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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

An Opportunity for You

I’m still not ready to write an analysis of the election. I’m reading, listening, and encouraged by bright spots that have gotten little attention, but I’m still resolved to give the right-wingers enough rope for hanging themselves while I tend my own garden. Literally, as in trimming the jungle in my backyard. I’m also not planning to attend any of the re-organizing meetings that are going on – but I encourage you to do so.

I co-founded a chapter of NOW (National Organization for Women) in Massachusetts in 1969, and I’m too tired to do that again. But I’m delighted that apparently many women have contacted Tampa NOW since the election, and they will have a gathering on Thursday, December 1, at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 11400 Morris Bridge Road. Please e-mail ececil1@verizon.net for further information.

Today I’m going to turn to some books by friends that I’ve been intending to recommend. At first I thought there was no unifying theme, but then it occurred to me that, entirely coincidentally, there is: disease. You’ll see as we go along.

The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II

You probably have read work by Ben Montgomery: he writes prize-winning articles for the Tampa Bay Times, including on the “White House Boys” who were murdered by their guards while in state custody. I take a special interest in Ben because, although he is younger, he shares with Hubby and me the same undergraduate school in Arkansas. It’s undistinguished, but its English Department got all three of us on the path to becoming published authors.

Ben’s newest book centers on World War II, and that is another connection because I’ve written two books on it. My first one begins with the Army nurses who were bombed in Manila on Christmas 1942. Ben begins his book in Washington, DC, and then moves backwards to wartime Manila. At the beginning is the 1996 Washington Post obituary about a volunteer docent at the Kennedy Center, who lived in the same Foggy Bottom neighborhood that our daughter moved to in 1995. The obituary said merely that she was a retired secretary and left no survivors. Her ashes were buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, which daughter and I also explored when I considered writing a book on Mary Surratt, who was executed for alleged complicity in Lincoln’s assassination. The cemetery is in an unfashionable part of the capital city, a last resting place for those we choose to ignore.

The protagonist of Ben’s book lived under so many names that I’m going to just use pronouns, but when her few friends cleaned out her apartment, they found evidence that she was an entirely different person from the anonymous Washington worker they thought they knew. Born in 1917 to an upper-class family in Manila, she was a young mother married to a physician when she was diagnosed with leprosy. Most people then associated that disease with the biblical image of lepers as “unclean,” and she was ostracized.

The Japanese also kept their distance from lepers, and when Manila fell to Japan in 1942, she thus was able to evade their inspections. She moved quite freely within and beyond the city, and her spying was very helpful to American forces. The military appreciated her enough that she rode on the first tank with Americans when Manila was liberated in 1945. Without telling too much detail of her life thereafter, I recommend that you buy Ben’s book. It also is relevant to our current national debate on immigration: she lived in Louisiana and California after the war, but was continually threatened with deportation -- despite her courageous contribution to victory in the crucial Philippine Islands.

Dorothy in A Man’s World: A Victorian Woman Physician’s Trials and Triumphs

Dr. Peter Dawson also is a local resident, retired from a prestigious career in medicine and living on the Bayshore. I met him and his wife, Anne, through the League of Women Voters and read his manuscript several years ago, so I’m delighted to see it finished and in print. Like Ben Montgomery’s biographical subject, Peter Dawson’s was born to an upper-class family, but as a very young woman, Dorothy Reed determined to escape from the society life that her family wanted her to pursue. In the end, they should have been grateful that she insisted on a career because her mother and others wasted the family fortune and came to depend on her – while nonetheless resenting her success.

The Reed family tree was full of Boston founders, including Anne Bradstreet, the first American to be published: Without her knowledge, Bradstreet’s brother-in-law took some of her poems to London and returned with The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America (1650). Two centuries later, her descendant Dorothy Reed took advice from a governess who encouraged her to break from the gilded cage of the Victorian Age. Despite her mother’s protests, she took advantage of one of the first women’s colleges, Massachusetts’ Smith College, and then went on to the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the area’s first higher education facility that was coeducational. Her crowning achievement was graduation from Johns Hopkins Medical School, which had been endowed by Baltimore philanthropist Mary Garrett on the condition that women be admitted.

Peter did a tremendous amount of archival research for this book, which includes many reports of the opposition Dr. Reed received from male colleagues – and even female “friends.” Just one example: When she arrived in New York for a position at Babies Hospital, the wife of a cousin there sent a note saying that such employment made it “impossible to receive her socially.” Her previous service in the Spanish-American War did her no credit with such conservative women -- especially if their husbands were physicians, as was the case of this cousin.

Although she ended up as a pioneer of maternal and infant health, especially in Wisconsin, Dorothy Reed Mendenhall’s maiden name has been preserved with “the Reed Cell,” her laboratory discovery of the cell malformation that leads to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The book is engagingly written with virtually no medical jargon, and it includes the mystery of a love affair with a man whose identity still is unknown. Dr. Dawson has rendered a great service to the history of women in medicine, and someone at the USF College of Medicine should honor him for this – and remind young women of the huge barriers their grandmothers overcame for them.

Anna: American Dream

This is the third novel that Palm Harbor resident Deanna Bennett has written about her Lithuanian ancestors. We know Deanna through the Harvard Club, and she is retired from MacDill as an intelligence agent. I found her earlier books fascinating. The first traced the journey of teenage Anna and her obsessively strict mother, Benedicta, from their village, Seduva, to Lithuania’s big town of Vilnius to Berlin and then the Baltic Sea, where they boarded a ship to New York. The second dealt with the ocean voyage and immigration process, and then the railroad trip to Chicago, which included a real-life plot of anarchists to blow up the train. Substitute “terrorists,” and you’ve got today.

The recent one is set in and around Chicago, where they arrived early in 1914. Anna’s older siblings had settled there, and it soon becomes clear that Joseph, the oldest son, sent the money for their trip because he expected their labor. His wife is heavily pregnant, and they have male boarders, a big garden, and a henhouse in need of attention. He also expects Anna to turn over to him the unopened pay envelope from her work at a mattress factory. She stands up for herself, though, and gives him only half her pay -- unlike a factory friend, Lucja, whose Polish father beats her and takes all her money. She slit her wrists when he insisted that she marry his drinking buddy. To Benedicta, this is just more evidence that Lithuanians are superior to Poles. This cultural exclusion extended to Saturday night dances at separate halls for the various Baltic ethnicities -- and even to Sunday morning mass at different Catholic churches.

Anna moved from the mattress factory to a laundry and then to a munitions plant during World War I. Even Benedicta, who could see a cloud in any clear sky, was glad that they had immigrated prior to wartime restrictions, which included a ban on the illiterate. Benedicta could not read, even in Lithuanian, and both she and her daughter-in-law depended on Joseph to read the war news aloud from a Lithuanian newspaper. As you know, a very serious influenza epidemic swept the globe at the war’s 1918 end, and two of Anna’s three brothers died within hours of each other. Their young widows, unable to speak English, were left with children to support during postwar economic depression. Deanna says in her notes that the deaths are factual.

The story includes lots of fun, though, as Anna and her friends discover the wonders of department stores and amusement parks. I don’t know Chicago well, but I’m sure that those from there will find many familiar references. Anna enjoyed time in such places with a man who proposed marriage – and then turned out to be married to a woman still in Lithuania with their children. I know from research for my non-fiction Foreign and Female that such international bigamy was not uncommon, nor were the incidents of sexual harassment that Anna experienced at work and even in the family’s own boardinghouse. In that culture, marriage was a woman’s best protection against such preying men, and Anna finally found a good man in 1919.

Lots of other characters and stories fill the book, and you’ll enjoy it. I was surprised to see that Deanna plans a fourth novel based on Anna’s baby, and I look forward to it. These are page-turners, and as with the others, you can get it online.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet

This is indeed a curious novel -- and also about disease. Set on Coney Island in 1904, it features “Unusuals,” or freak show workers, who are trapped there by a strongly enforced quarantine against the plague. The protagonist is an English girl who was vacationing with her mother when the mother disappeared. Ultimately, we discover that the entrepreneurial hotel manager instructed bellboys to hide what he thought was a dead body in the basement, but the bellboys kept her alive. Others sickened and died, though, and the madhouse museum of Dr. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet became the headquarters of the weird and their circus animals. The odds they struggled against included hunger.

If I had seen this book on a shelf, I would have thought that I didn’t know the author. The name on the cover is H.P. Wood, but that is the married name of my longtime editor Hilary Poole. She was the senior editor for my fourth book, Milestones: A Chronology of American Women’s History, which was published in 1997. We remained in almost daily touch for more than a decade, as she edited my first drafts and then protected me from wannabe copyeditors who introduced errors with self-important changes in final versions. Hilary always will hold a warm place in my heart.

She demanded strict adherence to the facts in her editorial role – indeed, our first work together was for Facts on File -- so I was surprised by the impossible fantasy of Magruder’s. “About the Author,” though, explains that she is “the granddaughter of a mad inventor and sideshow magician.” Hilary now lives in Connecticut, “with a charming and patient husband, a daughter from whom she steals all her best ideas, and more cats than is strictly logical.” If you’ve had enough of the real world – and who hasn’t these days? – this book is a fun escape, with just enough cynicism about business and politics to justify itself.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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