LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONA (with apologies to Gabriel García Márquez!)

Nothing like my mom’s ancient stoneware bread bowl to rustle up a batch of scones for St. Patrick’s day!

Almost a week ago now the hubs and I realized that with our combined “underlying medical conditions” and age vulnerabilities we probably needed to self-isolate (my doctor agreed), and it wasn’t long before we realized we had close contact with someone else who had to quarantine, having been in close contact with a person who was diagnosed positive. Now at the end of this week, pretty much everyone we know is working from home, and with their churches, schools and any other social groups closed down for the indefinite future, they’re wondering what besides toilet paper will become the new hard-to-get item, and pretty much everyone has made a vow to get those things done around the house that always fall to the bottom of the list (I wonder how long that will last!).

But as we just try to protect ourselves from contagion, so many others are suffering mightily under this wretched virus, and families in the hardest hit areas struggle for their lives, as medical personnel do so much they themselves perish in the struggle to try to compensate for our unpreparedness for a pandemic. We watch, wait, and listen for how best to respond, but the fact remains that so far, we, my husband and I, are living a life only different from non-pandemic times because we are not going out at all.  We are blessed, so far.

Some feeling the social isolation pinch right now are the Irish musicians, because this is the annual 2 weeks around St. Patrick’s Day that are the hottest time for gigs in the whole year–and this mainstay has gone up in smoke. Yup, almost all of those gigs and celebrations are canceled as well. Texting around this morning it’s clear that people are still gonna celebrate—from home. And quietly.  And alone–or mostly alone.  For us, it means getting out all our “Full Irish Breakfast” supplies from the freezer, making hot scones, and uncapping the Bailey’s to put in our coffee. My hubs, the best Grampa on earth, has been writing down tunes all morning for our eldest granddaughter, who loves playing music with us. Later, we’ll get out our own instruments and run some of the ones we love. We miss our granddaughters, so the 15 year old showed me how to sign up for an app that lets me FaceTime her on her phone. She walked us through everything they’ve been doing today and yesterday: she made an acrylic painting of a nebula, and her 8 year old sister made an amazing Leprechaun trap. The littl’un thinks she caught one, because there was a bite out of the sugar cookie she put in there, and whatever did it left some “green spit” on it according to her!

Irish bacon, black and white puddings, bangers, fresh scones, coffee with Bailey’s, lemon curd, Old Irish marmalade–move on over corned beef and cabbage!!

So, we got St. Patrick’s Day covered!

One of the things I’ve been doing this past week in isolation is really trying to finish up scanning the VERY last box of photos I inherited from my Dad when he went into a nursing home. It was another box with a random mix of close to 1,000 photos from 1890 to 2010 or so—whenever it was that my Mom and Dad stopped taking pictures. My Mom passed away in 2012 and my Dad in June 2019.

My great grandpa, Alfred Warren Davis lost his father to a mining accident, his baby brother to cholera, and his mother,  Mary Elizabeth Hegan Davis (her mother was a Swords from Leinster, her father a Hegan from Monaghan who emigrated in 1831)  to typhoid fever, so was raised by his father’s sisters from the age of 2 onward.

It’s been an interesting treasure hunt, this project. I have sudden insights into my family tree, and so I make regular forays into my account to investigate hints and put up pictures and documents. I’ve known since I was a child that I had “a lot” of Scottish and Irish “in my blood” but it’s taken me into my 66th year to figure out just how much! And I keep finding more.

My Dad and his mother always talked about our family being German. But in fact, my Mom’s side is all Celtic Nations, particularly Ireland, and a good jot of Scandinavian (a big percentage of all Celtic nations DNA!). I always called myself a “UK mutt” and I think that’s apt. Even on my Dad’s side technically we are Danish, as my Dad’s grandfather came from Schleswig-Holstein at a time it was part of Denmark—which as far as I can tell, it was—for the majority of history except for the last 100 or so years. (I know when I uploaded my surname for a research group seeking to align DNA with surname travels, it was categorized as a Danish surname.) My Dad’s mother’s side identified as German, but even so, her maternal grandfather came to Canada from County Antrim, Ireland.

My great grandmother Agnes Mayberry Donnocker’s father emigrated to Canada from Ballymena, County Antrim in 1822.

People did not emigrate out of Ireland just for the hell of it.  They came because of famine, poverty, and pestilence, and when they got to this side of the pond, they often struggled with even more.  Just last night in following leads on a somewhat mysterious great great grandmother, I see from a few documents that she may very well have come from Dublin originally—but emigrated to the United States at a time when hiding your Irish ancestry was de rigueur to finding a happy home here. In her case, I may have been thrown off for a long time in trying to find her because her daughter-in-law’s mother listed this grandmother’s birthplace as Massachusetts on the headstone she bought the family—a headstone which seems to obfuscate other origins as well–but that’s another story.  May an outcome of the pandemic we are now experiencing be to make people a lot more compassionate towards those who flee their countries of origin in the face disease, hunger, and warfare, and then endure the kind of prejudice and hardship thrust upon them that the Irish and others did, and do, upon coming to the United States.

Ancestor hunting is always a challenge, because so much of what we do in our lives, we do for love. We stay away from our families if we think we might be a threat to their health, or we throw contagion-caution to the winds and cling to them mightily under the same circumstances because we cannot bear the thought of them suffering alone. We take our children and flee the land of our birth because we love our children and want them to survive, and then, we cover up the proud lands of their origin because we love them and want them to survive.

I really like this “Irish proverb” I ran across:

A family of Irish
will argue and fight
But let a shout
come from without
And see them all unite!!





Happy St. Patrick’s Day 2020!

Let’s argue and fight if we have to, as long as we unite against this awful scourge and come out of it together! (home-made scones help!)

LIBERTY’S CURSE is live now!

Today is the 159th anniversary of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln,—March 4, 1861—and in honor of that I’d like to announce the release of my Civil War era novel Liberty’s Curse. It is now available in both paperback and e-book format from Amazon.



Here’s a short sample from the book description–happy reading!


Observing cruelties to an escaped enslaved young woman late one night in a barn in rural New Hampshire, young Ephraim Nute dedicates himself to combatting that scourge. Resisting the wishes of his disapproving father he takes his commitment into the ministry, working with the Underground Railroad and answering a call to be a missionary to the increasingly violent Kansas Territory in 1854. Hoping to help the Territory come into the Union as a Free State, Nute is shot at, imprisoned, and nearly hanged for being an Abolitionist preacher, causing him to question his own pacifism and with increasing encounters with the radical abolitionist John Brown and his family, to run guns and money from the East to Kansas. His complicated friendship with Brown puts him unexpectedly at the attack on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia ….  Always contentious, Nute’s actions are often unorthodox, skirting the boundaries of legality and putting him at odds with the revered institutions of mainstream government, society, and religion. But his goal is always to reach for Liberty, that evasive muse who inspires him, burns in him, and curses him to a life of adventure and agony. Based on the true life story, letters, and writings of the author’s own great great grandfather.


Coming soon! 


I am putting the final touches on the format and cover for my next novel, available on Amazon soon!

LIBERTY’S CURSE: Being the Deathbed Confession & Memoirs of a Pistol-Packing Preacher of the Kanzas Territory In His Own Words is the long-time-coming novelization of my great great grandfather’s life during bleeding Kansas and the Civil War, a man truly cursed by his love for Liberty.  My research for the non-fiction book that came out in 2010 focussed primarily on his relationship with his (mine too!) denomination,  so it just could not, understandably, deal with the various family stories that came down through his daughter, my great grandmother, that were only tangentially attested to in the historical record.  She was the wild child of his old age who represented the depths to which his outlaw behavior would go for someone or something he loved.  According to her, she was the one who ruined the marriage and family of his old age; she was, nevertheless, the apple of his eye.  My ancestor, the Reverend Ephraim Nute, Jr., was a troublesome fellow from the time he was a small child growing up as a stalwart son of New England.  Over the course of his life he developed from a pious, upright-if-not-tedious New England Unitarian Christian to a deeply and broadly spiritual man who took his solace from the natural world and believed in reincarnation.  He participated in the Underground Railroad, he grabbed his guns to keep Kansas from coming into the Union as a slave state, he ran with the infamous John Brown family–all the way to Harper’s Ferry–and he used the Soldiers Homes he supervised up and down the Mississippi River during the Civil War as stops on the clandestine movement of the formerly enslaved north to Canada, and of badly-needed guns south to the Union troops on active duty.  It’s an adventure story, it is based on Ephraim Nute’s letters, sermons, journals, newspaper articles he wrote, and newspaper articles that were written about him–all tied together by Grandma’s stories–and so it is truth and fiction bound.  But then, doesn’t Emily Dickinson say:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise….

(Emily Dickinson)

Whoo hoo!

Yes!! A final couple days hunkered down on the computer and the third book in my Saga of the Heroine series, The Death Crooner’s Passage, is live for sale on Amazon! I’ve really enjoyed writing this series–it combines my love of archeological findings, what DNA studies have taught us about migration of late stone age people, the magic of ancient folklore and religion, and combines them to reach my goal of creating a whole fictional culture–that could have been–from those things. Feedback from the first two in the series tells me that people are getting what I so wanted these stories to convey–immersion in a human past that was whole, spiritual, nature-oriented and not at all ….. primitive! Happy reading!

She never knew her mother or father.  She lives a life of stone tools and ancient lore before metal, before the Celts, before Christianity. Chants and prayer to the Great Mother of All define her beliefs.  Healing with herbs and spells is her calling.  Talking to those who have crossed the veil from this life to the next is her special skill.  Come to a world woven of myth and archeological fact…come into the heart and mind of Ronnat Rua, the Heroine of an ancient saga, the apprentice to the Death Crooner of the Trabally, as she saves the lives of the ones she loves in order to save her own, and thus carve her own destiny against tradition….


The Fourth of July, 1841

On Sunday, the fourth of July, 1841, my great great grandfather Ephraim Nute went to the church where he was the superintendant of the sunday school, the The First Church of Christ, Unitarian, also known as First Church of Christ, Lancaster, but called “The Bullfinch Street Church” by everyone, and as was the custom in those days, was married during the service by the Rev. Frederick T. Gray to Lucy Ann Fessenden, a member of the notable anti-slavery Fessenden family. He would soon enter seminary at Harvard and be ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1845. By 1855 he had been sent to the Kansas Territory as a missionary to help bring it into the Union as a Free State, arriving on the same riverboat bringing a load of “Beecher’s Bibles”–the Sharps repeating rifles sent to the Territory to assist the Free-Staters by abolitionist John Brown. There in the Territory he nearly lost his life a number of times running guns for the Free Staters, preaching abolitionism, and serving the people of the Kansas Territory as they fought and died at the hands of the pro-slavery ruffians. Grandfather Nute served as a chaplain in the Civil War, then became a supervisor of soldiers homes up and down the Mississippi River, always moving guns south to the Union troops, and escaped enslaved people north on their way to freedom through those soldier’s homes. His story came down to me through my mom and my great-grandmother, his daughter, who lived with us when I was very small. This is my model for patriotism, for surely we are a better country for the work of the abolitionists. I get so much hope from the people I see now, who, like my grandfather, who are stepping up to bring our country out of the dark age it has been wallowing in.

In 2010 I published a non-fiction book of Grandfather Nute’s documented adventures, (available from Skinner House Press and Amazon) and an annotated documentary time-line of his life, which is in a number of rare manuscripts collections of major universities and historical societies.  This year I have finished a fiction rendition of his life and have submitted it to publishers, because, well, there were family stories that couldn’t be documented, and they were pretty exciting!  Such is the beauty of fiction….


Trinidad, 1900….


Over the last year I have inherited a large number of boxes as my family moved my dad, fast becoming frail, from his assisted living apartment into a nursing home.


In these boxes my father has been preserving generations of family history, waiting for the day, he said, when his kids were “old enough” to appreciate them.  I guess we’re “old enough” now (we’re all over 50!) because I have been allowed to volunteer for the onerous task of unpacking, sorting, digitizing and distributing the contents of over a dozen banker box repositories of family lore and artifacts.


Dad is settled in now, my siblings who live nearby have figured out a way to help him Facetime with the rest of us on a pretty regular basis, and now I have to pursue my family archives project in earnest.  I had to get a new scanner–my old one is from the early ’90’s and has some distinct drawbacks with user-friendliness.  I also had to get “archival” supplies to assist in removing the pics from the photo albums (some of them were very damaged and I wanted to try to prevent more of that) and set myself up in a little work station.  No more excuses…I even figured out my “method” for cataloging the stuff.


I have been slowly going through the boxes and taking out the oldest albums first, as those are the most at risk.  In the process of doing that, I’ve found some gems:  letters from my grandfather to his younger brother and sister when he was away in the Phillipines in the Spanish American War, roll-top pencil boxes made by my great uncle for his children, nieces and nephews, wedding invitations and christening bonnets from several generations ago, letters in German from my great great grandmother to her grandson–my grandfather, after he graduated from dental school, couldn’t bear the thought of entering practice with his dour uncle, and upon graduating fled the country to join the Army of the Phillipines.  These I have to set aside while I focus on the photo albums first. To date I have about seven albums “done”, several of which have nearly 300 individual pictures in them. It’s quite a volume of stuff, and has given me images of relatives in previous generations I’ve heard of my whole life, but never seen before.  What a treasure trove!


Yesterday I found a small leather album which, although it had no identifying words on it, I figured out was from my grandfather’s years in Trinidad.


He returned stateside from the Spanish-American War and could not get a job–at the turn of that century, no one wanted to hire veterans!  Desperate, he signed onto employment with an oil company in Venezuela, and when he was done there, was sent to Trinidad to work as a civil engineer in the oil fields there because he knew Spanish.  He had a camera and loved photography.  He was developing his photos under primitive circumstances, given the condition of some of them.  Many were not in very good shape, but I did my best to digitize the best possible copy.

Most of them are pictures of the natural environment around the oil fields, some of the workers, buildings, and native villages.  It’s not the artistry of them that is stunning to me, for they are just snapshots of a young man’s working environment, it’s the fact that at this point, they are almost 120 years old.  My grandfather was born in 1873, but he did not marry until almost the age of 50, and my father was born when he was 53.  So my grandfather was the age of my other great-grandfathers.  When I think about the dates these pictures of a working man’s life were taken, it seems so long ago.  But when I  think of all the stories my father told us about his father’s life–for instance, in Trinidad the birds would get stuck in the tar pits, and the oil company men would pay locals to walk a board out, cut the bird out of the tar, clean it up and let it go– suddenly 120 years becomes so…touchable.

Top left: trainyards    Top right:  my grandfather’s friend Tom

2nd row left: oil well   2nd row right: my grandfather on a steam shovel

3rd row left: the town   3rd row right: a typical house

Bottom:  house on stilts in case of hurricane flooding







Did you see that oh-so-dangerous-and-glorious event that flooded our skies on August 21, 2017? I went down to Kansas to visit a relative who lives only about 9 miles from the region of totality—that coupled with a business trip for my husband during that week meant a 12 hour ride in the car after which we madly tried to locate a small town north of Kansas City where we could  park and watch.


Our location decided on, we got up the next morning for a grand day of packing five people, a picnic in a cooler, eclipse glasses, a pinhole camera (courtesy of the engineer and the 12-year-old), extra toilet paper and water and a dog into the car, starting early towards our destination to “beat the eclipse traffic.”

Little Plattsburg Missouri was our destination, and they rolled out the red carpet there for the expected eclipse watchers. They have a dandy little park with a playground and flush toilets and when we arrived it was decked out with extra porta-potties, a pulled pork and local sausages concession, free water from the Methodist Church, and a whole bunch of people in the mood for a good time. We had volunteers directing us where to park, and everyone set up a little tailgate party around their vehicle and … waited.


I couldn’t help thinking how similar this event might be to the preparations and celebration of eclipses in the stone age—except that perhaps—only perhaps, mind you, because I don’t think we have a very good idea of how much or how little they knew at that time about the movement of celestial bodies—perhaps they didn’t have as much warning to set up big doins like we did in the USA this year.

But like us in 2017, I have no doubt our ancestors grew quiet as the darkness settled during the interval of totality. In the skies above us in Plattsburg, the swallows appeared from nowhere, flitting through the faux twilight just as they do each and every night. As we listened darkness fell, and the birds and crickets let loose their night-songs.


I can certainly appreciate more symbolic meanings of eclipse for other events of this year—events where darkness obliterated sources of enlightenment that we have taken as permanent for some time in our democracy, our environment, and our cultures. In the midst of the darkness of the total eclipse, I was engulfed by a strange feeling of containment—breathlessness even—a feeling that the whole earth was somehow becoming less–alive.

It made my imagination soar all the more. I am fascinated with the metaphorical uses of heavenly bodies throughout human prehistory and history to signify the power and powerlessness of human beings.


As the light returned again, I noticed a feeling of relief, as if I had been waiting to exhale throughout the darkness, although I knew I had not. The swallows disappeared, the crickets silenced, the cicadas began to sing once again. The day we expected returned to us and proceeded to shower us with buckets of rain as the ominous clouds that we had watched lumbering towards us over the prairies all morning suddenly let loose.

We made our way home slowly, along with everyone else who had traveled distances to watch this phenomenal event. Pelted by rain and serenaded by squeaky windshield wipers, we began to discuss the next time we might see an eclipse, and where we would have to go to do it. That was sure a day taken out of a busy work-week to just enjoy one of the wonders of being human.



Having a Celtic music band is a great way to continue dressing up for Halloween!

As a small child my favorite holiday by far was Halloween, and when I started to do research on it, it became a focal point for DogMaiden Moons (accepted for publication by DrivenPress)  my working title for the first book in my trilogy. which I call The Saga of the Heroine

American Halloween is a much-diluted descendant of the early religious practices of stone age indigenous cultures of Europe and the British Isles.   The most common name for it surviving is “Samhain”—pronounced “Sow-Inn” (for a variety of reasons, I use a version of this, “Sauin” as its name in my book; both “Sauin” and “Samhain” derive linguistically from “summer’s end”).

Samhain occurs in the middle of an ancient month that ran from mid-October to early mid-November in our current calendar. It celebrates the new year in that 13-month lunar calendar, and commemorates the completion of the last harvest—the harvest of meat (i.e., hunting or slaughtering stock to lay meat by for the winter)—and a celebration of the dead (no doubt relating to the dying of the old year).   Samhain was a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was thin—remember, back then, when you were dead you weren’t really dead, you were just in another dimension.  The dead and living could pass easily through that veil and into the other world on Samhain (which might or might not be a good thing).

Newgrange, Ireland

If you want to celebrate the Full Monte of Samhain you would be partying and observing religious rituals for three days.  The first day of Samhain would be the last day of the old year (this would be October 30th in the present day standard calendar) called “Shogh ta’n Oie” (“this is the night”) in some versions of Gaelic.  It’s currently celebrated as Hop-tu-Naa by the Manx people on the Isle of Man, from the original celebration of New Years “Oie Houney”.  No doubt, the name is a leftover from earlier pre-Celtic languages.

This night brings bonfires and a feast to the dying sun—i.e., the diminishing length of daily sunlight as the winter approaches. The veil between the worlds becomes so thin on this night that it could tear, allowing the dead to walk amongst the living again, setting up conditions for augury, or prophesying, where people could predict the future and speak with the past.

Stone circle, Ireland

The second day of Samhain (October 31st in our present day standard calendar) was a curious day called in English “The Day Out of Time,” or “Amach Lá D’am” in Gaelic.  On the Day Out of Time no “turning” was to be done –i.e., such things as using the spindle to spin thread or the grindstone to make flour—because this was contrary to the turning of the year, which is the focus of this day.  Chronologically this is a day without number, an “extra day” in the year, used to annually calibrate the 27 day months of the 13-month moon calendar with the solar calendar, which had a 12-month, 365 day year.  On the second day of Samhain, those two ways humans divided reality temporally became one, thus making it a very sacred and holy day.

If you’ve ever traveled in the UK, among other places, and taken a look at stone circles, you’ve probably noticed that a whole lot of them have 13 megalith stones, and another whole lot of them have 12 stones.  That’s because some of them are moon calendars and some of them are sun calendars.  A stone-age passage tomb at the Hill of Tara in Ireland called “The Mound of the Hostages” is aligned with Samhain sunrise, similar to the way Newgrange and other Neolithic chambers are aligned with the solstices and equinoxes.  These people may have had “only stone” as the primary basis of their technology, but they used that stone in incredible ways to keep track of where they were in the year, thus knowing when to plant, reap, harvest, and celebrate their yearly rituals.

Stone circle and standing stones, Scotland

The third day of Samhain (November 1st on our present day standard calendar) is still celebrated as “All Saints Day” or, a day to honor the ancestors, in several cultures.  Prior to Christianity it was called “The Day of the Winter Dead” or “Lá Na Marbh Gheimhridh” in Gaelic. It commemorated the dead time before winter for its power to generate new life in spring.  Traditionally (this belief shows up in an awful lot of folk songs and stories), you could only mourn your dead loved ones “a year and a day” and ABSOLUTELY NO LONGER than that, because if you did, they would stay on the side of the living and haunt you.  It makes sense, given “The Day Out of Time,” for the “year” accepted in those cultures consisted of the time between Samhain and Samhain, plus the one Day Out of Time.  On that day, the opening between the worlds snapped shut again, and woe betide the individual, living or dead, who found themselves on the wrong side of it.

On the last day of Samhain families and whole villages honored their dead and spoke to them, for they would be separated again for a year.  Families in different cultures arising out of this shared past still to this day visit tombs and graveyards, taking delicious foods to feed their ancestors and saying their names aloud so they are not forgotten.

Good ole Georgie likes to hold our pumpkin every year…

Some other interesting rituals that demonstrate how various cultures have celebrated the different days of Samhain include the smothering of the hearthfire and letting it stay cold until it could be rekindled with coals from the Samhain bonfires.  These new fires were to welcome the returning souls of the dead to the sumptuous feasts their descendants prepared for them. Another ritual was the dancing through and around the bonfires, taking up burning sticks and galloping around the perimeters of gardens and fields in the same direction the sun takes (going “sunwise”), touching the corners with the torches to bless them through the dark winter.  Another is the ritual of the Bride of Samhain, where a woman representing the female divinity prepared sacred breads in the shape of the triangle—the opening to the womb—and brought them as blessings to the feasting. Blessing animal byres with blood from those beasts who were slaughtered was also part of some celebrations.

So, our American Halloween, in case you haven’t heard the story before, derives from “Hallowed Evening” (holy evening), or “All-Hallow’s Eve” (“hallow” is an old word for ghost), a direct descendant of the celebrations of Samhain….

Braving Scotland…

Back home safe and sound from our prolonged jaunt to Scotland–just in time to leave for the summer in Maine!  I’ll be posting a bunch of stories from our journeys through the Highlands and Islands, but it’ll have to wait a bit more until I’m hunkered down in the farmhouse with just the typewriter, coffee, the doggies, and my now insatiable hunger for scones.

But, the gorse was out in flaming glory while we were traversing all those single lane roads through that rugged country, and I just couldn’t resist posting this lovely display.


Gorse in the highlands

Our itinerary included multiple ferry trips to the western islands, creeping slowly north through the western highlands, then ferrying to Orkney for the Orkney folk festival (and a whole lot of archeological sites that figure in my upcoming novel) and finally an all too brief time in lovely Shetland.  We ate seafood constantly, hiked miles each day, found good music nearly every night–either to listen to, or join in (I brought my fiddle and husband Don brought his hammered dulcimer and whistles).


Playing tunes ’til 1 am with some fun fellas in Skinnet, Scotland, a small highland hamlet that doesn’t appear on the map…

I already knew I loved scones, haggis and black pudding (even though I know what’s in them), but I never knew how wonderful it would be to have…. haggis samosas, black pudding EVERY morning and scones EVERY afternoon with tea.  Unbelievable slice of heaven.   I guess it must be in my DNA!


Haggis samosas, Ullapool, Scotland

So, here I am at the mouth of one of the many ruins we crawled down, in, through and across after–often–a long slow trip up a hillside to get there!  I’ll be in touch–


What is the Worth of Women in the Politics of Men?

My great great grandfather’s mess knife during the Civil War


This past weekend we celebrated Easter in my household.  When things wound down and the grandkids went home, I got online and was instantly caught up in the current election buzz—not just looking for and evaluating different rumors and stories for their veracity in news sources, but also reading posted arguments about these stories, and contributing my own.   I love history, and elections and all their challenges always feels like an exciting dip into history-in-the-making for me.

A lot of people think the current election has some never-seen-before elements in American history, but as I am once again caught up in writing about the era of Bleeding Kansas—what I call “the civil war before the Civil War”—I have to differ with that thinking.  Like Bleeding Kansas, the current election has corrupt election procedures, purloined and hidden ballots, physical violence between the parties, calls to physical violence by some of those running for office, political murders, bipartisan myths and outright lies, chaos and internecene struggles both within and between political parties and areas of the country, as well as deep seated differences of belief that are shaking the political system as a whole and demanding changes that pit ordinary citizens against the political “establishment” and its ties to corporate economic power.

I’ve been doing my specific research this week on John Brown the abolitionist and his family, focusing on the women—his wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law—trying to get clear on their actions before, during, and after his bloody assaults in Osawatomie, Kansas,  Pottawatomie, Kansas, and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  I’m trying to place my great great grandfather, the narrator in the novel I am writing now, in his probable or possible proximity to Brown and his family.

The story in our family is that our great great grandfather knew Brown and his family through Underground Railroad activities and gun-running in Massachusetts, Ohio and Kansas. He told his daughter he was present at Harper’s Ferry during the assault on the arsenal. I am writing fiction, and I’m not claiming to write anything more than that, but I want to flesh out the family story as much as I can with facts, not pure fantasy.  This involves knowing something about the Brown women, and specifically Annie Brown, who along with her sister-in-law Martha Brown kept house for Brown and his men at the Kennedy farmhouse, a place my great great grandfather was supposed to have been.

I found a treasure trove in The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism, a marvelous profile of the Brown women published by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz in 2013 at Cornell University Press.  It focuses on the beliefs and experiences of the Brown women as they struggled between their expected 19th century roles as women and their deep and fierce commitment to the radical abolitionist beliefs of their father/father-in-law/husband, John Brown. I found a strange congruence between these women’s words and those of some current women about the impact the 2016 candidates for the office of US president are having on their feminist sensibilities in the months leading up to the partisan primaries.

John Brown’s sons were recognized as his “men” and his “soldiers”; John Brown’s daughters, before Laughlin-Schultz’s work, have never been recognized as such.  Annie Brown, the eldest of the three daughters of Brown and his second wife Mary to reach adulthood, took great umbrage with this for her entire life. Her lifetime spanned not only the years of Bleeding Kansas, the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the ratification of the 15th Amendment that gave men of color the right to vote in 1870, but also the movement for Women’s Suffrage which did not succeed in giving the vote to any woman until 1920, six years before Annie Brown’s death.

Like many of today’s women—mostly of a certain age, race, and demographic—who are bent upon seeing a woman in the White House for the first time (after all, a man of color “made it” eight years ago, it’s time for a woman), Annie Brown’s rightful resentment of being pushed to the side of historical narrative was also uncomfortably intertwined with the disturbingly permeable boundaries that shift between justice, racism, and sexism. Women of color and white women were at the forefront of the abolitionism that forced the hand of white men to emancipate men of color, and yet, it would be another 50 years before any woman even got the right to vote.

Racism and sexism persistently dogged abolitionism from the start.  The Brown family was fairly unique in white abolitionism in that the Browns believed slaves of African ancestry were equal human beings with themselves and entitled to the same rights. Most other notable white abolitionists, male or female, wanted to end slavery for humanitarian reasons, but did not believe that the slaves were equal to themselves. Although white men were the only ones who could politically end slavery, and men of color died in droves in the Civil War to bring about their own emancipation, it was actually women of color and white women who were the engine, the fuel, and the vehicle itself for abolitionism from the beginning. But women on both sides of the color line were well below the social status of their men, and as hard as they worked to end slavery , that did little or nothing to change their status as women.

Annie Brown’s need for women’s work to be recognized in a male-dominated world as crucial, and therefore equal, to the very ability of men to do what they did in the grand sweep of male history, forced her to walk dangerously close to the precipice of racism.  After all, since her dedication to Brown’s cause brought on the Civil War that ended slavery, shouldn’t she be entitled to the political rights she had sacrificed much for, to bring to men of color?

Likewise, there’s a whole swath of American women who think that their candidate is owed the office of president by virtue of her gender, and that has become a major narrative in this election process.  It persists regardless of any argument that the realities of environmental collapse, inequality, corruption and violence have eclipsed the advisability of an exclusively gender-based stab at justice and equality.  Especially one that ignores the narrower definition of justice and equality their candidate’s history has shown her to adhere to.  And these modern women, like Annie Brown, have no choice but to walk dangerously close to the precipice of gender bigotry in trying to express that.

I think the lesson we get from this is that the battle for equality and against slavery of any kind is so sprinkled with landmines set by racism and sexism in our Indo-European style culture, that there are no pure heroes and heroines.  There are only strugglers in the mold of John Brown the abolitionist, whose beliefs demanded choices that were seen by some as heroism and by others as murder, by some as what was needed to bring ultimate peace and by others as disruptions of any possible peace. This is reality in what has come to be called “institutional racism” and “institutional sexism.”  America’s got a tiger by the tail in 2016 no less than she did in the mid-19th century.