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Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 07:00

A quiet period, with most of the letters concerning family and friends.

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

April - June 1863

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved


1863 Contents

  • January 11, 1863
  • January 26, 1863
  • February 15, 1863 - The Wonderful "Care Package"
  • March 2, 1863
  • March 20, 1863
  • April 30, 1863
  • May 27, 1863
  • June 26, 1863
  • August 3, 1863
  • August 25, 1863
  • September 24, 1863 - A Night at Ford's Theater
  • October 20, 1863
  • October 30, 1863
  • December 10, 1863 - Transporting Prisoners to Washington and Some Sightseeing


Head Quarters, Camp Convalescent Virginia , April 30th 1863

Dear Jane,

I have the honor to report the proceedings of a meeting convened at this camp, of which Orderly A. T. La Forge was chosen president. After the meeting had been called to order, and a warm debate between the honorable president and the Chief Orderly of the Camp, the following preamble and resolutions were read by the chairman.

Whereas, it being a well known fact among the honorable members of this meeting, that the lady known as Mrs. Susan Potter is the most selfish of women, in that she is reported as hoarding, treasuring up, and no doubt despitefully using (as she is often seen to visit them in secret) the letters of our respected president, not allowing others to have a due share in them, therefore:

Resolved, that our president be authorized to at once open a correspondence with the lady known as Miss Jane Potter, with a view to defeating the evil plans and machinations of said Susan Potter, as this honorable body feels convinced that the before named Janey Potter is not one to betray confidence thus reposed in her.

Dear Janey, need I assure you that the resolutions were carried by an overwhelming majority? In fact, I may say there was not a single dissident voice. Therefore this letter is written with the hope that it will commence a correspondence which will carry out the spirit of the resolutions, as the evil which is spoken of is one of an old standing.

I assure you I had no idea of the extent to which my simple recommendation of Joseph for a kiss would become, or I should have paused before calling forth such a mighty demonstration. But now that it has been commenced, I leave the quelling of it to you, for I feel myself totally incompetent to [do] aught against it, with the exception of praying for you. Now Janey dear, I beg you will write to me in every letter Susan sends, and excuse the haste of this one.

From your brother,

Abiel T La Forge

Chief Orderly

Miss Jane Potter,


[Note: In commentary on several entries I've been trying to remember or puzzle out from context exactly who "Janey" is. Having had a chance to consult the notes at the end of the hard copy edition of these diaries, I've confirmed that she is an unmarried sister of Joseph Potter, who is married to Abiel's sister Susan. Janey (full name: Mary Jane Potter) was born in 1828, making her 8 years younger than Joseph Potter (who was 18 years older than Susan). There is no evidence that Janey ever married--in the 1880 census she is still listed as  single and a member of her brother Joseph's household. Her profession is listed as embroidress (although in that 1880 census she's listed as a "servant" in her brother's household!) So Abiel (born in 1842) was 14 years younger than Janey and one should read his flirtatious teasing of her in light of that. I commented on the previous letter when Abiel sent "a kiss for Joseph," which is alluded to above. Evidently there was some sort of amusing outcome of that, though we have no idea exactly what.]

[Evidently he went home on furlough during May, 1863.]


Head Quarters, Convalescent Camp, May 27th 1863

Dear sister & friends,

Knowing you would feel somewhat anxious about my welfare until you heard from me I determined to write you at once. I did not arrive here until yester-noon. I must tell you the reasons of my delay. In fact I might as well give you a history of my journey after leaving you.

I bade Mr. Wells goodbye and embarked on the 5:40 P.M. train at Andover, run on that to Hornellsville and there took the express to Elmira, where I arrived about eleven P.M. and learned to my mortification that no train left for Baltimore until 4 o'clock Monday morning. Well, there was no help for it so I "put up" with the determination of making the best of it.

Sunday I wandered about the city disconsolate and refusing to be comforted, for the good reason that no comforters offered themselves, only in the shape of a Larger now and then. [Note: I'm not certain how "a Larger" is meant to be understood.] You don't know how much I regretted not staying there and going to Alfred [i.e., the town of Alfred, not a person by that name] Saturday, and starting from there Monday. But regrets, of course, were useless, so I tried to make the best of it. I think I could then appreciate Mademoiselle Amelia's sentence of "being surrounded by evil spirits". [Note: a cursory google search doesn't turn up an obvious literary source for this reference.]

Monday at 4 A.M. the landlord woke me to take the cars for Baltimore. I was nothing loath, I assure you, when about thirty miles above Harrisburgh a train of cars (which was running along ahead of us) suddenly ran off the track. It was a heavy freight, and made a terrible smash up. Still, nobody was seriously hurt. Our engineer held up just in time to prevent running into the wreck. The engine had thrown itself in such a position that its stern lay partly across our track thus:

Derailed train

It was impossible to move it, so they got a guard to work with crowbars, and bowed the track, making it assume this form:

track detour

so we could run by the obstruction, and they did not put in any extra rails either. I got off to see them do it, or I would hardly have believed they could do it. That is the nearest I came to a railroad smash up (you know I was wishing for one before I started).

We got to Harrisburgh at two P.M. The conductor told me I would get to Washington just as quick if I waited in H[arrisburgh] until the two A.M. train of Tuesday. As I had never seen the city--only at a distance--I concluded to stop while there. I visited the public buildings and went all around the city, so I was pretty well acquainted. Took the cars and arrived in Washington without further adventure about ten A.M. and finally arrived at camp just in time for dinner.

I think there was about fifteen days difference in climate between Allegheny and Virginia. Perhaps not so much. I know there is more than this in onions. [Note: I have no idea what "more [difference] than this in onions" might mean, assuming I'm reading it correctly. A very literal reading might have something to do with planting times?]

Those provisions you sent were just right. You must excuse the haste of this letter, its only object being to let you know I am safe. Give my love to all, and my straw hat to Frank. You will find it (the hat I mean) in the lid of my trunk. Tell mother to keep on growing younger until I come back again and I shan't know her. You must read to her once in a while. She is so lonesome.

Love to Jane,

Your Brother

A T La Forge

Chief Orderly


Head Quarters, Convalescent Camp, June 26th 1863

Sister Dear

Yours of the 8th came to hand in due time. What could have induced you to write such a long letter, I cannot see. I hope I did not make you mad while I was home did I? I have been trying to think, ever since the reception of your letter, what it was so I could ask your forgiveness, but have entirely failed so far. Perhaps you will enlighten me in your next. [Note: It's frustrating having only one side of this correspondence. What was the content of Susan's "long letter"? Or is Abiel being sarcastic and implying that it was the shortness of the letter that concerns him? He often uses reversals in a teasing or sarcastic way.]

Your old friend William has been down here, as you are probably aware. His stay with me was short--too short--but we managed to have a pretty good talk in the time. "Golly" Bill is a fine chap ain't he? I wish he could stay here all summer, but it would be too much of an inconvenience to a fellow just [away?] from the blessings of home. I cant help laughing every time I think of how funny he looked when I was making my bed for him to sleep on. He said he was glad he was not a soldier, and I had no difficulty in believing him.

The rebs are coming up to pay you a visit. Please give them my compliments, if they reach your place, and tell them to consider me very much at their service. O gracious! Some of the boys up there will have to turn out to repel invaders. Or they're taken sure, I recommend Joseph to have a good charge of shot in that old musket, so some night when he hears a noise among his chickens he can use it on a two-legged Sekunk (excuse the expression, as it is open to censure) on which it might perhaps have an alarming effect. [Note: I've let the transcribed spelling of "skunk" stand, in case it's representing a dialectal pronunciation, which Abiel often renders in scare-quotes. This paragraph may be referring in general to the opening northward movements during General Lee's Gettysburg Campaign.]

Have you any new potatoes yet? They are in [the] market here. Cherries are all gone. Apples will soon be ripe. It is just the season for Black caps. [Note: presumably the native black raspberry that can go by that name.] I was down to the Potomac last Sunday to take a swim and got all I could eat of such beautiful ripe ones. They grew in great abundance on the banks of the river. How I wished you and Janey were along with me gathering them.

Oh! By the way, do you ever look at the moon these fine nights, and perhaps take a wish by its light, and think I might be doing the same thing? As you'd promised to when I was at home? If you have not, I have, and wondered if you was thinking of Bijou or not. Last Tuesday night I went to Washington after eleven o'clock P.M. to see the Colonel on some important business. It was a bright moonlight, and as I went galloping over the hill, my imagination was up home. I thought of you all snugly in bed, and you perhaps dreaming of me (you know you have a weakness that way) while I was riding along the bank of the historical Potomac. How calm and peaceful it looked in the quiet light. I could [not?] believe this lovely landscape was the theater of the most gigantic struggle for "Freedom" vs "Slavery" the world ever saw, only when the disagreeable truth was forced home to my mind by the stern command of "Halt!" given by some veteran ant on the road, to do "videt" duty. [Note: the beginning of this sentence seems to require negation for sense, so I've added it. I don't know if "veteran ant" is a mis-transcription of something or some sort of slang term.]

I had to cross the river and also gave the countersign in six places. They are very particular just now who crosses the Potomac after twilight. I tell you, a fellow has to dismount and advance on foot to give the password. He is then allowed to remount and proceed on his journey. My ride was about thirteen miles. I went to the Department Headquarters.

I had a letter from father. Himself and "frow" were well and full of love. He is already proposing to move. Is friend William home yet? Please tell Perry not to answer my letter if he don't want me to write to him again. [Note: comments like this last are why I often suspect Abiel of sarcasm when he says something unexpectedly contrary to logic. In regard to the reference to his father's "frow" (read: "Frau"?), Abiel's step-siblings through his father's second wife Julia were surnamed "Swart" which might be consistent enough with a recent German immigrant origin for the family to make sense of the word.]

My Best respects to all, especially my dear mother and Janey.

From your Loving brother,

And humble Servant

A. T. LaForge

Chief Orderly

Mrs Joseph Potter

Andover, N.Y.

P.S.! Some of the "Army of the Potomac" is crossing the river at the Chain Bridge, to be ready for the rebs in Pennsylvania. Look out for stirring times!

Major category: 
LaForge Civil War Diaries
Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 07:59

Given the amount of thought and effort I've put into creating aspects of the Alpennian language, it might seem strange that so little of it appears in the books themselves. Other than proper names, most of what readers have seen have been the occasional technical terms that don't have a simple English equivalent (armin, markein, vizeino). I'm not counting all the Latin terms used for mysteries, of course.

A major reason for this is the principle that, in theory, the stories are entirely "translated" from Alpennian, and that therefore any time a character is thinking or speaking in their native tongue, it should be rendered transparently in English. I occasionally throw in non-English words and phrases when a character is speaking something other than Alpennian, as when Jeanne self-consciously uses French words and phrases. But within Alpennian itself, I have to find other ways of reminding the reader that we're in the midst of a different culture.

One of the things I've done is to have characters take words or phrases that relate to special aspects of their experience and use them in extended, more everyday senses. An example of this is how characters use the word "ambit." This is an ordinary (more or less) English word meaning "the scope, extent, or range of something." I've established it as being an ordinary technical term from the structure of mysteries meaning "the defined bounds or scope within with a mystery is intended to take effect." But then, having established that, I show characters using it (in both speech and thought) for a more general sense of "the sphere of influence or responsibility of some person or institution." So, for example, a person's place of residence will place them within the "ambit" of a particular local church. Or when Barbara thinks about the people she feels a nebulous sense of responsibility for, she thinks of them as being "within her ambit." The intent is to indicate that this word is translating an Alpennian term that has a set of meanings that don't correspond exactly to a more common English word. At the same time, the intent is to connect that word with the pervasive presence of mysteries in Alpennian lives, such that even people who have no sensitivity to mystical forces, will think about other aspects of their lives with the same concepts.

A more extreme version of this sort of idiomatic word use is the "literal translation" of Alpennian idioms or sayings. One that I've used in several of the stories is the phrase "to trespass in someone's garden" with a sense equivalent to "to step on someone's toes, to give offense by violating someone's sense of social 'ownership' of a person, idea, or activity." The literal meaning makes it easy to work out the figurative sense, but it isn't a fixed saying in English the way it's being used. That gives it the ever-so-slightly-off-balance sense of translating another culture that I'm aiming for, without tripping the reader up too badly. Alternately, I might make a figurative phrase like this "more Alpennian" by using a different wording than the familiar English expression. For example, rather than a person saying, "I know which side my bread is buttered on," I have a character saying, "I know where the butter for my bread comes from."

Similarly to that sort of elaborate "literal translation" are a few turns of phrase I've established as "Alpennian idiom" that are closer to being grammatical quirks than meaningful phrases. One that I've used in several of the books is the phrase "to do for" as indicating a fairly specific personal relationship between a servant or attendant and their employer. So, for example, an armin "does for" the person he protects. A valet or lady's maid "does for" the specific person they serve. But you wouldn't use the phrase about a more general household servant like a footman or a kitchen maid. Another example in this category is, "It doesn't belong to you to do X" with the meaning "It's none of your business to do X, it isn't your responsibility" but with a sense of intrusion and butting in.

The idea here isn't to constantly bombard the reader with unfamiliar turns of phrase and jargon, but to lightly season the prose with reminders that this is a different culture with different ways of thinking and talking about things. Ways that will influence far more than just the words they use.

Major category: 
Writing Process
Monday, March 13, 2017 - 10:00
LHMP logo

Have you ever wondered about the image I used as the icon for this series? Maybe you weren’t even sure what is was depicting. I’ve been wanting to cover publications about the presentation of same-sex desire in visual arts in the pre-modern period for some time, but it isn’t a topic that’s received a lot of attention. And it isn’t always easy to determine what images are showing same-sex desire as opposed to same-sex interactions that were not, at that time, considered to be erotic or sexual. (For example, kissing was used as a non-sexual ritual in many different situations.)

So when I spotted this book last May during my annual pilgrimage to the medieval studies congress at Kalamazoo, I knew I'd struck gold. I only wish that I could do a better job of sharing the actual art with my readers, but you'll have to make do with my poor redrawing talents.

Although this book focuses far more heavily on male topics than female ones, the balance probably reflects the relative amounts of material available and the different emphasis on them in the period being studied. And the inclusion of depictions of transgender subjects is delightfully unexpected.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5

Publication summary: 

This is an in-depth study of the visual cues and visual representations of the concept of “sodomy” in medieval manuscripts and art, using the definition of that concept at the time, not the more specific modern sense. Mills looks at how gender and sexuality interact and challenges the perception that there was no coherent framework for understanding gender and sexual dissidence in the middle ages. The topics covered include images associated with the label “sodomite”, gender transformations and sex changes (especially in Ovid), and sexual relations in closed communities (such as religious houses). The analysis includes a consideration of the relevance of modern categories to the study of medieval culture.

Introduction: Jerome in a Dress

Around 1408 the Limbourg brothers (who created some of the most fabulous illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century) created a Book of Hours for the Duc de Berry. In the section covering the life of Saint Jerome, it includes a depiction of a “practical joke” where Jerome was tricked into putting on a woman’s dress without realizing it. The illustration shows Jerome being mocked for wearing women’s clothes, highlighting the incongruity by the visual contrast of the dress with Jerome’s prominent beard. In the first image, we see Jerome dressing for prayers with the garment lying easily to hand. In the second image, he prays, while two monks in the background are whispering together while looking at him.

How, Mills asks, are we to interpret the interaction of text, picture, and the portrayed reaction? What did this inadvertent gender transgression mean to the book’s owner or to the clerical culture depicted in the paintings? And how does this relate to the concept of--and reactions to--sodomy?

Treatments of sodomy cross gender as well as sexual lines. Women’s same-sex relationships were often treated differently from men's. Penitential manuals, among others, often avoided specifying what was meant by “sodomy”. It is often assumed that it covered male homosexuality and, in particular, anal intercourse, but there was a broader category of activities “contrary to nature”. In this era and earlier, the more general use could mean “any act that wastes semen.” Penitential texts frequently used circumlocutions such as “the vice that should not be named,” which makes specific acts hard to identify. The vagueness of the term made it a useful accusation against political enemies.

The 11th century monk Peter Damian, in a letter to the Pope asking for stronger condemnation of sodomy, specified four acts in order of ascending severity:

  1. Self-pollution (i.e., masturbation)
  2. Mutual rubbing of penises
  3. Inter-femoral intercourse
  4. Anal intercourse

Note that this text was aimed only at male activities. Gender comes into consideration as Peter alleges that these activities “feminize” men, making no distinction between “active” and “passive” partners. This feminization of the concept of sodomy appears in art where Sodomia is portrayed as a sexually voracious woman. Other writers echo this implication that sodomy turns men into women.

Getting back to Saint Jerome, we can’t assume the reverse, i.e., that a feminized man is perceived by others as a sodomite. The Golden Legend provides more context for these images. Jerome was being considered for the Papacy, but was opposed by monks that he had condemned for living “lascivious lives”. Those monks set a trap for him by planting a woman’s dress in his room, meaning to imply that he had a female visitor (who presumably had taken her clothing off there). I.e., the intent was to accuse him of heterosexual misconduct. But Jerome is so fixated on getting up to pray, he obliviously puts the dress on and goes out into the church in women’s clothing. The issue here is not sodomy, but chastity. The lesson Mills intends by starting with the Jerome episode is to warn against jumping to conclusions about what message a depiction intends to convey.

Depictions or descriptions of male effeminacy could be used to signal courtliness or excess libido, not necessarily homosexuality. In parallel with this, depictions or descriptions of female masculinity could represent (masculine) virtue and could be meant as positive signifiers, as in the case of cross-dressing saints. In some genres, e.g., courtly love literature, ideals of beauty and desirability are not sexually dimorphic. There is a common physical ideal for both men and women. Attraction is expected to arise, not on the basis of "opposites attract", but inspired by that courtly ideal. Thus, same-sex attraction is not necessarily framed as transgressive in the way a modern reader might expect.

Images of men cross-dressing as women are less common than the converse, due to status differences between the sexes. Another example with a different context than Jerome is that of a 14th century English mystic who wanted to wear women’s garments, possibly in connection with the symbolism of becoming a “bride of Christ” as expressed in the Song of Songs. But when he actually wears the dress, his sister declares him mad.

The Duc de Berry (patron of the S. Jerome illustration) himself was accused of sodomitical desires, especially in one anonymous poem that uses explicit language. He clearly had male favorites, but it is impossible to untangle political motivations for the accusations from whatever his sexual interests may have been. The Limbourg brothers also illustrated a Bible Moralisée for de Berry. This genre of text (which will be the focus of the next chapter) often includes illustrations of types of “sins against nature”. In de Berry’s book, the corresponding set of images includes a cleric and layman embracing but also heterosexual couples. And the cleric-layman pair also brings in issues relating to clerical categories. The question remains: how do you know a sodomite when you see one?

Mills spends some time discussing Foucault and Lochrie's views about how to interpret medieval concepts of “sodomy”, and whether the category is hopelessly confused or overly specific. Concepts of gender also come into the discussion. Many consider a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation to be very recent. The 19th century saw an erosion of the association between cross-dressing and sexual dissidence. If homoerotic desire is understood as “wanting to be the other sex” (as it is commonly portrayed in medieval literature) then there is no distinct category of “homosexual orientation” but only conflicts of gender identity. In some ways, only with a focus on transgender identities has a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation been clearly distinguished. Mills uses a transgender framing as a way of looking at medieval concepts of gender inversion. He considers when and where a distinction between gender transgression and homoerotics was recognized and when it was conflated.

Understanding the category of “sodomy” requires an understanding of the Christian framework for the evolution of ideas about “nature” and the Fall. The broadest definition of sodomy was any sort of sexual activity that was “against nature”.

[Jumping a bit in topic.] In other images of the Limbourg’s Jerome, the saint is troubled by dreams of “choirs of girls.” The image shows two girls dancing, with their attention focused on each other, but not actively on Jerome. So how are they inspiring lust to torment him? The girls don’t register visually as “sodomitic” and conform to feminine ideals.

[Another topic jump.] The theme of friendship complicates studies of sodomy. Physical expressions of same-sex intimacy were “ennobling” between friends. But even so, they can be reframed as transgressive for political purposes. Intimate friendships between women were less problematic due to their lesser political importance. Chapter 5 will examine an exception to this lesser concern when it involved cloistered women.

Mills spends some time acknowledging the difficulty of studying male and female homoeroticism in parallel. A false equivalence tends to erase female presence by the sheer weight and volume of available material. He notes recent work (e.g., by Traub and Amer) on the cultural transmission of constructions of desire between women.

Mills approaches much of his analysis from a framework of “translation”--how concepts are translated between text and image, and between the medieval and the modern. In this context, he deliberately embraces anachronistic terms such as “transgender”, “butch/femme”, etc. as acknowledging that translation process. He uses the term “queer” very carefully due to its instability of meaning and its focus on modern reception, plus the tendency for it to simply replace more meaningful terms. He still feels it has utility, though.

The introduction concludes with a summary of the contents of the book. Chapter 1 looks at images in 13-15th century Bibles moralisées produced for the French court. Chapter 2 examines images of transgressive sexuality through a transgender lens. Chapter 3 looks at the figure of Orpheus as the “first sodomite”. Chapter 4 looks at the figure of Ganymede and the sexuality of monks. [Note: it’s likely that I’ll gloss over these two chapters fairly briefly if they contain little material relevant to women.] Chapter 5 considers depictions of sexual orientation in terms of literal “turning” (orienting), especially involving women.

Friday, March 10, 2017 - 09:00

Green - cover image Marsot - cover image Vicinus - cover image Carlin Crouch - cover image

I haven't done a book intake post in a while and several individual purchases have been piling up waiting to be cataloged. So let's do the double duty of getting these in the spreadsheet and talking about why I bought them.

Green, Nile. 2016. The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen's London. Princeton University Press, Princeton. ISBN 978-0-691-16832-6

In a testament to the principle that every book review may sell a book to someone, no matter what the reviewer thought of it, I spotted this on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where the reviewer seemed to think that this scholarly study was a bit lacking in plot and characterization. No doubt true, but it looked like it might be a good addition to my deep background research on the lives and practices of Muslims living in western Europe in the early 19th century. It carries several caveats with regard to my own purposes, given that  the visitors were from Iran, were living in England, and were men. But I expect to do a lot of triangulation in figuring out the parameters of Zobaida's life.

Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid. 1995. Women and Men in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 978-0-292-71736-7

Another book purchased for the same research project, this one with more overlap on my target (women and Egypt) although without the element of how cultural and religious practices were exercised in immigrant situations. Despite being given equal billing in the title, this study is primarily on the lives of women. Rather delightfully for my purposes, it covers all social classes and at least several of the ethnic/religious cultures that were significant at the time. Lots of juicy economic and domestic data, and at least some discussion of woman-centered religious practices.

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Somewhat obviously, I picked this up for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. "The fascinating history of the erotic friendships of educated English and American women over the 150-year period leading up to the 1928 publication of Radclyffe Hall's landmark novel, The Well of Loneliness." This may make an interesting counterpoint to Faderman, in that it covers the same heyday of "romantic friendship" but is focused much more strongly on the erotic potential in women's relationships.

Carlin, Martha & David Crouch (editors and translators). 2013. Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 978-0-8122-2336-1

For writers of historical fiction, one of the greatest difficulties is to get inside the heads and the everyday lives of your characters. While the correspondence that survives is rarely completely unfiltered conversation, it can shed light on topics that might otherwise be considered too trivial for history books. Skimming through the table of contents, there are topics such as:

  • An Earl orders furs from his skinner, to whom he owes money
  • A warning to a friend to get his grain off the road, because the king is about to go to Wales and will seize all provisions that he finds along the way
  • A tenant informs on a landowner's corrupt bailiff
  • A baron asks a baron to have the latter's son train his goshawk, which he sends
  • A student at Paris writes to his father for money
Major category: 
Thursday, March 9, 2017 - 07:19

There are times when you scramble just to keep up with yourself. This is one of those times! I'll be a program participant at FOGcon in Walnut Creek this weekend and I only just got the information into my appearances page. (I also only just noticed that they have me scheduled for two different reading slots, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. I've popped off an e-mail requesting that they give the Sunday slot to someone else, so I've only included the Saturday time in the schedule here.)

FOGcon is a wonderful small local literary-oriented convention and I've usually had a great time whether or not I'm on programming. I'll tell you all about it next week.

Major category: 
Wednesday, March 8, 2017 - 07:00

This selection of letters explains Abiel's continued presence at Camp Convalescent. His health (which he previously claimed to be quite recoverd) was proclaimed to be not up to the rigors of a winter at the front. And (as I intimated previously) his services were snapped up by the camp commander, presumably due to his reliable qualities shining through.

In this group is also the letter that may be my favorite of the entire set, describing the joys of a care package from home. Yet so firmly were [the boiled chickens] convinced that it was their duty (under any circumstances) to carry out the principles of their existance, that they had laid one dozen hard boiled eggs in their transit from Andover to camp Convalescent!

Content Warning: reference to a soldier committing suicide.

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved

January - March 1863


1863 Contents

  • January 11, 1863
  • January 26, 1863
  • February 15, 1863 - The Wonderful "Care Package"
  • March 2, 1863
  • March 20, 1863
  • April 30, 1863
  • May 27, 1863
  • June 26, 1863
  • August 3, 1863
  • August 25, 1863
  • September 24, 1863 - A Night at Ford's Theater
  • October 20, 1863
  • October 30, 1863
  • December 10, 1863 - Transporting Prisoners to Washington and Some Sightseeing


January 11, 1863 - HeadQuarters, Convalescent Camp. Near Ft. Barnard, Virginia

Dear Sister,

Yours of December 30th is at hand. I was reading it over tonight in the greatest state of perplexity you can imagine. It seems to me I have answered it, and yet I do not know. And as that is the case, to make "everything sure," as the dutch Captain said, I will write again.

In the first place then, this is no longer Post Hospital, but Convalescent Camp Near Fort Barnard, Virginia. This for some time will be your address for your dear kind letters to me. You made a funny mistake in the direction of yours mailed New Years Day. It was directed to McKim's Hospital. However the Postmaster there is a friend of mine and, knowing where I am, he redirected it and sent it to me, so that's all right. In your letter of December 20th, which I send back to you to see if it is the one you sent the money in (for there was none in it when I received it), you make the following inquireies:

  • 1st How far are you from Baltimore?
  • 2nd How far from Washington?
  • 3rd Where is Alexandria Va?
  • 4th What way and how much would it cost to come from Andover to this place?

To which I answer, this camp is about forty-five miles from Baltimore, 3-1/2 or 4 from Washington. To come here you would change cars at Elmira, and at Baltimore you would have to change again, and be carried in a "bus" from one depot to the other, about two miles. It would cost about ($12) twelve dollars, and much as I should like to see you, I should not advise you to come at this season of the year.

You say you can't find any Alexandria in Virginia. Now get my "atlas," which is in my trunk or some other place, and I will show you where it is. There now, you have the map of Virginia? You see Washington on the Maryland side of the Potomack. Now look on the opposite side of the river and a little way below Washington and you have Alexandria, Virginia. Now do you see it?

I gave up going back to the Army this winter. The surgeon said I would not be able to stand a winter campaign, and as I did not like to remain Idle, I accepted the offer made me to become one of the orderlies at Head Quarters. In this I stayed from December 4th untill January 7th, 1863.

At this time, a new Colonel came to take command of the camp, and when he got up his private quarters, he called me to him, and said he, "I want you to be my private orderly, as you appear to understand your business, and that's what I want." Now as there was seven other orderlies, I felt quite flattered to be chosen. I would not write this to any person but my dear sister, and I have a right to, to you, for you will make allowances for my vanity.

Tell father I thank him very much for those Postage Stamps. They came just in time for I was out of money and out of stamps. This is a much more pleasant winter than the last. It is getting rather muddy now but it is almost the first mud we have had. Tell Billings I am much obliged to him for his kind offer to come down and relieve me for a while, but as I don't see you coming, I shall have to take it as a mere offer.

Give my love to mother and Jane. Tell Joseph I wish I had a bushel of oats of his raising to eat, anything from Andover.

There are eight of us boarding togather. We live well just now. Two of the boys have boxes from home. One contains 105 lbs. and the other 85: chicken, rosted turkey, apples, pickels in jars etc. [Note: If this was a broad hint to his sister about receiving a box from home, she seems to have taken the hint, as the next couple of letters will show.]

But I must close,

Your loveing brother, A. T. LaForge, Orderly

Mrs. Joseph Potter Andover, N.Y.

[written in the margins]

I give up that riddle. Accept it is as Little Mattie says, but Jonah didn't dwell long, for the whale got sick of him.

[Note: I tried searching online for "riddle + Jonah" and found a few riddles in the right timeframe, but none for which this would be the answer.]

The letter December 20th Is not the one you sent the money in, for you mention in that having sent it the Friday before. Let the letter go. A dollar wont break me anyway, if I don't get [it]. Goodbye. A T LaF.


Head Quarters, Camp convalescent, Monday, January 26th 1863

Dear Sister,

Your kind letter of January 18th I received the 22nd. You may guess it gave me some pleasure! A box from home--why the very thought is joy. Just the box without any thing in it is enough to make me homesick, and the contents will have to be used to cure me I suppose.

You want to know what I want in it? Well thats a poser. I can hardly tell. Sweet meats are not in much demand; something more solid is better, such as a roast chicken or roll of butter, and above all things a loaf of your bread.

I am not in want of socks or shirts, thanks to the kind Matron of McKim's. She supplied me well with both before I came from there. Mittens I could not use here, for I often have to write in the open air. I shall buy a pair of gloves as soon as we are paid off. I wish you would send me a red silk pocket handkerchief, if you can get one that won't fade, and let me know the price. I should be afraid of being cheated if I bought one. And send me one or two old Genesee Valleys if you have them [Note: possibly a newspaper?], and if you will be so kind, send me my old account book (after copying my account with brother Josey's in some other book). If you have used it to write anything else in, never mind sending it. I only wanted it to make a kind of report of myself.

Well, I think I have said enough about the box. I am ashamed of myself, but I must add that it should be strong and well packed (if there are any breakables it) with straw or something, for they are handled rather rough sometimes.

The direction will be:

New Convalescent Camp

Near Fort Barnard, Virginia

Via Alexandria, Virginia

I received a letter from Uncle Siars to day. They were all well and had just received a letter from you. They want me to come that way when I go home, but that is such an uncertain date that I can hardly promise. [Note: I need to search and see if I can interpret "Uncle Siars" better.]

Janey sends me a piece of her dress to see how I like it, does she? Well she only does it to make me show my ignorance on such subjects. Well, I won't get mad with her, for she is too far away for me to punish her with a good kiss. So I merely give my candid opinion of it, so here it is. I think it is very pretty and only wish I was there to christen it for her. Well I'll delegate Billings for that. "Ha ha," wont he get his ears slapped! [Note: There is a running thread of semi-flirtation with Janey over a long period. I keep meaning to check the genealogy charts to determine exactly who she is.]

You found where Alexandria, Virginia was, didn't you? You say you want me to visit the Smithsonian Institute. I did that three times last winter. Did I not write to you of it? A person might spend a month there and not see all there is to be seen. It is the best free insititution in the country.

The name of the commander of the camp is Samuel McKelvy. He is a Lieutenant Colonel and is attached to Major General Hentzelman's staff. Last week we had some wet weather--mud a foot deep. Not near so bad as it was last winter, though. It is getting better now. This afternoon we have news that Burnside has resigned and Hooker is in command. [He] has crossed the Rappahannock and is as near Richmond as the mud will allow him to get. Hooker is a fighting man and I hope will do something. McKlellan is the only man who has proved himself worthy of handling a large army as yet. He will be in command again, if Hooker fails and Sumner after him.

It is half past nine P.M. and I must close with my best wishes to you all.

Your loving brother,

A. T. LaForge

Chief Orderly

P.S. Please put in the box a few hard boiled eggs, and an ear or two of popcorn, if you have it. None of the boys from there are in our mess.

A T L.F.


Head Quarters, Camp Convalescent, Virginia February 15th 1863

Dear Sister,

You don't know how good I feel! Why what do you think has happened? This morning I went down to the Express office and--strange to say--found there a box marked Abel. J. [sic] LaForge. And what do you think I did? You can't guess, so I will tell you. I claimed it! The express man asked me if I had an order or bill of freight and I told him no. "You can't have it," says he. That's tough, thinks I.

I must not give it up so. But I was saved the trouble of devising some plan to get it by a gentleman's coming in and, finding what I wanted, he asked me if I was not with Colonel McKelvy? I told him I was, and he gave me the the box without further ado. Bully for me!

I took the treasure home and opened it before the wondering eyes of our boys. Well, my friends, you would be abundantly paid if you could have heard their pleased remarks as the contents were revealed. That Jelly cake received enough praise to last Janey a year, when we tasted it. Maple sugar was pronounced superior to anything of the kind ever tasted of. And the honey, who shall undertake to describe the delights of home-made biscuit with butter and honey? A certain man, by name Joseph Potter, was voted the best honey raiser in these United States (or rather, Disunited States).

But the wonder is still to be spoken of. Those chickens--they made us all show the whites of our eyes in a remarkably edifying manner. I must tell you of them. They were chickens whose heads had been cut off, their feathers had been picked off, they had been boiled untill they were the most tender dainty I ever ate. They had been packed in a tight box. Yet so firmly were they convinced that it was their duty (under any circumstances) to carry out the principles of their existance, that they had laid one dozen hard boiled eggs in their transit from Andover to camp Convalescent!

What a model of unflinching determination--to perform duty under any circumstances--is this? And set us by a chicken too! Well is it said, "Our best examples are from the lowly."

The handkerchief just suits, and indeed I dont think it were possible to get up a box the contents of which would give more universal satisfaction than the one you sent me, and I must say, My Dear friends, I sincerely thank you.

Having disposed of the box, I will now proceed to to the news. We (meaning Head Quarters) have moved into a fine new building, where there is plenty of light and room. This building is divided into four rooms. One is used as buisness office, one as Discharge office, the third as Colonel's private office occupied by him (Colonel) and me, and the fourth is a sleeping apartment used for that purpose by a Lieutenant acting as Adjutant and your humble servant. My duty is to answer unofficial matters sent to the Colonel Commanding, and to keep myself "posted," so that when any information is needed, I can give it and act as [a] sort [of] confidante, to issue orders etc.

There is a railroad running within a half mile of here, from which we are building a branch road to come right up to the barracks, which are now completed and contain nearly five thousand men. Six thousand two hundred men are in this camp now. We discharge from two hundred to two-fifty daily from the service, and send a good many back to their regiments, yet fresh ones keep coming, so the number does not decrease.

We have been having some very muddy weather lately, but for the last two days there has been an evident inclination, to which I am sure I hope it will. [Note: I can't quite decipher that last sentence, unless there is some meaning implicit in "an evident inclination" that indicates a let-up in the rain.] Frank Davis started for Camp Distribution on the way back to his company last week. I have not heard from father yet. I hope he will write soon. Desiring the same thing of yourself. I remain as ever Your Loving brother,

Abiel T. LaForge, Chief Orderly


Head Quarters, Convalescent Camp, Virginia March 2nd 1863

Dear Sister,

I received your kind letter of February 22nd the day before yesterday. I had been expecting it for many days, and began to think you had not received my last. It is said that "hope defered makes the heart grow sick." If this is so, I know of an instantaneous cure, at least in my case, which is this: the final consumation of our hopes. For when I have waited for a letter from you untill I began to despair, its arrival would effect a cure in less than "no time".

Well, if this is not the funniest I ever saw! Two or three changes every day. It is impossible to say what weather we shall have the next hour, unless you say it will be bad, which is quite safe. However warm weather is at hand, and then it will be all right. Bad weather has no effect on the inmates of this camp, farther than to make them ill-natured, for they are all in good warm clean barracks.

We are surrounded on all sides by a fine grove of evergreens, nicely trimed up to about seven feet from the ground. What a splended place this will be in summer for the men to wander through! It is perfectly free from underbrush, the ground covered with the dried pine tassels, making a nice soft carpet for reclining upon.

You wanted to know the camp Frank Davis was sent to from here. It is Camp of Distribution, near Alexandria Virginia. He was sent there about the middle of February. Whether he has been sent from there to the regiment, I do not know. Colonel Belknap came here when he returned from his furlough expecting to have command, doubtless. And as he could not get it, concluded to return to his own command, for which he started last week. Before going, he came into the office and very kindly bid us all goodbye. He is well liked by all who knew him in the camp. [Note: At some point, I believe late in the 1864 entries, I comment on the sudden appearance of Abiel using "concluded" to mean "decided". Now that I'm watching for it, I've noticed this earlier example as well.]

I am glad you have heard from father. I wish he would write to me. What a good thing it is [that] he has such a strong constitution. I am always expecting to hear that he is sick or badly hurt some way. He is changing about from place to place so much. How I should like to be with him and you for a short time, but that may not be.

I suppose you have commenced making maple sugar by this time, have you not? Tomorrow I must go to work at Nelson Crandall's. He has just commenced making sugar. [Note: Not sure what this last comment is, since Abiel obviously isn't going anywhere to work at the sugarbush.]

Tell Janey her Morning Dew came through safe and I still carry it in my pocket. It is a most delicate odor. [Note: "Morning Dew" sounds from context to be some sort of perfume. A brief search turns up a patent medicine by that name, but I have no idea if there's a direct connection or if this is simply a generic name for a perfume.]

Did you intend that little wreath you drew at the end of your letter for me to kiss? That is the way I interpreted, and acted accordingly.

Give my love to Janey and Mother and kiss Joseph for me, for I know you can do that with a relish.

[Note: Sometimes the little everyday social differences are the most striking. Usually "kiss so-and-so for me" suggests a context where the speaker would expect to kiss the person, if present. So I'm trying to guess whether a man kissing his brother-in-law in greeting would be unexceptionable, or whether that sort of transitivity isn't implied.]

Your Loving Brother

Abiel T LaForge

Chief Orderly


HeadQuarters, Camp Convalescent, March 20th 1863

Dear Sister,

Yours of the 12th Inst[ant] arrived in what we think must be the Equinoctial storm, and a disagreable one it is. And as it is a very disagreable one, and I dont like to speak of disagreable subjects, I will not say any more about it. So such about the equinox.

You have got through your spring tour of visits have you? I have no doubt you had a pleasant time. I should like to have been there to supprise you when you came home. Suppose you had come in and found me in the "cubbord" at the pies and pickles? My, what a time there would have been! I guess my ears would have been pulled some, don't you think so? You state that father wrote that he had not received a letter from me since he had been there. I did not get one from him untill last week, and consequently did not know where to direct. His letters must have miscarried, for last week was the first I got from him, and that I answered immediately.

Last month I had the misfortune to lose my memorandum book, commened the time I enlisted October 3rd. I felt very sorry, as I was just going to send it to you to be preserved for me. However I have commenced another and "better luck next time" is my motto, so here goes.

A melancholy event happened last Sunday (15th). A man belonging to the New York troops, and who had been pronounced a case of "harmless insanity," and application had been made at the Adujtant General's for his admission into the Insane Asylum for the U.S. Soldiers at Washington, was found to have commited suicide by hanging himself in one of the barracks not ocupied at the time by any of the soldiers. This created considerable excitement at first, but Colonel McKelvy soon quelled it and sent the men to their quarters, ordering a proper disposition to be made of the body. And soon everything was going along as before. And in a few minutes you would not have suspected that one of our number had commited the sin of suicide in our midst. How wise, things are ordered.

Give my love to all my friends up there, if there is enough to go round. If not, those in the Old Homestead I want to have it all.

And remember me ever,

As your loving brother,

Abiel T LaForge

Chief Orderly

To Mrs Joseph Potter

Andover Allegany County New York

P.S. Sister, I have been so careless as to lose that letter you sent me giving Joseph's account with me. Will you please send me another, giving the same, if you please? The enclosed (20) dollars are for Perry [Potter]. Will you get his note, payable on demand, with seven per cent interest from date?

Yours etc.

Abiel T La Forge


Major category: 
LaForge Civil War Diaries
Tuesday, March 7, 2017 - 08:15
Alpennia logo

I'm not forgetting my promise to talk more about the geography of Alpennia, but in order to come up with even the sketchiest of maps, I need to organize and review the data. In the mean time, I thought I'd tell you how Floodtide is coming along.

The original outline for Floodtide--the one I set up when I needed to do the combined, overlapping outline for both Mother of Souls and Floodtide--has 18 chapter-like-units for the story. These aren't meant to correspond to final chapters. They're more like temporal units that fit conveniently between the MoS chapters, because at that point the chronology was the important thing. At the moment, I'm drafting material for the 8th unit. You might think, on that basis, that I'm almost halfway done. You'd be wrong.

Most of the serious action of the story is only just about to start. (We've gotten up to the end of December 1824. To situate it in the context of Mother of Souls, we're in the middle of the first year of Margerit's school, the middle of the season when Iulien is visiting in Rotenek, right around when Luzie has a first polished draft of her opera.) Although there are several exciting events covered so far, an awful lot of the existing text is Rozild being introduced to other key characters and getting to know them. A lot of that is going to be ruthlessly trimmed and condensed, but it's something I need to work though to get to know the characters myself.

So as a start, let's introduce you to Rozild. I haven't actually come up with a surname for her yet. There are lots of placeholders in the text at this point. Roz comes from a rural area somewhere north of Rotenek, the oldest in a large and economically marginal family. Although she received some basic schooling from one of the Orisule grammar schools, at a relatively early age she went to live with her aunt (to remove one of the mouths her parents had to feed) who had a business doing laundry and mending. When she got to an age to "work out," Roz's aunt arranged for her to go to Rotenek and go into service in an upper middle class household, via contacts at an agency there. Hard work, and a bit lonely away from home, but Roz was able to send her quarterly wages back to help out her parents and younger siblings, as well as (in theory) saving up a nest egg for herself. The loneliness was eased significantly when Roz discovered some very enjoyable common interests with Nan, the girl she shared a bed with. (Keep in mind that in this era "sharing a bed" was the norm, not something that automatically raised suspicion.) But secrets can be hard to keep, and jealousies can run rampant in the downstairs of a Great House. And as our story opens, someone has accused Roz of unnatural affections and Nan concluded her own survival would require throwing her lover under the bus...

Here's the opening paragraph as it currently stands (which already needs some revising, but I'm not doing revising yet):


You know the scent of lavender on the fresh sheets when you get them from the linen press for the housemaids to take up? You breathe it in, remembering the long rows of purple spikes in the summer sun. Then you imagine the smile on the maisetra’s face when she settles in for the night on a new-made bed with that scent still lingering. That’s what I always imagined love would be like. But loving Nan was like the hours spent stripping the lavender spikes for the stillroom back in Sain-Pol. The sharp resin climbed up your nose, making your head throb and ache, and the memory of it clung to your hands and your clothes for weeks so that you’d think you’d never be free of it. I think that was how they found us out: because I was never free of thinking of her. I‘d watch her from the laundry room door as she went up and down the stairs to the family rooms, and find excuses to call her over to ask about some mending she’d brought down. Then at night, even when we were so tired we could barely talk, we’d kiss and cuddle in the narrow bed we shared. My head was so full of her and it was never enough. We had to keep quiet so Mari would think we were only whispering about the day’s work. I didn’t think she’d rat on us anyway; lots of girls in service have their bit of fun. I don’t think Mari told, but someone did. Old Mazzik the housekeeper took Nan back into her parlor and closed the door for a long time and when Nan came out she’d been crying and wouldn’t look at me. Then Mazzik took me by the arm without a word and dragged me across the yard and out the back gate and threw me down onto the cobbles.

Major category: 
Monday, March 6, 2017 - 09:00
LHMP logo

This concludes the series of "tag essays" which were something of a byproduct of the process of adding brief descriptions to all the tags, plus an audit to identify and deal with duplicates, errors, and unused tags. The poetic categories show an interesting dichotomy. Among those poems and poets identified as writing about romantic love and desire, 75% are women. Among the poems and poets treating sexual activity more explicitly, only about 10% are women, though about 25% are anonymous. And many of the male authors in this group are writing either sensational and decadent pornography, or are writing pointed satires that use the accusation of lesbianism to smear contemporaries.

Next week, I'll be returning to covering new publications. I have a really exciting one in preparation about depictions of deviant gender and sexuality in medieaval manuscripts. I only regret that I won't be able to include all the pictures!

Major category: 

The purpose of tags is to make information relatively easy to find. The topics covered under “people/event tags” are historical persons, authors, written works, and other specific events, organizations, or works that are the subject of the research and publications covered by the Project. This essay is intended to explain briefly how the “people/event” tags are being used.

The second purpose is to provide a tag list that the visitor can use to explore the site. The number of tags used in the project, and the organization into four different categories, doesn’t lend itself to a traditional tag-cloud. The Place and Time Period tags each have a single essay. The Event/Person and Misc. Tags will be covered in thematic groups in multiple essays due to the larger number. I’m planning six essays for the People/Event Tags, each covering a general category with several subcategories.

  • Non-Fiction Sources and General Authors
  • Historic Crossdressing and Passing/Transgender People
  • Historic People Relevant for Emotional, Affectionate, or Sexual Relationships
  • Literary Examples of Crossdressing or Gender Disguise
  • Literary Examples of Emotional, Affectionate, or Sexual Relationships
  • Poetry Expressing Romantic or Sexual Relationships

This present essay covers the sixth category and includes the following:

  • Poetry describing love between women, or poets commonly using this theme
  • Poetry describing sex between women, or poets commonly using this theme

Obviously these categories are quite fuzzy at the edges, and I've classified individual people according to what seems the most noteworthy aspect of their lives. Every story is far more complex than a single classification. These are only for the purposes of exploring general themes.

Poetry: Love Between Women

Poetry: Sex Between Women

Friday, March 3, 2017 - 07:00
Book cover: Serpentine by Cindy Pon

Serpentine is a young adult fantasy novel with a historically-inspired Chinese setting that revolves around two major themes. The first is the domestic story of the protagonist Skybright, a foundling who is handmaiden and companion to the well-born Zhen Ni, as both of them stand at the edge of womanhood. The external peril is an invasion of supernatural creatures who have found an opening into the mortal world and are being fought off by a martial order of monks. A major theme of the several braided plot lines is the consequences of concealing your inner nature from those closest to you. Zhen Ni's secret is her romantic love for other girls, first turned toward Skybright and then toward a visiting friend who returns the interest more enthusiastically. But Zehn Ni's fate is to marry well and produce children, and she can only conceal her desires for so long. Skybright's secret is more drastic: she is a serpent demon, with a tendency to shift between human and demon form at unexpected times. And the young man she's feeling a growing attraction to is currently fighting demons with the monks...

I enjoyed the book, particularly in how it incorporated issues of sexuality within a historic culture, and realistically portrayed the various social power differentials between the characters: Skybright's anomalous relationship to Zhen Ni as both "like a sister" yet with no future except to be her servant; the conflicted relationship between Zhen Ni and her mother (who it is hinted may have had a "special friend" in her own past that she had to give up); and the relationship between Zhen Ni and her lover Lan. Zhen Ni is frustratingly self-centered in all of these, but realistically so, given her status and upbringing, though I felt that her actions in the latter part of the book felt more plot-driven than character-driven. But this is Skybright's story, so the major conflict is in her growing understanding and acceptance of her demon heritage and her decisions about how to use that to fight for and protect the people she loves.

I don't think it's fair to note that I was a little put off by some aspects of the prose, because I'm not the target audience from that point of view. The language was a bit simple and did a bit too much explaining, but the setting was well rendered and vividly imagined. If the girls spend a lot of time agonizing over situations that could be resolved with some clear communication and a willingness to compromise...well, that's something in the nature of being a teenager, I suppose.

The story concludes with no happy endings for any of the various romances (no tragedy, but no happiness) and with a large handful of pending plot threads that are presumably taken up in Sacrifice, the sequel.

Major category: 
Thursday, March 2, 2017 - 06:00
Book cover: Flowers of Luna by Jennifer Linsky

Jennifer Linsky is a Twitter friend who graciously agreed to write a guest blog for me.

Hello! My name is Jenny, and I’ve been invited by Heather to do a guest post this week. Since much of Heather’s blog content is about her great-great-grandfather’s civil war diary, I thought I would write a bit about my Ojii-kun, my grandfather, and an entirely different war: the war in the Pacific.  

I was born on a Thursday morning in September, on a day which also happened to be the anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s birth. Despite having arrived in the world only twenty-eight hundred kilometers away from my grandparents’ home in Hakodate, I did not meet the rest of my family for several years; instead, I was flown to America where I mastered the complexities of walking, eating solid food, and speaking English.

The summer before I turned five, however, my mother put me on another airplane with a stuffed bear almost as large as I was. Colonel Bear and I flew across the Pacific, accompanied only by a stewardess, a flight crew, and a couple of dozen strangers. In Tokyo, the stewardess spoke to an old man who looked like the pictures my mother had shown me, and then, she handed me off to him.

“Hello, Jeni,” he said. “I am your grandfather.”  I made the bow my mother had practiced with me, and my grandfather chuckled, returned the bow, and offered his hand to shake.  I shook it. Then I held his hand as we went to reclaim my bags, as we left the airport, as we took a train.

During that trip, I learned things about my grandfather: he spoke very good English, in a measured, precise way, with a cowboy accent layered over his Japanese accent.  I learned that he liked literature, both English and Japanese. And when we visited a shrine together, I learned that he had once had a little brother whose name meant “Shining light.” I learned that my grandfather’s name meant “Studious first-born,” and my mother’s original name meant “Clarity girl.”  My grandfather did not know what my name meant, because it was not Japanese. He would find out, and later call me his fair one, though I suspect that in his mind, fair related to justice, not hair color.

That first trip, I also gave him the label by which I called him for the rest of my life: Ojii-kun.  My cousins all referred to him as Ojii-chan, which mystified me.  When I asked my grandfather for an explanation, he just spread his hands.  “They call me Ojii-chan because I am their Ojii-san, and they like me,” he said.  “What do you think I should be called?”

Rules are comforting when you’re four and learning a new language. -chan, I explained, was for girls.  Jeni-chan, Umeko-chan, Skura-chan. Boys all had -kun names. Hikaru-kun, the lost little brother. Tatsu-kun, the cousin who didn’t like me. So my grandfather should be Ojii-kun.  He nodded, and agreed that he could be my Ojii-kun. Later, I found out that in general Japanese usage, an Ojii-kun is an exceptionally youthful looking grandfather; perhaps this stroked my Ojii-kun’s ego.

(My Ojii-chan was also called “Castro-sama” by my cousins.  When he retired, he decided to grow his beard, with the result you likely expect; a whispy white tangle.  He would tell me with a twinkle in his eye that he thought he looked like Santa-sama).

Over time, as I got older and my understanding increased, I learned more. I learned that my grandfather spoke English as he did because he had studied Civil Engineering at a University in Texas. He had gone to learn about railroads, and when he came back, he did what many young men from good families, who had the right social connections, did…he joined the Army.

The Army put him to work building railroads.  He built local lines in Osaka; he built a major line in Hokkaido.  He fell in love with a woman from the wrong background, and full of the egalitarian spirit he had picked up in Texas, he married her anyway.  Then my Ojii-kun was sent to build railroads in Manchuria.

(My grandmother, my Obaa-sama, remained in Japan and worked hard to have her husband’s affluent, socially-connected family accept her despite her farming roots. Instead, I think she absorbed their disdain for anything which was not “good enough.”  And a half-barbarian child who barely spoke Japanese? Not good enough).

Many Japanese believe that you can not know who a person is, until you’ve been drunk with them.  There are too many layers of pretense, of politeness, of carefully crafted veneer between you and their true self, and only alcohol can tear away those layers and show you the soul. Though I was not old enough to drink, I saw my grandfather drunk.  I know that, even thirty years later, the Manchurian incident tore at him.  “They blew it up,” he would rail, deep in his cups. “They blew up my pretty roadway!”

Memory is the most unreliable narrator of all, and when it is the memory of a man grown old, filtered through the memory of a child who didn’t understand all of it at the time, what remains is likely to be as much wishful fiction as history. Should I take his drunken ramblings literally? Should I believe that he designed, or surveyed, or supervised the building of the railway line bombed on a chill September morning in 1931? It would have been early in his career, but possible.  Or did he simply mean that the rail was his in the way that all rail was his?

My grandfather loved railroads. We would leave the house early, some days, Ojii-kun and I. Ojii-kun said that we were getting out of Obaa-sama’s hair, but really, he just wanted to go and ride the rails with me.  Some days, we would just ride around Hakodate, and he would tell me little stories about the neighborhoods.  Some days, we would ride out into the Hokkaido countryside, and eat our lunch at a railway station someplace, having whatever ekiben (train-station lunchbox) was on offer at that station, in that season.

Sometimes, when we took longer trips, Ojii-kun would pick up a manga volume, and we would read together -- which is to say, I would look at the pictures and he would read to me, translating on the fly as he turned the pages.

(Decades later, I would incorporate that common scene into Flowers of Luna, the girl and her grandfather changed to young lovers, but the train and the reading aloud still symbolizing love).

Sometimes, when I could not sleep, my grandfather would read to me from a big, pre-war book of Japanese fairy tales. Obaa-sama would scold him for coddling me, but Ojii-kun would just smile and go on reading.  He didn’t translate when he read from that book, and the sound of half-understood words and phrases tumbling by in the deep voice of my Ojii-kun would make me feel safe, and I would fall asleep.

I do not know where my grandfather was in December of 1937, but I do know that he was still in China. He may have been present for the approach, siege, and massacre of Nanking. If so, he never spoke directly of it.  More than once, however, when he was in his cups, he looked at me with sorrow deep in his eyes, and he asked, “Jeni, who is the better samurai? The one who serves the just master, or the one who serves the wicked master?”

And, though I knew his answer after the first time, I would always answer that it was the one who served the just master.  But Ojii-kun would shake his head, and say, “anyone can serve a just master. It takes a truly exceptional samurai to serve a wicked master faithfully and well, despite the cries of his soul.”

If he were alive today, I would ask him many things.  Whether he truly built the railroad in Manchuria that wasn’t destroyed by the seditious bomb. Whether he was there in the days around the dreadful activities in Nanking. Why he hadn’t opposed the Army’s plans. But he is not alive.

He died the winter following my twelfth birthday. The previous summer, as we stood in Tokyo at the shrine for the Imperial War Dead, we looked at the sky. “It was the weather,” he said, “that made them choose Nagasaki.” I nodded. He looked around the shrine once more, and then said, in a confidential tone, “I have always believed it fate that Hikaru-kun became light at the end of his life.”

That afternoon, at the airport, we engaged in our ritual of leavetaking. I shook his hand solemnly, and bowed.  “Be well, Jeni-chan,” he said.  “I do not believe we will meet again in this life.”  When I picture him now, he too has become light, and he laughs, the unfashionable deep belly laugh of my childhood.

Jennifer Linsky is a second-generation Japanese American who could join the DAR. She is the author of Flowers of Luna, a Japanese-influenced F|F romance in a SciFi setting, independently published through Amazon ( ) and available on Kindle Unlimited. She tweets as @Walkyrjenny and uses the same handle for Wattpad, where more of her writing can be read for free.

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