Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Wartime Wednesday: The Women's Institute

PBS has a new series called Home Fires which is inspired by Julie's Summers book entitled Jambusters. It tells the story of the Women's Institute during WWII. Founded in Canada in 1897, the WI made its way to the UK during WWI, first to Wales then to Britain. According to Wikipedia the Institute “had two clear aims: to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.” A review of social historian June Robinson's book A Force to be Reckoned With states that the club's “wholesome” activities included temperance, family planning for the married, mobile libraries, chicken-keeping, and above all jam-making.

I'm enjoying the PBS series which appears to be capturing the feel of the WWII era while creating realistic characters who deal with living in a country at war. Many of the character's problems are similar to those faced by people today: providing for their families and keeping a roof over their heads. However, added to that was the danger of falling bombs, sons and husbands going off to war, and items used in every day life being tightly rationed or totally unavailable.

A civilian organization, the WI had over 300,000 members during WWII, and food production was a major thrust of the group's activities. At the beginning of the war, they had set up nearly two hundred preserve centers, and by 1940 there were well over 2,500. The produce was then taken to market where it was sold. Proceeds went back to the WI to purchase supplies and fuel for transporting the goods (because as a non-military organization, the WI didn't qualify for extra gas rations).

There are numerous websites that discuss the social impact of the war that resulted in changing roles for women-working outside the home, performing jobs previously held by men, managing household finances and more. However, what strikes me about the Women's Institute as extraordinary is how much they accomplished all while staying within the confines of society's expectations of women.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mystery Monday: Strong Poison

In two weeks, I'll be attending Crimebake, a mystery writers' conference held in Dedham, MA. An assignment for one of my workshops (Reading Like a Writer), I was tasked with reading Dorothy Sayers's mystery called Strong Poison. Written in 1930, it is her fifth Lord Peter Wimsey novel. Because I write mysteries set during WWII, I have recently started reading books written during that time to get a flavor of the era. It has been a fascinating project.

The plot of Strong Poison centers around the case of crime fiction writer, Harriet Vane, who is accused of killing her former lover (also a writer). Lord Wimsey takes one look at the defendant and decides she couldn't possibly be a murderer. He pulls some strings within the police force, visits Harriet in jail, proposes marriage to her, then announces he will prove her innocence. An unusual chain of events, to be sure.

The book breaks several current writing “rules,” the most obvious being the amount of backstory packed into the first several chapters. Rather than devote pages to the actual court case, Sayers uses the judge to summarize the case from the bench. She then periodically inserts “asides” and editorial comments shared between Wimsey and his friend in the courtroom. Thanks to his connections, money and ingenuity Wimsey solves the case. You'll have to read Strong Poison yourself to find out if Harriet is the murderer.

Honestly, I had trouble “getting into” the book, but once I did, I was off and running behind Wimsey to try to solve the case. I found myself flipping back to the judge's monologue looking for clues (handy to have some of them all in one place!). I correctly identified the killer, but for the wrong motive. (Oops!)

Nearly sixty years after her death, Sayers's is still a popular author. Her books continue to be regularly checked out at my local library, and I recently ran into a friend in a restaurant who was reading a dog-eared copy of another of Sayers's books.

What about you? Do you read authors from the early 20th century? How do you think their books compare to today's fiction?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Talkshow Thursday: Lights out!

While searching for WWII events to blog about, I stumbled onto an unfamiliar factoid: On October 9, 1944 Germans forces occupying the Netherlands turned off the electricity in Amsterdam.
Why did the Germans do this? Despite the questions that filled my mind, I found little additional information. Had the Dutch been caught performing some act of resistance that angered their occupiers, or was it simply another mechanism to bring more suffering to a country the Germans sought to dominate? The Nazis had already cut off food and fuel shipments from rural areas. Reports indicate the winter of 1944-45 came early and was exceptionally harsh. The canals froze over, preventing barges from getting through. A famine set in. Soup kitchens were set up, and Operation Manna and Chowhound alleviated some of the shortages, but thousands died of hunger.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a darkened room in our small, rented cabin by the Pemigewasett River. It’s early, and the sun hasn’t risen, but the glow of my computer screen illuminates my workspace. Two digital readouts and several LEDs gleam in the darkness from various pieces of electronic equipment.
It’s a cold morning-well below freezing, but I am toasty-warm thanks to the propane stove (that probably has an electric ignitor). I’m in the woods, but still have heat, electricity and internet service.  
I don’t know about you, but I take electricity for granted until there is an outage. Even then I am rarely inconvenienced because we have a large gas-powered generator and two small battery generators.
What about you? Have you ever experienced a long-term loss of power? What was it like?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Traveling Tuesday: Corfu

Did you know there are well over 100,000 islands on the earth? Many are unnamed and/or uninhabited. And until the first and second World Wars when troops scattered the globe, many were unheard of.

Are you familiar with Corfu? I was not.

A popular tourist destination, Corfu is an island in the northwestern most part of Greece. The second largest Ionian island, it is approximately 237 square miles in diameter (slightly larger than Guam). Shaped somewhat like a sickle, Corfu has multiple mountain ranges. Its coastline boasts high-end resorts and hotels.

Viewing photos of the island's gorgeous peaks and pristine beaches, its history of battles and conquests are indeed a distant memory. Perhaps its beauty is one of the reasons it was on Mussolini's rador as an “outlet for Italy's surplus population.”

In the late 1920s, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolin announced it would be in the best interest of other countries to support Italy's need for expansion. When he received no rebuff Italy moved into a period of aggressive imperalism. A few years later, Italy began the Second Italo-Ethiopian war (the first being in 1895) in an effort to further expand the empire. By September 1938, the Italian army invaded Albania and within three days had occupied most of the country. As a result, relations between Italy and Greece quickly deteriorated.

Greece petitioned Britain for help, but was turned away when England indicated it did not want to be drawn into a Greek-Balkan war. Tensions between the Greeks and Italians escalated during the summer of 1940 with war being declared in October. By the spring of 1942, the Italians succeeded in overtaking Coru and quickly set up camp. However, with the fall of Italian Fascism the occupiers were taken prisoner by the Nazis who took control in 1943. For the second time in two years, residents found themselves occupied by a foreign power. A year later, the Allied troops liberated the islands as the Germans were evacuating Greece.

A seemingly small, out-of-the-way island, yet an integral part of World War II history.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wartime Wednesday: British Restaurants

Grace Golden's painting:
The Emergency Food Office
Isn’t every restaurant in the United Kingdom a “British” restaurant? Technically, I guess it is. However, during WWII, the term was used to describe communal kitchens created to help people who had been bombed out of their homes, run out of ration coupons, or otherwise needed help. The restaurants were also popular with the working public who were interested in cheap, nutritious meals. Started in 1940 and originally called “Community Feeding Centres,” then Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the phrase British Restaurant. By 1943, there were over two thousand of these establishments serving 600,000 meals a day.
They were set up by the Ministry of Food and highly regulated. No one received a meal that included more than one serving of meat, game, poultry, fish, eggs, or cheese. In addition, meals were sold for a set maximum price of 9d (pennies). The reason restaurants could sell meals inexpensively is that they were set up in facilities (schools, church halls, working men’s clubs, etc.) that had already been requisitioned by the government, and all the work was done by volunteers, many of whom were members of the Women’s Voluntary Services.
How did it work? Customers collected a tray and lined up to receive their food that had been cooked on site. Payment was made using tokens (the color depending on the amount of money submitted). According to one interviewee, one token was for the main course, another for the “sweet,” and yet another for a cup of tea. The food was simple and filling such as mashed potatoes, minced meat and whatever vegetable was readily available. Another interviewee commented that seating areas offered long wooden benches and wobbly fold-up tables. Several folks mentioned that the tables were covered with “American cloths” (a fabric with glazed or varnished wipe-clean surface – something modern Americans take for granted.)

Having met the needs of the people during the war and afterwards while many foods were still rationed, British Restaurants were disbanded in 1947.

Another example of a creative solution to one of the many issues that resulted from the war.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mystery Monday: The Mystery of Cemetaries

This past Saturday Wes and I went to Warner, NH for their annual Fall Foliage Festival. It was a quintessential gorgeous, New England, October day. The sun was a vibrant blue and dotted with puffy white clouds. The colors on the leaves ranged from bright yellow to fiery crimson. We saw one maple tree that looked variegated – the leaves were yellow in the middle with red edges. Needless to say, we took copious pictures.

It was a fun excursion-acting like a tourist, a “leaf-peeper” as Autumn visitors are called up here. We watched competitions during which teams of oxen pulled heavier and heavier loads, then shopped among the tents filled with jewelry, produce, crafts and furniture. The library was holding a book sale, and the Telephone Museum offered free admission. It was a little weird seeing the novelty phone we used to own in a museum. Are we that old? (But I digress!)

As we ascended the hill toward Main Street, we saw a cemetary. I'm a taphophile (defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as a cemetary enthusiast). I love to visit cemetaries, to wander between the headstones and read what is written on them. I especially love the older stones carved with unusual names such as Ezekial, Zebulon, or Asa. There is often the snippet etched in the granite or slate. Usually a sad story such as the one that said the woman had died at aged 41 and 6 days with an infant daughter in her arms. Six days after this mother's birthday she and hew new born daughter had passed away. To the right of her stone stood an obelisk that marked her husband's grave. To his right was the memorial of his second wife.

Immediately questions began to form: How soon after being widowed did the man remarry? Did he truly love his second wife, or did he simply need a mother for his other children? Did he fear for her each time she became pregnant, wondering if he would lose in child-birth, too? How did his second wife feel about being his second wife?

I already have a story forming in my imagination about this trio, and my fingers are itching to get it on paper. Writers are often asked where we get ideas for our stories. We find them everywhere, even in a cemetary.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Talkshow Thursday: Sweets for the Sweet

Hello. Ruth Brown here. When anyone is talking about WWII, one of the first topics of conversation is rationing, both food and fuel. But frankly it seemed folks in England adjusted better to the lack of fuel more so than the lack of food. As someone who loves a good meal, I can understand.
When I arrived in London in June 1942, rationing had been in place for nearly three years. During the war bread, potatoes, vegetables, fruit and fish were never rationed (although interestingly enough bread was rationed after the war). Since the war’s end, I have read conflicting reports as to the over all health of the population. Some accounts indicate the British people were underfed and undernourished, and as a result illness was on the rise. Other reports indicate the population was “healthier than before.”

I would imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle. A somewhat active thirty-year old woman requires an intake of 1200-1500 calories per day. A man requires 1900-2100 calories. Because higher caloric foods such as processed sweets (cakes, cookies, scones, etc.), and beef and chicken were eaten with less regularity during the war, it would take a lot more food to make up the missing calories. Was the food available? From what I could discover, the answer to that question depended on where you lived.
Folks on the coast had access to fish. The inland population had access to potatoes and bread. Fruits were difficult to find anywhere; and in fact, bananas disappeared for the entirety of the war. Some children saw their first one at aged 10 or 12.

I often wonder if children raised during the war never developed a “sweet tooth.” As someone who loves dessert, I think that would be a real shame.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Traveling Tuesday: Where are the Marshall Islands?

Most of my knowledge of WWII involves the U.S. and British home fronts. Thanks to the Wright Museum where I am a volunteer docent, I am learning a tremendous amount about the battle fronts and various theatres of war. The museum is currently hosting an exhibit showcasing the art of Pvt. Charles Miller who was stationed in the South Pacific, specifically on the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. His art, comprised of pen and ink and water colors, is a pictorial diary of his time during there.
I was intrigued by his pictures and did a bit of research into the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign that occurred from November 1943 through February 1944. Located near the equator and slightly west of the International Date Line these islands are approximately 2,400 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawa’ii.
The country is comprised of twenty-nine atolls (a ring-shaped coral reef, island or series of islets) and five islands. Initially recognized as part of the Spanish East Indies, the islands were sold to the German empire in 1884. After WWI, they were awarded to the Empire of Japan who considered them the outer perimeter of their territory.
By 1943, Japan had scored countless victories in the Pacific. After much debate, Admiral Chester Nimitz suggested a strategy that consisted of a series of amphibious assaults on selected Japanese-held islands toward Japan. This island-hopping strategy hinges on the idea that isolating Japanese troops on the islands and letting them “wither on the vine,” would be as effective as destroying them through a direct attack and have less cost to Allied forces.
Differing opinions divided the Allied commanding officers over which islands to attack. Some felt that Tarawa should be bypassed, while others thought that retaking the Gilberts to provide an air base for the next step (the battle for the Marshall Islands) was crucial. Eventually, the battle of Tarawa did occur with heavy casualties on both sides.
The Battle of Kwajalein (one of the main Marshall Islands in the south, and the main focus of Miller’s work) took place from January 31 through February 4, 1944. The battle was a significant victory for the Allies because it was the first time the Americans had penetrated the “outer ring” of the Japanese Pacific sphere. The success of the Marshall campaign gave Allied troops a major anchorage point and staging area from which to continue their operations in the central Pacific, and to their ultimate goal-Japan.
Today, the Marshall Islands is a presidential republic in free association with the United States, with the U.S. providing defense, subsidies and access to U.S. based agencies such as the FCC and the postal service. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.
Time to do some more studying.





Friday, October 2, 2015

Forensic Friday: Who's Got the Goods?

Colonel Mustard did it with a knife in the library. Mrs. Peacock did it in the ballroom with a candlestick. But what if the evidence is contaminated, and the deed cannot be proven? That’s where chain of evidence comes in.

Chain of evidence, also called chain of custody, is the “chronological documentation showing the seizure, custody, control, transfer, analysis, and disposition of physical or electronic evidence.” The key to this process is for the chain to remain unbroken.
In order for evidence to be used in court to convict someone of a crime, it must be handled in a manner that prevents tampering. The handling must establish that the alleged evidence is in fact related to the alleged crime, rather than having, for example, been “planted” to make someone appear guilty. If there are discrepancies in the process, and it cannot be proven who had the item at a particular point in time, then the chain of custody is severed, and the defendant can ask to have the resulting evidence declared inadmissible.
An identifiable person must always have the physical custody of a piece of evidence, and each transaction involving the evidence must be recorded. Typically, a police officer or detective takes charge of a piece of evidence collected at the crime scene and gives it to an evidence clerk for storage in a secure place.
For those of you who watch CSI or any of the other police dramas on television, you may already be familiar with the process of evidence collection. Documentation begins at the crime scene where a technician photographs the item in its place. Then measurements are taken to indicate the exact location of the item at the scene. A common method to do this is for the technician to select a fixed point at the scene (e.g., the south side of the living room) then measure the distance to the evidence from that point.
Television often portrays police work as fast-paced, glamorous, and exciting. I’m sure it can be, but more often than not a criminal has been convicted because of a tiny anomaly brought to light by meticulous attention to some detail related to the case. (Think Sherlock Holmes or Monk.)
Who is your favorite TV detective?