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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.

Taking a break from today

You probably join me in being so, so tired of 2020 turmoil.  If we had 20-20 foresight, we never would have allowed ourselves to get into this mess.  Today I decided to give it a rest and go back to the past.  Maybe not eternal verities, as in William Faulkner's work, but as close as I can get.  So if you want more about news and faux news, just stop reading here and skip over to Joe's column.  He'll have the latest and greatest.


The Naval Institute Press, which is based in Annapolis, Maryland, occasionally sends me books to review, and I was very pleased with their latest.  I don't know why they published it, as it has almost nothing to do with the Navy, but I'm glad they did.  The Army runs a bunch of good museums, but does very little in terms of publishing.  This book is about spying and really should have been published by the CIA, but you know how likely that is. 


The book is titled The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison:  America's First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent.  Author Elizabeth Atwood has done a remarkable job of digging up original documents and piecing together a story that is a genuine page turner.  I found it so enthralling that I finished it less than two days after it arrived.  Atwood chose the subject because she is a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, as was Marguerite Harrison.


Her family had not intended for her to be employed in any profession.  They were upper class, and from her 1897 debut onwards, opposed almost everything that she did.  She married over their objections and bore a son, but her husband died when the boy was just thirteen.  He was mature for his age, though, and both he and she felt comfortable entrusting him to others when she went off to World War I.


Partly because she was a very talented linguist and partly because she had family connections and very much because she persisted, the Army's Military Intelligence Department (MID) hired her for espionage in Berlin.  She sailed in December 1918, a month after the armistice that ended the war – but it was just a temporary agreement, and no one knew if German grievances would again flare into fighting.  A decade later, Hitler would use that issue, especially France's insistence on reparations, to rally Germans, and so it was understandable that MID would want to know more about what was happening there.  For that, they took a chance on a woman.




Under the cover of writing reports for the Baltimore Sun – which she did – she attended parties, pursued friendships, studied economic and political conditions, and sent pertinent information back to Washington.  The US was an infant in espionage in those days, unlike European autocrats who had used spies and secret police forever.  Because she had no formal training and because she was largely alone, she made some mistakes that would cost her in the future, when she was spying in the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


After settling her son in a Swiss school, she moved from Germany to Poland and then on to Russia.  There's too much to the tale to tell all, but the Soviet government imprisoned her twice, and she, like others in that time and place, suffered severely from hunger.  This was not enough to dampen her adventurous spirit, though, and in 1923, she set off for Turkey.  In what still was called Constantinople, she interviewed Mustafa Ataturk, the leader of the "Young Turks" and head of that new government.


She traveled with two men this time – neither of them as talented as she – under the cover of film-making.  The silent movie focused on a nomadic tribe, and the three visitors went with them some 1,500 miles over icy mountains.  The women walked, usually barefooted, while the men rode, and Harrison became more of a feminist than she had been earlier.  She had not supported the right to vote in America, but began to change her mind when she saw women voting in the new German republic – a right they would lose with Hitler.  Harrison ended up in Tehran and Bagdad, and met the man who would be the last shah of Iran, during Jimmy Carter's administration. 


Author Atwood does an excellent job of being both empathetic and impartial.  She often compares records from others to demonstrate that something Harrison wrote was false, and she makes the argument that Harrison could have been a double agent, offering information to both the US and the Soviets.  The overall adventure, however, is phenomenal.  The book gave me a detailed sense of Russia and the Middle East, something that most of us Americans need.  It's easy to forget that democracy and especially gender equity are completely new notions to much of the world.  These nations are at about the point that we were in the 1700s, and we should be more generous in giving them time to catch up.




I've had a stack of paperbacks on my credenza since Hubby was in the hospital last spring.  I usually took paperback mysteries there because they were easy to fit into a purse and because they provided distraction without too much mental exertion.  They were Hubby's books, and I regret that I didn't read them while he still could communicate.  I'm getting them off the shelves now because most are way past their prime.  I'll put up some photos instead.


So the last are three books by British novelist Dorothy Sayers.  She's not quite as brilliant as Agatha Christie, but she comes close.  And more than Christie, Sayers likes to play with words.  I marked three places in Clouds of Witnesses (1927) that I wanted to return to, and I'm doing that now.  Speaking of the House of Lords, she said, "The noble lords began to yawn, with the exception of the soap and pickle lords."  Yes, this phrase does make the internet:  a "soap and pickle lord" is one who did not inherit his place in the House of Lords, but instead bought the seat with money made from commerce.


At another point, her leading protagonist, Lord Peter Whimsey, muses:  "I remember reading a book about missionaries when I was small.  Did you want to be a missionary in your youth?  I did.  I think most kids do some time or another, which is odd, seeing how unsatisfactory most of us turn out."  Yes, I wanted to be a missionary when I was a child.  Did you?  Partly it was a desire to travel, but I think mostly because of the attention that missionaries got when they came home to raise money.  Mission fests at church were fun, with lots of food and soft drinks that I rarely had.


Finally, I absolutely loved this quote from Lady Astor, who you may know, was an American born in Danville, Virginia.  She was the first woman in the House of Commons, having been elected to her husband's former seat when he ascended to the Lords.  Lady Astor won elections from 1919 to 1945, when her Conservative Party persuaded her to step down.  The quote:  "I am striving to take into public life what any man gets from his mother."




Murder Must Advertise (1933) is set in a London advertising agency, and the mystery kept me baffled until the very end.  At one point, Sayers refers to "a dried-up old man seated in the corner of the bar, absorbing a gin-and-potash."  This took a little more searching, but I finally found, deep into an essay on gin, that prior to government regulations, some manufacturers used potash as an ingredient. 


Potash comes from "pot ash," or the ashes of fires.  It has been used as a fertilizer for centuries:  Indeed, I wrote in my Milestones: A Chronology of American Women's History that, in 1690, Boston officials authorized a consortium of 30 women to saw lumber and manufacture potash.  When refined by modern methods, it becomes potassium, and combined with nitrogen and phosphate, these make up the Big Three of modern fertilizers. 


Phosphate sometimes comes from Florida's Bone Valley around Bartow, where massive numbers of dinosaurs apparently chose to die.  Those nighttime train whistles you might hear probably are carrying it to the Port of Tampa.  But the internet also tells me that some women, especially in Nigeria, where abortion is illegal, drink potash "cocktails" to terminate a pregnancy.  Don't try this at home.


So now I've put two falling-apart Sayers books into the wastebasket.  The third is Strong Poison (1930), and its first bookmarked passage says:  An anthracite stove, glowing red and mephitical, vied with a roaring gas-oven to raise the atmosphere to a roasting-pitch."  "Mephitical" is what I didn't know; it means a noxious fume.  But it strikes me that people who didn't live in Minnesota, like I did, may not recognize "anthracite." 


It is the highest grade of coal, with the fewest impurities and the greatest energy when heated.  The alternative was bituminous coal, which is softer and gives off less heat.  I remember my father using those terms, but I don't know which he ordered when the coal truck came in autumn and poured a basement room full of coal.  It probably depended on how much money Dad had when fall fell.


Ok, very last one.  Lord Peter is enjoying Sunday supper with a poor family, and he says, "The trotters having been eaten…"  Sounds unappetizingly akin to diarrhea, doesn't it?  Turns out that "trotter" in English English means pigs' feet.  The internet tells me that they are enjoying a renaissance among the culinary cool, but I think I'll pass.



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