Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Book Page -- Nothing About The Bakken -- July 19, 2018

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The Dictionary Page

The word: schadenfreude.

The definition: at this link.

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The Book Page

My book this week is The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell, c. 2001. It's another book I cannot recommend to the folks who probably follow the blog, but I find it quite enjoyable. As I mentioned earlier, if there's such a thing as a  "chick-flick" genre in literature, this book would fall in that category.

It's about a family of six sisters and one brother -- the Mitford girls -- or, more precisely, the Mitford Girls, born at the turn of the 20th century, and dying around the turn of the 21st century.

I'm sure this book was a sensation in England, or more precisely, Great Britain, when it was released back in 2001 or thereabouts.

The family, of "low peerage," as they say, probably come closest to -- for a 30-second elevator speech -- the Kardashians, but in this case, the Mitford Girls actually hobnobbed with the rich, the famous, and the very, very powerful.

One vignette.

I've never known anyone who knew Adolph Hitler first hand. I've also never read any biography of any man or woman who was not a Nazi who actually knew Adolph. But here we have one.

Think "what's her name," the intern, and Bill Clinton. Seriously.

The Mitford family had seven children, as noted: three older sisters, an older brother, and three younger sisters.

The siblings ran around with the Winston Churchill kids and his extended family. Like northern families torn apart during the US Civil War, the seven siblings were torn apart during WWII -- some supported Germany; others did not.

The oldest, Nancy, was born in 1904; she became a successful English novelist.

Pamela, Tom, and Diana came next, 1907, 1909, and 1910, respectively. They were raised by nannies that often reflected Mary Poppins.

The fifth child was conceived in Swastika, Ontario, where the father had gone to stake his claim in a gold mine. She was named Unity. She was named after Unity Moore, an actress her month admired. Her beloved grandfather said that Unity must "have a topically apposite second name so her mother added Valkyrie, after Wagner's Norse war-maidens. Unity Valkyrie Mitford, #5, conceived in Swastika, Ontario, born in England, in August (a Leo), 1914.

Jessica was born September 11, 1917 -- a 9/11 baby and number six. Jessica was called "Decca" from the very start.

And finally, Deborah, "Debo," was born in 1920. At the time the book was published, Diana and "Debo" were still living.

Pamela died in 1994 and "Decca" died in 1996. Tom died in 1945 and Unity died in 1948.

It had to have been a challenge to write a biography of seven children in one volume, trying to give them all "equal" time, or at least "equal time commensurate with the 'importance' of the story."

Unity was given the bulk of chapters 11 - 16. In a moment you will understand.

Unity, in 1937, would have been 23 years old. Like all her peers she had spent her coming-of-age years on the Continent. She knew Austria. She differed with Winston Churchill regarding Germany and Austria and wrote to tell him so. He responded with a "kindly worded but firm reply" that she probably interpreted as "suck eggs."

To make a long story short, Unity became part of Hitler's inner circle, in almost the same manner that "what's her name, the intern" almost became part of Clinton's inner circle. But in Unity's case she really did become part of Hitler's inner circle. She became a frequent guest "at gatherings of Hitler's inner circle, and sometimes she saw him alone in his quarters."

For five or six chapters we get to know the F├╝hrer like we have never known him before.

In 1939, her family learns that "she is in a surgical hospital in Munich, making a good recovery from an attempted suicide. Suddenly the newspapers were writing stories that 'The Girl Who Loved Hitler" had shot herself following a massive row with Hitler and had died in a Munich hospital. In other versions she had been been shot on the orders of Himmler, and was buried in an unmarked grave."

Her family did not know what was true.

In fact, she survived the suicide attempt.

"The family later learned that Hitler had arranged for Unity to be taken to Berne (Switzerland) in a specially fitted out ambulance carriage attached to a train. [Visions of a scene in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" sweep in front of me].

Long story short, from Berne, Unity miraculously made it through "passport control" to get back to England.  [Visions of undocumented refugees in "Casablanca" sweep in front of me].

Remember: this is a true story. Unity was conceived in Swastika, Ontario, in 1914, given a middle name Valkyrie -- Hitler, Wagner, and all that --  and twenty-six years later after a (likely) affair with an almost married man (Adolf), having nearly committed suicide, finds herself being brought back to England under (sort of) the auspices of that former would-be architect and painter.

Unity did not fully recover. She made limited progress for maybe eighteen months, but then was stuck at a mental age of eleven or twelve.

The papers continued to run stories on Unity on a weekly basis who by now had become obsessed with religion. The press accused her of being a religious fanatic tied to the Nazi movement. Think the "religious right" in 21st century America.

Fast forward. Unity was a good deal improved physically by 1948. She died of pneumococcal meningitis caused by an infection in the site of the old head wound that year.

As incredibly fascinating as Unity's story was, on so many levels, the stories of her mother, father, brother and five sisters were no less fascinating.

This is a book one might skim through quickly to get the broad outline of the story, then attempt to read it more closely focusing on one sibling, and putting it on the shelf to return to periodically for some really, really great story-telling.

Perhaps my time in England made this book much more enjoyable that it otherwise might have been; I don't know.

Postscript. Tom, who was the first of the seven siblings to die, was a Nazi sympathizer. He fought in the war [Europe and Africa] but did not want to fight in Germany where he would be killing "German civilians whom he liked. He preferred to kill Japanese whom he did not like. At the end of 1944 Tom left for Burma (now Myanmar). Having come right through the war in Europe and Africa unscathed, he appeared to be charmed, and was popular with his men as well as is brother officers."

In an ambush while commanding Indian troops, he was fatally wounded by machine-gun fire. He was injured on March 24, 1945, air-evacuated but died in hospital on March 30, 1945, of the seven siblings, the second casualty of the war. Unity had been the first casualty, but she did not die of her wounds until 1948.

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