Back from the Trip and Three Books Read (3 cents)

We have returned after two very nice weeks in Spain and Israel, so it is time to resume the blog.

I know it would be more interesting to talk about the trip, but first, I wanted to write a little about the three books I read: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman, written in the 1840s about the young man from Massachusetts who spent several months following the Oregon trail, and interacting with emigrant caravans, army posts, traders and, of course, Native Americans; The House of Exile by Nora Waln, written in the late 1930s about her twelve years living in China, first as a virtual adopted daughter of a feudal family and second as the wife of an Englishman who worked for the Chinese government; and 100 Hours to Suez, written in 1957 by British journalist/author Robert Henriques, and describing the military aspects of the Israeli march towards the Suez Canal in 1956.

I can’t say that I followed a rational path in picking these books. The Oregon Trail is a very well known book, of course, a presumed classic that I had never before wanted to read particularly. I had never heard of The House of Exile, but it was an easy to pack paperback sitting on a shelf next to the Parkman book and sparked my interest. I bought 100 Hours to Suez at a second hand store in Tel Aviv.

What did the books have in common? The presentation of human beings as rational, controlled, good hearted and then prone to unbelievable violence and cruelty. American Indians would welcome you into their villages, treat you with respect, feed you, smoke a pipe with you, but in other circumstances simply slaughter you with no second thoughts (so says Parkman). The Arabs would treat you with great respect and hospitality but also at times rob and murder you in the desert wilderness, even outside of wartime (so says Henriques). No one could be more cultured and proud of their traditions than the Chinese, implies Waln, but China in the 1920s and 1930s was the scene of recurrent political uprisings and riots. Three very different peoples, who in this respect are so very alike. Are we all like that?

I would grade the Parkman and the Waln books very highly. I am not sure how the critics have dealt with the Parkman book (Parkman went on to become a scholar, historian and Harvard faculty member), but I would be willing to bet that some of his tales and descriptions are a bit exaggerated. I’d be interested to know if others agree, or if everyone takes him at face value. If he was giving an accurate account of his time on the road, his time was extraordinary. The people he met. The serious and dangerous situations into which he fell consistently. The privations of traveling west in the early 1840s. The way he developed so many sudden friendships. The way he kept running into people he knew, or at least had previously met. His ill health, which did not seem to limit his athletic feats.

The Waln book, which I assume is not exaggerated (she went on to become a well respected journalist and author) is simply one of the most fascinating accounts (of life in the compound of an old, feudal Chinese family at the time of great transition from empire to republic, with communism and Japanese militarism looming in the background) of life in a very different culture that I could imagine. I don’t know if anyone reads this book today, or if it is generally available, but they should, and it should be.

I can’t say that the Henriques book lives up to the quality of the others. It was rushed into print. Henriques, a British-Jewish author, wanted to write something about Israel and, although he claims himself a non-Zionist, wants to help the young country. The 1956 war happens; he is too slow (or the war too fast) to let him participate, so he does the next best thing. With the approval of the Israeli government, he learns how the military decisions were made and carried out. But the book, although filled with interesting insights, needed a much better editing job, as he himself admits. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read the book, or that you won’t learn quite a bit, which you will. It is just the prose is not polished, and much of what he says is clearly opinionated, based on limited information, and may be not very accurate.

But three good books.

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