               Pullman was no dinky little town. The Arcade Theatre could accommodate 1000 people and Schoon says it was, for a time, the finest theater west of the Hudson River.

               With the advent of automobiles and highways, the need for sleeper cars lessened. But luckily many of Pullman’s historic buildings remain including the Florence Hotel which is currently closed for renovations but expected to open within a few years.

               “The old stable is now a store,” says Schoon. “The old fire station is still there and of the 600 residential buildings all but three are still standing.”

               In an interesting tidbit, Schoon notes that Pullman was originally dry because George Pullman was a Prohibitionist. Luckily for those who  wanted to imbibe, Kensington, the town next door had 23 taverns at the time.

               Kenneth Schoon will be signing copies of his book during the Labor Day Weekend at the Grand Opening of Pullman National Monument Visitor Center and Pullman State Historic Site Factory. For more information about times and other events, visit www.pullmanil.org

Several decades ago, George Saunders and his wife were visiting Washington D.C. when their cousin mentioned that anecdotal evidence indicated President Abraham Lincoln had surreptitiously visited the tomb of his 11-year-old son, Willie.

For years, the story of Lincoln, so overcome by grief, that he stole into the monument where his son was interred, nagged at the edges of Saunders’s mind. But Saunders, who teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University, had never written a novel and besides his writing was mostly satirical in nature.

“But this material has been calling me all these years,” says Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House 2017; $28). “It’s like their story was a stalker, it kept showing up at my window and it needed to get out.”

Justifying his foray into a new literary form by telling himself he’d had a nice run regarding his career—Saunders is an acclaimed short story writer who is included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people the world, he decided why not try “this Lincoln thing.”

Saunders still had doubts about his ability to tell the story in the way the way it needed to be told. But having grown up in Chicago as part of a devout Catholic family and now having adapted some of the tenets of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, he has written a book that though just recently released is already garnering great reviews.

Bardo is a Tibetan concept–a kind of transitional zone says Saunders.

“We’re all in the bardo right now that goes from birth to death,” he says, noting that Buddhists would call these transition stages reincarnation and noting that the book takes place just after that, in the bardo that goes from death to whatever comes next. “Now is the time to live–knowing that death is coming—if we can accept ourselves as a mess.”

With all his research, Saunders has come to see how Lincoln persevered despite the immense weight of the Civil War, the deaths of so many Americans and that of his son as well.

“We had a president back then who bent,” he says, “when others would have broken.”

Hour of the Witch

“Hour of the Witch,” Chris Bohjalian’s well-researched and chilling new novel, takes us into a past where, just by trying to exercise her independence and desire to lead her own life, a woman could be castigated as a witch.

Bewitchingly beautiful with delft blue eyes, porcelain skin and blonde hair, Mary Deerfield has a handsome, wealthy husband, a lovely house, and bruises on her face that she tries to hide under her linen cap. Thomas, her husband, is almost twice her age and given to drunken rages, particularly as time goes on and Mary does not become pregnant.

Mary’s parents are respected and well-to-do but can’t protect their daughter. There are no organizations to help battered women, no social workers or psychologists to dispense advice, nor can Mary just leave her home, move to another city and get a job. After all, this is Boston in 1662, and women have few, if any, rights. Ironically, Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the 21st century, was back then the kind of place where they burned women as witches.

Hour of the Witch,Chris Bohjalian’s well-researched and chilling new novel, takes us into a past where, just by trying to exercise her independence and desire to lead her own life, a woman could be castigated as a witch.

“When we think of New England’s history of hanging people for witchcraft, we beeline straight to Salem in 1692,” said Bohjalian, a New York Times bestselling author of 22 books whose works have been translated into 35 languages and three times made into movies. “But in 1656, the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch. And the first real witch hunt was Hartford in 1662 — three full decades before Salem. One thing many of the women executed as witches had in common was that they were smart, opinionated, and viewed as outsiders; sometimes, they saw through the patriarchal hypocrisy that marked a lot of New England Puritanism.”

Mary puts up with a lot; after all, she has little choice. But when Thomas drives a three-tined fork into her hand, she’s had it and files for divorce. Bohjalian said he was looking for a way into writing a suspense novel about the 17th century and found it when he came across the records of a woman named Nanny Naylor in the 1600s who successfully sued for divorce and won.

“I was off and running,” he said.

Bohjalian enjoyed studying Puritan theology at Amherst College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.

“Puritans lived with anxiety and dread — just like me,” he said. “Of course, for them, Satan was as real as your neighbor and they fretted constantly over whether they were saved or damned. My anxieties were more of the 1980s ‘Breakfast Club’ sort.

“I think ‘Hour of the Witch’ is very timely for a novel set in 1662,” he said. “And that was by design. When a magistrate on Boston’s all-male Court of Assistants calls my heroine, Mary Deerfield, ‘a nasty woman,’ I knew the reference would not be lost on my readers. Now, I never want to write polemics, but yes, there is a political undercurrent to the novel that will resonate.”

Bohjalian said it wasn’t difficult getting into the Puritan mindset.

“If you’re the sort of person who always questions your motives and has a healthy dollop of self-loathing, it’s actually rather easy,” he said.

What, of all the research he did, surprised him the most?

“The fact the Puritans didn’t use forks and drank beer like they were at fraternity parties in 1978,” said Bohjalian. “Their table manners must have been atrocious.”

This review previously ran in the Times of Northwest Indiana.

Chicago Writer Takes Us Back to the Gilded Age in New Novel

Renee Rosen. Photo by Charles Osgood.

         Chicago author Renee Rosen is again taking us on a trip to the past. In her previous novels, she’s explored the city’s jazz roots (Windy City Blues), the Chicago Fire and the founding of the city’s iconic department stores (What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age), and Prohibition-era Chicago (Dollface). Now, in The Social Graces we meet two mega-wealthy women—Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor who starting in the 1870s vied to become the leader of high society.

         If that meant spending $10 million in today’s money to stage a ball at the Waldorf Hotel, so be it.

         “Think the original ‘Real Housewives of New York City’ but in Worth gowns,” says Rosen about the competition which in many ways also sounds like middle school. “They had plenty of balls such as the circus ball with a live elephant. Entertaining was the only arena where women could exert some influence. After all they had few rights, they couldn’t even vote, so they literally created this high society where they made the rules and determined who belonged and who didn’t.”

         At first Caroline Astor ruled New York and Newport, Rhode Island society. She was old money while Vanderbilt was one of the nouveau riche and after all, no matter how much new money you had it wasn’t as good as the old.

         “Mrs. Astor was the gate keeper, the reigning queen, she decided who was invited to her annual ball,” says Rosen, noting that only 400, the number her ball room could hold, were invited to this ball and thus they were deemed to be the elitist of the elite. “If you weren’t invited, you either left town or turned off all your lights and pretended you were out of town.”

         Determined to replace Caroline, Alva hosted her famous Masquerade Ball at her Fifth Avenue mansion, inviting  1200  though not Caroline who finally was able to get an invitation. It was so excessive, it helped catapult her to the top.

          Rosen didn’t want to just write about these women, she wanted to know them.

         “I admired both Caroline and Alva for several reasons and I disliked them for several reasons,” she says. “Alva certainly wouldn’t have been mother of the year.”

  And yes, it is true. Alva locked her daughter Consuelo in her room so she couldn’t marry the man she loved and instead forced her to wed the impoverished Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. He in turned just wanted her vast fortune to restore his very outdated palace which didn’t even have central heating or hot water. The marriage, by the way, made Consuelo a relative of Winston Churchill and the yet-to-be-born Princess Diana.

         “Alva was such a trail blazer,” says Rosen. “This was a time when so many men had mistresses and women had to put up with it. But when Alva’s husband Willie K. started canoodling with other women, she put her foot down and divorced him. She became a suffragette. She wasn’t a licensed architect, but she knew all about building. There was something really vulnerable about Caroline. I  think she was very lonely. She was at the top of society but at some level she knew that none of it really mattered. There was a whole lot of wealth but very little substance.”

Renee Rosen Virtual Events

April 27 6PM CST / 7PM EST

A virtual evening at the Newport Mansions & the Newport Preservation Society

Hosted by An Unlikely Story. Register Here

April 29 12PM CST / 1PM EST Hosted by Bookends and Beginnings

Literary Lunch Break with Karen White. Register Here

May 5 4PM CST / 6PM EST A Special Virtual Gilded Age Event

Featuring Chanel Cleeton, Marie Benedict & Renee Rosen Hosted by InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel & Berkley Publishing. Signature cocktail recipe & special VIP raffle gift, courtesy of Pomp & Whimsy! General & VIP tickets Register Here

May 10 7PM CST / 8PM EST Hosted by Blue Willow Bookshop

In Conversation with Chanel Cleeton. Register Here

June 22 7PM CST Literature Lovers’ Night Out

Please check back for details & registration.

This story previously appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair

            When Rebecca Graff, a PhD student at the University of Chicago in need of a dissertation, was told by a professor that the view before them from the school’s Ida Noyes Hall was “a hundred years ago the center of the world,” she didn’t see the bucolic splendor of Jackson Park hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline. Instead her sights went to what lay beneath and that was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an unexcavated but huge part of Chicago’s history. Held in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arrival in the New World, the exposition attracted 27 million people who paid 21.5 million for admission in a six-month period. Designed by noted landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, the 630-acre park had more than 65,000 exhibits from 46 countries and introduced to the public such new inventions as a 250-foot Ferris Wheel, Aunt Jemima’s Pancake syrup and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum. Electricity, still rare back then, was used to light up the expo at night.

Rebecca Graff

            Graff managed to turn that casual remark into her dissertation, “The Vanishing City: Time, Tourism, and the Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition” and then into a book,  “Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair” (University Press of Florida co-published with The Society for Historical Archaeology).  Both were about the archaeological dig she undertook of a site in Jackson Park near the Museum of Science and Industry that seemed most promising for archaeological fair finds.

Surprisingly what seemed an almost guaranteed bureaucratic nightmare in terms of permits and permissions all fell into place but then Graff was told she couldn’t start without a million dollars in liability insurance. Not likely for a graduate student.

            “I needed to turn the excavation into a job,” she says. And so she did, teaching a field class at the University of Chicago where she and her students excavated the site.


View from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’s South Canal looking northeast. The Machinery Building, the Columbian Fountain, and the Electricity Building are on the left, with the Agriculture and the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Buildings on the right. The Illinois State Building’s dome is in the center, and the flatter dome of the California State Building is to its left. Image is by an anonymous photographer, 1893. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives

            Expecting to find those things that archaeologists love—pottery shards, a coin here and a twisted spoon there—Graff and her team were stunned to unearth a section of the Ohio Building, a stately Beaux Arts-style edifice with an elaborate portico entranceway that served as a meeting place for Ohioans. It was among the best of all the other findings they uncovered such as a collar stud, religious medal, cruet tops indicating that food was made on site, and lots of pipes. Though to hear Graff describe them, they’re all treasures and keys to the past.

            As for the building, contemporary sources said it no longer existed.

            “Even the New York Times wrote it had been thrown into the lake,” says Graff, who instead found segments in a ditch where it might have been used as landfill.

            Coincidentally, Graff later discovered she wasn’t the only family member to dig at the site, so had her great grandfather, Morris Graff, a Russia immigrant who dug ditches at the fair.

            Graff would like to return to Jackson Park for further exploration but was denied a permit the second time around. She says it’s surprising that Chicago doesn’t have a city archaeologist as other big cities do. But she’s certainly doing her fair share of uncovering urban remains. She is currently excavating the Charnley-Persky House Museum, a National Historic Landmark located on Astor Street in the Gold Coast  designed Chicago  architect, Louis Sullivan and his young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright.

Cover image from Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair by Rebecca S. Graff. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020.

The Children’s Blizzard: A Historic Novel of the Nebraska Prairie

Melanie Benjamin

The week before, they’d been isolated when a snowstorm and cold temperatures forced everyone to stay inside. But that morning Gerta, the young teacher who boarded at the Pedersen’s house, and her student Annette, a waif who had been dropped off at the home by her mother who hadn’t even hugged her goodbye, ran across the Nebraska prairie to the schoolhouse enjoying the sunny warm weather.

It was like being free again, but it was only January, and the school children let out for recess because of the wonderful weather were suddenly confronted by a black wall of clouds that blocked the sun. Running back to the schoolhouse, they discovered there was little wood left to keep the big stove burning, and they all shivered as the temperature plummeted — oh, why had they only worn their shawls and not their heavy coats and boots? The sounds of the howling wind rushed through the schoolhouse, and through the windows they saw almost nothing but the occasional bright sparks of lightning, because the snow formed a curtain so thick it blocked everything else out.

In history books, this sudden and deadly snowstorm would be known as “The Children’s Blizzard” because, of the 250 to 500 known fatalities, many were children trying to find their way home.

Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of “The Aviator’s Wife,” “The Girls in the Picture” and “The Swans of Fifth Avenue,” has taken the incident and turned it into the page-turning novel “The Children’s Blizzard: A Novel” (Delacorte, $28).

It’s an obscure but fascinating aspect of America’s frontier history, but Benjamin, a voracious reader of history already, was somewhat familiar with the disaster when she and her editor decided that might be her next book. Benjamin, who grew up in Indianapolis with aspirations to become a New York actress, lived in Chicago until moving to Williamsburg, Virginia a few months ago. She began writing historical novels in 2010, and, amazingly, this is her seventh. She must, it seems after spending an hour chatting with her on the phone, write as fast as she talks.

The gist of our conversation: she’s a history junkie; she investigates a subject relentlessly, but if she can’t conjure up characters that really come to life, she’ll move on to the next project, as she doesn’t want to write a book that doesn’t seem real. That means she’s written entire novels and then just abandoned them. Even when she loves the personalities she creates, once she’s done with her novel, there are no second glances as she moves on to the next book. Oh, and though she’s a history buff and dwells in different pasts when writing, she doesn’t live in a stately old mansion, just a historic town.

Luckily, she discovered many captivating characters for “The Children’s Blizzard” and, though I know we’re talking Nebraska here, an equally compelling landscape and period of time.

Hard working immigrants, mainly Norwegians, Swedes and Germans were lured to Nebraska by dreams of lush crop producing farmland. It was easy as just packing up your belongings, the advertisements read, as coming by wagon or boarding a train to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities.

Only Nebraska really wasn’t all that. Don’t think “Little House in the Prairie” because it was so much more harsh, unyielding, and frustrating. There were blizzards, droughts where the soil cracked and the crops withered, prairie fires and vast hordes of insects devouring everything in their paths. We’re not talking fun here, not at all.

“Nebraska wasn’t a state at the time, it was a territory,” says Benjamin. “They were trying to get enough people to settle there because that’s one of the ways you became a state.”

Benjamin found that the story ignited her entire imagination, forming a connection to generations of her family.

“There was a personal epic quality to it, my mother’s family immigrated from Germany to an Illinois farm,” said Benjamin. “So the story was kind of in my DNA.”

Benjamin describes her imagination as her biggest strength, which is why she can put herself into the lives of people she’s created and who live in a time long before she was born.

“I was a serious child,” she said. “I was always imagining people’s lives and what they were like. Most authors are observers, we’re on the outside looking at the party, not at the party.”

This review was previously published in the Northwest Indiana Times.

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