These Truths: a History of the United States, by Jill Lepore


I have read numerous books of American history, but this one is the most comprehensive.

“There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially of invention and beauty. Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but. This book is neither kind. The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. ”

The above is from the introduction, and it describes exactly how I found the book. Highly recommend it.


On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century


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by Timothy Snyder

“The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

So writes this humbly daring author. The book, published in 2017, after just one year of the Trump administration, is even more chilling when read today (February 2020). But, in contrast to authors who see cracks overhead and yell that the sky is falling, Snyder does not limit his work to warnings. He gives practical suggestions for the ordinary citizen to outface — defeat — what at this point seems almost inevitable — the consummation of Orwell’s 1984.

A sampling:

“Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.” (This is the first lesson.)

What a way to begin your theses — who would do such a toady thing? However, as Snyder makes plain, “anticipatory obedience” laid the tracks for Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, the Soviet Union . . . LOTS of ordinary citizens stepped into line, performing heinous deeds even before there was a line. And do so today.

* Defend institutions

* Remember professional ethics

* Be wary of paramilitaries

* Be reflective if you must be armed

* Believe in truth

It’s tempting to write out all twenty lessons. In fact, it’s tempting to copy out the whole book (126 pungent pages). (Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2017)

But, just one final quote, from “Believe in truth.”

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”


Shepherdess of Elk River Valley



This book is hard to categorize. It is a memoir by Margaret Duncan Brown, and was published in 1982 by Golden Bell Press of Denver, Colorado.

I will quote from the preface.

During the 47 years that Margaret Duncan Brown lived alone on her Colorado sheep ranch, she kept a diary of her thoughts and exceptional life. She had never submitted anything for publication, except a short piece to The Reader’s digest, that received the First Person Award, September, q958, entitled, “A Little Bunch of Sheep.”

Mrs. Brown died Julyl 30, 1965. As attorney for her estate, my wife being her niece and Executrix of her will, I found her writings stored around the ranch house, mostly on small tablets that she carried in her pockets while tending sheep. I had the enriching experience of organizing the writings into the form here presented.

The writings trace margaret Duncan, an extremely attractive but pensive young girl, of gentle Southern parentage, to marriage, at age of 18 , in 1900 to Thornton Brown, then a mining clerk in Cripple Creek, Colorado. By 1915, her husband had become cashier and resident manager of a bank in Cripple Creek, and the couple were quite active in business and social circles. They decided to become ranchers, and in late 1915, they made a small down payment and moved on 160 acres on Elk River, Routt County, in northwestern Colorado. In 1918 her husband died. She stayed on, and after the hardest of struggles, solely on her own, she paid out the ranch and expanded. When she died, she had a beautiful, improved ranch of 713 acres, debt free. The richest heritage is, of course, her indomitable spirit, her great sensitiveness, perception and philosophy of life, which live in these writings.

Signed, Paul E. Daugherty

I obtained my copy of this unforgettable book through the Bas Bleu Society, in fact, it is “A Bas Bleu Edition.” Whatever it takes to get a copy, read it!

My Metanoia Regarding Slaveholding

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (National Book Award Finalist)

December 15, 2018, is not a bad date to be getting a new perspective on the origins of the American presidency. In this case, our first President, George Washington, First Lady Martha Washington, their households, and the precarious nature of everyone’s life in those times. I have read multiple biographies and other historical writings covering this period in the history of the United States of America, and I have read the autobiography of former slave Frederic Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had a fairly good spread of knowledge of the horrible institution in the matrix of American life. 

Yet, this relatively short work (197 pages before notes and index — 254 pages in all) filled in gaps I didn’t know I had about not only the lives of slaves, but the lives of their owners and the cultural, economic, and legal cage that kept thousands in bondage long after the practice ceased to be deemed acceptable. The author also constructs, woven through her narrative of one slave — protagonist Ona Maria Judge — a timeline of the introduction of slavery into the American colonies to its gradual demise in the mid-eighteen hundreds. 

I did not know how beat up Geo. Washington was by the end of the War of Independence. I didn’t know that his uniforms were designed and sewn by a creative slave. I didn’t know how closely the Washingtons skirted poverty, even though large landowners with hundreds working their farms without pay. I didn’t know of the famed Dr. Benjamin Rush’s tragic medical mistake that set back reconciliation of blacks and whites.  

It was surprising to learn how caged-in both Washingtons were by ill health and family deaths.  I learned how difficult it was to be First Family, looking alternately though the eyes of their most valued household slaves, then through the eyes of the highly dependent owners. George Washington, long reputed for honesty, chose public duplicity when it came to maintaining his use of slaves.  He even made concerted use of his federal power and financing to try to catch the fugitive slave, his wife’s privately owned Ona Judge, inherited along with hundreds of others, from her planter father.  That fiscal move would likely be an impeachable felony today.  Who knew? 

The author comes by her detailed knowledge of slavery through many relevant connections, topped by her tenure at the University of Delaware as the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History.  

Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know


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Author: John Kaltner. (Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN 2003.)

At the time of publication, Kaltner was Associate Professor of Religion at Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. He apparently has made a diligent study of Islam, in books and in person, his lifework.

Dedication: To the members of the Muslim Society of Memphis

Kaltner’s intent: “. . . to introduce non-Muslims to the basics of Islam so that they will be encouraged to expand and develop their knowledge of it.” It’s a small book (7.5 inches by 4.4 inches) and a short one (136 pages), and Kaltner is deliberately picking among the main characteristics of the faith as an introduction. So far, so good.

There are profound concerns, in the Western world at least, about the burgeoning growth of Islam — especially in lands where the Muslims may become more numerous than the current natives. I ordered this book interlibrary loan, with great hopes of easing my unease stemming from newscasts and articles about the varieties of Muslims and their variety of practices. I hoped this book would put my heart at ease. Having read and reread, my mind has more knowledge, but my heart is still not at ease.

Some knowledge gained:
1. To use 50-cent words, Islam is a faith of orthopraxy and Christianity is a faith of orthodoxy. In Islam, more emphasis lies on obligations the faithful are to perform; while in Christianity, there is said to be more emphasis on precepts and teachings than on obligations to perform. However, as a practicing Christian, I find faith and works equally bound up together. The demonstration of the faith in practice is key to success. I hope my Muslim fellow citizens of the world feel the same.
2. Kaltner says that Islam did not spread through forced conversions. He quotes a Qur’an passage: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) but then goes on to say that when Islamic forces take over a territory they offer the population three choices:
a. Convert and have full rights and privileges
b. Christians and Jews may keep their freedom of worship as long as they pay special taxes to the Muslims. Those that pay would have the status of a “protected minority” — hardly the same as full citizenship.
c. Otherwise — “military confrontation and violence ensue” (p. 14).
This array of options seems very much like coercion, does it not?
3. Scriptures:
While the Muslims consider the Bible to be of both human and divine origin (a point I would not contest) and therefore respectable but inferior (a point I do contest), they consider the Qur’an to be 100% divine, unchanged by human hands. This view of the Qur’an as superior does not seem supported by what was quoted of its content. I would refer anyone interested in that point to the article “What is the Koran?” by Toby Lester, in the January 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
4. But this is one point where I gained much more empathy for Muslims world-wide. Their ancient, core concept of the ummah asuniversal humanity — Islamics all, under the rule of one God, Allah — received an unempathetic blow when, after the Second World War, the Middle East was divided arbitrarily into the countries we know as Lebanon, Syria, Arabia, Iraq, etc. The ummah was divided, perhaps not with an axe, but with a slide rule. One wonders, to what extent were those geopolitical divisions made with an eye to divide and deter, or simply to divide up the oil pie for the West.

Despite the careful scholarship and earnest intent, it seems that almost every point at which Kaltner tries to make a benign comparison, this reader finds weakness in the evidence and is not yet quite convinced that Muslims — in the aggregate — are willing to be congenial neighbors in a pluralistic society.

Letters to a Young Muslim, by Omar Saif Ghobash


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I have tried reading several well-recommended books on Islam over the years, wishing to grasp just exactly what it’s all about. Is it inherently good or evil? Is it unusually susceptible to influences, internal or external? Each time I have gotten bogged down in lists of complicated names, battles, and dynasties extant centuries ago. Here, at last is an exception.

Ghobash, writing in the format of letters to a young teenager (one of his sons), has simplified the details of history, but delves deeply into the conditions of today, many of which have their origins in the distant, desert past. It is my impression that he pulls no punches, especially in showing how easy it is for a young Muslim (especially a male) to be pulled into violence and extremism. The author went through the process of Arab/Muslim socialization and education himself, with a good stint in Western schools as well. As a United Arab Emirates ambassador, he has had plenty of opportunity to see Islam from inside and out, and has thought deeply about what he writes. I won’t try to go into any specifics of his suggestions for moving Islam into modern times without losing its core values, but can only recommend: Get this book and read it. As an added bonus, it is formatted and, at 244 pages, sized for an easy grasp — physical and attention-wise.

The Country of the Pointed Firs


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This American classic, by Sarah Orne Jewett, is one of those rare books which sports a readable and useful introduction. Willa Cather wrote the preface — empathetic, intuitive, respectful.

As Ms. Jewett herself said, “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper — whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.” Cather wrote that every great story “must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique. A quality that one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden.” The great writer must give herself totally to her material, must “fade away into the land and people of [her] heart” — “must die of love only to be born again.”

Cather concludes, in her 1925 evaluation of this 1896 work: “If I were asked to name three American books which have the possibility of a long, long life, I would say at once, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Country of the Pointed Firs. I can think of no others that confront time and change so serenely.” And of our present interest: “It will be a message to the future, a message in a universal language.”

I don’t know about all that, but I do know this book has brought increasing pleasure over years of re-readings to first my mother, and now me. I just finished my umpteenth reading, finding greater depth and artistry than ever before. How did I miss this? Oh, the perfection of that!

The setting of the story is a small, Maine fishing village on a deep water harbor which opens into an ocean bay dotted with islands. The plot is minimal. A city-bred writer discovers life anew during a summer spent among the citizens of this hamlet. Her empathy and insight into character, rather than plot, are what draw the reader deeper and deeper into the story. The natural setting, of fishermen’s and sea captains’ homes, the tides and winds, the upland fields and pastures, the flowers, tress, shrubs, and weeds — the “pointed firs” — all become shapers of the story.

I used to read this for pleasure — which I still do — but now I read it for the tears that come from Jewett’s unsentimentally poignant literary skill.

You don’t have to be from Maine to enjoy this, but if you are in Maine you will come away understanding better your home’s place in the universe.

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell


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I have just laid down one of the most delightful books in the English language. This was my third pass through it, chuckling, sighing in satisfaction over a perfect turn of phrase, exclaiming, or weeping all the way. It’s a lot more than antique chick lit. Beneath the surface of financially strained female gentility is a strong current of ardent feminism, a sharp critique of early Industrial Revolution big business, and another critique of the British class and education systems. Its upper layers give us characters warmly portrayed who would under many another author’s quill pen have been laughed at, sneered at, or simply passed over in favor of exaggeration or titillation.

Dame Judi Dench played the lead role, Miss Matty, in a TV production of Cranford — I think it was a BBC mini-series — some years back. Even she was not able to give us the depths of this seemingly weak, slightly endowed spinster sister, who is nevertheless a sterling leader by example.

Mrs. Gaskell (Elizabeth Gaskell, 1810 – 1865) published the novel Mary Barton in 1848, which won her a nationwide audience through Charles Dickens’ new periodical, Household Words, where Cranford was first published in serial form. She also wrote Wives & Daughters, North & South, Sylvia’s Lovers, and the acclaimed Life of Charlotte Bronte. Gaskell’s insight and writing skill are often compared favorably to the otherwise incomparable Jane Austen.

My copy is a sadly decaying Oxford Paperbacks 1972 edition, which I (wisely, as it turns out) covered in sticky-backed plastic. Get a better copy, and be ready to enjoy life for a good read.

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: the world before and after Jesus


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by Thomas Cahill

Although professional theologians and historians have arched an eyebrow over Cahill’s books (those I have read include The Gift of the Jews and How the Irish Saved Civilization), I find great value in his contributions to both fields and especially to my understanding of world civilization. As a writer, he seems to have done excellent research into the vetted works of the above academics, but put their dry information into a lively narrative, as lively as the evolving civilization itself. I read this book at the midpoint of my ten-year drive to get a Master of Arts in Bible Studies degree, and now am re-reading it 12 years after graduation. It is reminding me that I have NOT finished discovering new ideas in Scripture, nor have I even finished analyzing what I already know. Thanks, Mr. Cahill. You do have a vivid imagination, but you harness it well.

My Grandmother’s Novels


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My mother left me her most prized possession — a collection of her mother’s novels. Mother, Eleanor Jacobs Mitchell, read them through once a year. I had read one or two, or maybe a few chapters in another, during visits to my parents in East Parsonsfield, Maine. Due to a series of changes in my life, the books have been in storage for several years. This fall I decided it was time I made their full acquaintance. I set them in chronological order of publication on the top shelf of my bedroom bookcase, supported on either end by my Noah and the Ark bookends, then took down the first volume and commenced to read.

The Old Ashburn Place was Margaret Flint Jacobs’ first novel, hammered out on a manual typewriter during sweltering southern nights after her children were in bed. It was published in 1935. The action is set, however, in the beauty and coolness of the Flint family’s ancestral stomping ground, West Baldwin, Maine — pre-World War I.

Margaret Flint (her pen name) was no ordinary lady author, and she did not, I find, write “lady author” books. The conflict in the story is a man’s impossible-therefore-unrequited love in a tug of war with his unsought-but-inevitable adultery. The graphic detail of such scenes, which would be written out at length in a modern novel, is abbreviated here; but the emotional impact is almost hard core. The book won the First Novel of the Year prize, run by Dodd, Mead Publishers, in 1936. This housewife and mother, who had been pounding that typewriter for many years, was swept into a round of book signings and speeches.

Reading The Old Ashburn Place was a re-read, and I found it to be as much an encyclopedia of farm life in Maine, as a memorable story. Also, it is the only Flint novel currently available — new, on Amazon and from the publisher, Istoria Books. (IB publishes ebooks and print on demand paperbacks. Fiction: romance, mystery, and literary women’s fiction. See for more background on both the book and its author.)

Since the first novel is the only one to have received much notice, I’ll make this a long post and briefly cover them all, in an amalgamated review.

The second novel, Valley of Decision, — written after my grandfather’s passing and after my grandmother had moved the family back to Maine — surprised me by being set in the deep South, on the Gulf coast. My grandmother’s habit of close observation of nature, along with her curiosity about what makes humans tick, comes through almost as well in the Southern as in the Northern context. Evidently, her sojourn in the south with husband and six children had not been all perspiration and diapers to change. Yet I found this book less appealing than The Old Ashburn Place, partly because she was delving into some rather deep psychology, into the area of mental manipulation. Character and plot development get downright creepy. And, I was beginning to wonder, small-mindedly, if ALL her heroines were going to be petite, with small hands and smaller perception of the havoc they raise in the hearts and innards of her heroes? In fact, not one of her characters is perfectly beautiful or handsome, completely good or wicked. One feels that the author yearned over all of them.

Deacon’s Road (1938) introduces Ephraim Squire, the young, farm-inclined hero, who yearns to revive the ancient family farmstead. The ups and downs of his possibly achieving that hope form the framework for the story. And with this novel, the heroines become more realistic.

As the plot unfolds, the reader is introduced to old-time town meeting politics and to the caste system among the ancient families, newcomer wannabes, and the poor. Serious news for today’s reader is how hard thrifty farm women worked. Eph’s aunt, Hetty Hicks, what we today might call a swinging single, is also found crocheting a bedspread, “all in one piece” to sell in exchange for paint to redecorate the bathroom on her father’s farm, buy the material for her spring clothes, and “have some money to tuck away in the bank besides. Yes, along with her spring cleaning, she would do that bathroom over. . . . nobody could say she slighted her regular housekeeping in favor of these extras. She . . . [kept] things immaculate from attic to cellar . . . had a flower garden in summer and potted plants in winter . . . had shelves of home-canned food. . . literally hundreds of jars.” Whew.

Heritage and proximity have destined Eph and a neighbor girl, Lois, for each other. But enter the glamorous city teenager, Shirley. It takes the rest of the book to get that tangle straightened out. Along the way, the reader is immersed in the beauty of changing seasons, the comforts and hardships of farm life, and the social ways of rural communities: “The [farm’s] livelihood . . . had come from the tilled land; the cash which made that life easier, which bought good clothes, and carriages, and machinery; which furnished the houses with solid and handsome mahogany, maple, and walnut; which sent the boys to Harvard or Bowdoin if they wished to go — that cash had come from timber. Towering pines, straight, bare of branches to their feathery tops, had been felled and reared again as the masts of ships. Virgin forests, booming markets, men of keen business sense and unbounded energy — the combination had built a prosperous rural community, and an aristocracy of trade and labor.”

History lessons mix in with funny, frustrating, or poignant human relations, as in all Flint novels. The backdrop is ever the rolling countryside of western Maine that hugs the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Breakneck Brook (1939) illustrates another Flint novel characteristic, for it is set on the banks of an actual brook in West Baldwin, Maine. I have splashed in that brook. My grandmother had a talent for combining the real and the fictional into a believable whole. The same goes for characters. Although she always claimed her characters were entirely fictional, friends and neighbors — and foes — were sure they saw themselves or someone they knew in the pages of one or more of the novels. And they probably did. My grandmother, for instance, would attend town meeting, reporter’s notebook in hand, to garner material for her stories. My mother shows up in this story, as the pretty, cheerful, stay-at-home Thurlow Parks. My Aunt Bunny appears as her sophisticated, city-acclimated, older sister Beth. My Dad has been said to furnish the model for the main character in October Fires — I sincerely hope not, as the man supports a mistress on the sly for years, then drops her.

Back to Breakneck Brook. The plot is not unusual, as it tracks the sorting out process of pairing up three women — after several false starts and twists — each with her right man. This book is special to me, though, partly because it describes in detail the climb up to the scenic ledge my mom, her siblings, and a horde of cousins used as a hangout on Saddleback Mountain across from my grandmother’s house. I’ve heard Mother’s stories and seen the family photos. I could just see that ledge from the bedroom in my grandmother’s house where I often slept as a child. The novel confirms and expands upon Mother’s stories.

Back O’ the Mountain (1940). The title, a colloquialism, brings up another characteristic of these novels. Maine accents are notoriously difficult to reproduce, even by professional actors. Yet Flint was able to hear acutely the colorful dialect of her neighborhood, and she devised an accurate system for writing it down. Unlike other lady authors of her day, she also included enough of the local profanity to faithfully fabricate authentic conversations.

This story is about Kate and Sam. Her struggle is to keep house and raise four children on the modest income from the farm that Sam works hard to maintain and improve. This is acceptable and even happy for them until they need to give a home to Sam’s truly “impossible” mother. It’s a wrenching situation on the wider family as well, and is only resolved just in time for the reader to finish the book in peace.

Down the Road a Piece (1941) also sports a colloquial title, which “has more than its obvious meaning. Neighbors may be separated by a mile or more, yet they are bound together by the road which is always open. Though they may know considerable about each other’s affairs, they do not interfere. There’s bound to be talk, of course, but they can live and let live,” according to the Prologue.

This novel lets us see the previous novel’s family situation from the perspective of Kate’s elegant and aspiring younger sister, Elinor, and Sam’s agribusiness-man brother, Clem. The strong bonds of love pull the family at cross purposes, at times, and create new tangles to be resolved. One highlight is, believe it or not, the week Clem and Elinor spend — in and out of each other’s company — at Maine’s annual Farm and Home Week at the flagship state university. This adventure shows us another common Flint theme: Women striving to better themselves and their families beyond their traditional roles without abandoning the home and garden. And the other side of the equation — men, also trying to adjust to the rapidly modernizing era.

October Fires (1941) doth stick in my craw, just a bit. Its theme is how Leroy Varney makes the best of a highly respectable, upwardly mobile, but mistaken marriage, all the while mismanaging relations with his faithful, backwoods mistress. Oh, and also while nursing a decades-long lust for the town beauty. My grandmother really knew how to get her characters into a fix! The protagonist’s strengths are commendable, but his weaknesses wear one down. I wouldn’t mind, except for the gossip connecting Varney with my father as mentioned above. No way.

Enduring Riches (1942) is the last of the series of novels set in the Baldwin/Hiram/Sebago area of Western Maine.

“Judith was the daughter of Joseph, who was the son of Eleazar, who was the son of Deacon Ephraim Squire. Then, if you must have it, the Deacon was the son of Eleazar, who was the son of Joseph, who was one of the proprietors of Squire Township. Later on, and for some unholy reason, the name of this township had been changed to Parkston.”

For “Squire” one could read “Flint” and see how my own ancestry is woven into these stories. I could take you, for instance, to the Deacon Ephraim Flint horse watering trough in West Baldwin, sadly neglected at present.

To continue: “On the distaff side, Judith’s heritage was no less impressive, and by some it was considered more so.”

“. . . very well indeed did Judith know the traditions and standards by which, supposedly, her thoughts and behavior were to be governed.” Yet, she finds herself voluntarily backed into a marriage that nearly wrecks her and her children’s lives. Can she solve this knotty problem without resorting to divorce? I’m not telling, but the title gives you a clue. I believe the title also sums up Margaret Flint’s real-life relationship with her land and her people.

My grandmother’s final published book was the novel Dress, Right Dress (1943), about life in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Her research material was primarily letters home from her two WAC daughters — only thinly disguised as friends in the story — who had differing ambitions and temperaments. My mother is “Sergeant Nell.” My Aunt Edith is “Corporal Bess.” I was startled and comforted at some of Nell’s advice in letters to her friend, for it could also have been meant for me.

Like all Flint’s novels, this is a penetrating commentary on the times, on social and economic matters, on education and opportunity. In addition, it touches on evolving race and gender relations, as well as the evolving nature of the U.S. military.

An unfinished novel, named (as I recall) Hard Cider, and all my grandmother’s papers, notebooks, clippings from her prize year and other publicity, and copies of her many newspaper and magazine articles are housed in the research library at Colby College in Maine. Most extant original copies of Margaret Flint’s books are in the hands of family, collectors, or in several Maine library special collections.