Book Review: Death of a Texas Ranger

Death of a Texas Ranger


Life was precarious on the Texas frontier in the late 1880′s. The Civil War had left chaos with political and cultural clashes. To help keep order and to protect early settlers, the Texas Rangers was formed as a state militia.

In 1873, Sergeant John Green was shot and killed by a Ranger under his command, Cesario Menchaca. Death of a Texas Ranger: A True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier by Cynthia Leal Massey delves into this incident with meticulous research and an enjoyable style.

Justice is constantly thwarted as Sergeant Green’s killer is protected by Mexico’s refusal to extradite Cesario Menchaca.

In the meantime, Texas was drawing the attention of those interested in the natural sciences in the nineteenth century, an era referred to as the Age of Darwin. Gabriel Wilson Marnoch became a frontier naturalist who discovered new reptile and amphibian species. In addition to snake bags and specimen jars, Marnoch also carried a secret involving Sergeant John Green’s death.

Years later, John Green’s son, Will Green, now Chief of Detectives for the San Antonio Police Department, while seeking justice for his father’s death discovers missing records and contradictory accounts of the crime.

Author Massey, a Texan, does a remarkable job capturing the essence of post-Civil War Texas and of fitting together the many pieces of the mystery surrounding the death of Texas Ranger Sergeant John Green.

To learn more about this award-winning author, visit

Night Circus Brought Back Memories

Night Circus

When I was seven our family lived in the little town of Holt, Michigan. Across the street from our house were several acres of flat land. One hot summer day I noticed a lot of activity happening on that empty land. Colorful tents were being raised, a Ferris Wheel and other rides were being erected. A circus! I was beside myself with excitement. I simply had to go. Our family attended the circus the next evening. It was everything I could have imagined. I couldn’t get enough of it. The next evening I begged my father to go, just once more. My mother and older sister had no desire to see it again, so my father and I went, just the two of us.

This time, we looked at things differently, trying to see how they did it. We watched the contortionist, twice. We marveled at the acrobats and concluded it was real, but that it would take a lifetime of practice. I don’t remember an illusionist, but maybe she was so good we didn’t realize what was happening. I was in awe of the exotic circus animals. We rode the only “ride” that appealed to us, the Ferris Wheel. From the top we could see for miles. We watched the knife thrower, sure that there must be a trick to his uncanny aim. From a red-striped paper bag we shared a bag of caramelized popcorn. I’ll never forget that evening with my father. Over the years we often talked about that magical night at the circus.

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern brought back those memories in exploding color. The story takes place in the late 1800s and early 1900s when life was supposedly simpler. But the Le Cirque des Reves is far from simple. It was created for the purpose of providing a backdrop for a fierce competition between Celia and Marco, two young people who don’t even know each other. But when they meet, it isn’t how their instructors had planned.

Erin Morgenstern has painted a vivid picture of unbelievable imagination. An illusion of depth is created before your eyes when you find yourself in the center tent. But more than that, you’re in the minds of those who create the spell.

Night Circus is magical. Morgenstern is an extraordinary, enchanting storyteller.

Book Review: The Last Time They Met

The Last TimeClear your calendar for a couple of days and read Anita Shireve’s The Last Time They Met (Little, Brown and Company). Pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in for a treat.

Linda Fallon encounters her former lover, Thomas Janes, while they are both reading their work at a literary festival. Now in their early fifties and both finally free to pursue a life together, their pasts loom before them, pasts littered with passion, guilt and regret.

Linda, at last being seriously recognized, had been married, divorced and then happily married and blessed with children. She is now widowed. Although she has known happiness, she nevertheless has never felt free of the bond with her first love, Thomas. Thomas, a literary legend, has been twice married and divorced, and has never recovered from his young daughter’s accidental death.

The book is written in three parts, starting with the present and going back in time. At the festival, they look back to their painful, yet over-powering chance meeting in East Africa when they were in their twenties. They were consumed with infatuation, but also with guilt since they were both married to someone else. They knew there was no solution, yet their passion was stronger than their sense of decency, or even common sense. The novel then goes back even further to when Linda and Thomas were teens. She, an orphan, lived with relatives, felt unwanted, unloved, and nursed a secret shame. Thomas was a child of wealth and position. Both teens were bright, gifted, and full of joy with each other. A tragedy separates them and both carry the effects the rest of their lives.

The Last Time They Met is a story of passion and obsession. I loved the African section and the resulting strange influence it has on the story. But it wouldn’t matter where in the world this novel took place, it would still be a work of strong and unresolved emotions, of human frailty, and failed expectations. The book is a marvelous study of human behavior and of what might have been.

Book Review: The Help

The Help 2_I couldn’t put this book down. I woke up during the night thinking about it, sometimes giving in and reading a few more pages. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is an insider’s look at life in the deep south in the 1960s. The story’s three narrators, a white woman and two black maids, live on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent college graduate, lives with her parents on a cotton plantation (though her mother is the only one who still uses that old-fashion description). Although a socialite through her family’s status, Skeeter has never felt like one of the girls. She’s too tall, her hair is never in the latest style, her clothes are not chic like her friends. She’s determined to be a writer, but her chances are pretty slim in Jackson, Mississippi. She arranges with the local newspaper to take over a housekeeping column, but, come to think about it, she really knows nothing about housekeeping. The help does all that sort of thing.

Miss Skeeter approaches a friend’s black maid, Abileen Clark. Abileen’s specialty is raising white folks’ children, and her housekeeping skills are impeccable. Abileen agrees to answer newspaper reader’s housekeeping questions for Skeeter for a small fee.

An idea forms in Skeeter’s mind, an idea that could bring terrible risks. Martin Luther King’s attempts at integration are making national headlines. In Mississippi, colored people aren’t allowed to enter white folks’ stores unless they’re in uniform and are shopping for their employers. They certainly can’t use “white” restrooms or attend their schools or churches. Even in private homes, every effort is made to keep the help from using bathrooms intended for family. The help’s bathroom is usually a roughed-out place, often attached to the garage. The help is expected to respond to their white employers needs, never mind if it interferes with their own life and family.

What would happen if a book were written, an expose’ about what it’s really like for a black person to work for a white family? Oh sure, the white people claim they “love” their black help; the black people “love” their white families. But the boundaries are firm and when they’re crossed, there can be serious consequences.

Abileen agrees, reluctantly at first, to share her experiences with Miss Skeeter. She enlists friend Minny Jackson who works for a lady local people call “white trash.” The idea gains momentum and grows to scary heights. The secret is kept by so many people, it’s hard to believe it won’t slip out. Skeeter gets a go-ahead by a New York publisher, but the offer to look over the manuscript doesn’t hold much hope of success.

The secrets shared by these maids could ruin them, right along with the people they’re talking about. Of course, there are a few good stories, too, stories about loyalty and generosity. Is the nation ready for such a tell-all? What will be the consequences? Is the awful risk worth the hope it might bring? The local society ladies live in a brittle, shallow world. The consequences of people learning the truth could be devastating. There’s a lot at stake for both whites and blacks.

The words “Change begins with a whisper” are displayed on the book’s cover. With change comes hope, hope that we’ve come a long way toward understanding one another and that we’ve been able to cross interracial lines in our every day lives. I highly recommend The Help. It’s not only a fun read, it’s an eye-opener. Coming from the State of Washington, my exposure to racism was pretty much limited to what I saw on the evening news. The Help is an inside look at “the rest of the story.”


Hibulb Cultural Center: Keeping the Cultural Fires Burning


The Hibulb Cultural Center & Natural History Preserve is a fascinating museum located on the Tulalip Reservation adjacent to the city of Marysville, Washington, 34 miles north of Seattle. Hibulb (pronounced Hee-bolb) is resplendent with tribal folk lore, carving, weaving, knitting, and sculpture.

The center is named for the large village of Hibulb that was at the end of a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. Warriors who lived in longhouses at Hibulb protected their people from invasion of their territories. From Hibulb, they could see enemies approaching from a long distance and they would light a huge signal fire to warn the other villages and longhouses across the bay and up the Snohomish River.

Tulalip Tribes, the People of the Salmon, are a federally recognized tribe of Duwamish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skagit, Suiattle, Samish, and Stillaguamish people. The 22,000-acre Tulalip Reservation was established in 1855 by a treaty that guaranteed hunting and fishing rights to all tribes represented by the signers. In return for the reservation and other benefits promised in the treaty by the United States government, the Duwamish Tribe exchanged over 54,000 acres of their homeland which includes much of modern-day King County.

Today the Tulalip Reservation is thriving with businesses that serve more than 6 million visitors a year and is one of the largest employers in Snohomish County.

The Hibulb Cultural Center, which opened in 2010, is located on a 50-acre natural history preserve. The 23,000-square foot structure features a main exhibit, a revolving temporary exhibit, two classrooms, a longhouse, a research library and a gift shop. The Center provides an introduction to these Northwest tribes, their culture and history.

The exhibits of the Hibulb Cultural Center may be viewed on a self-guided tour, but we had the pleasure of joining a group guided by Lois, a tribal member who is knowledgeable and informative. We met first in the cedar Longhouse which is built into the museum, I learned that not all Indians were teepee dwellers. The Tulalip peoples lived in longhouses, each of which might house 14 to 20 families. Tribal meetings were held in the longhouses and even today it is an important center where teachings and traditions are passed from generation to generation.

The Tulalip have a binding relationship to cedar and salmon. At the Center, visitors learn how weaving, fishing and cooking defined their culture. The cedar tree is considered a gift to serve throughout one’s life. Every part of the tree is used with nothing wasted. It is a perfect resource, providing everything from baskets, bowls, cloth, and canoes, to long-lasting carvings.

The Tulalip are a fishing people. The Cultural Center has a display showing fishing gear, traps and techniques. Also shown is a “summer house” where they lived while fishing, hunting, gathering berries, etc.

Formal education began at Tulalip in 1857 with a Catholic priest, Father Chirouse, who taught English, reading, spelling, history and math. He himself was a student of theirs as he learned to speak one of the local dialects, Lushootseed. Father Chirouse was revered by the Tulalip people and later became an Indian Agent and the voice of the people.

A sad period in the history of the Tulalip as well as many Indian tribes, is when, in the 1800′s, the U.S. Government required all native children to leave their homes and stay in boarding schools. In an attempt to “civilize” the children, they were forbidden to speak their native language, practice their own religion and beliefs, or wear their accustomed clothing. The children were allowed little contact with their own families. Father Chirouse’s school was closed and replaced by a more military-style education. The result of total immersion into the white man’s world caused the old customs and native languages to become nearly extinct.

Most of the languages have been restored, thanks to the elders who still remembered and who realized their culture was in danger of vanishing. Ancient languages were not written languages, but with dedicated effort, ways of writing the sounds have been found and, with great effort, many of these “lost” languages have been reinstated.

At the Cultural Center, many walls are decorated with small plaques of men and women who have served with the United States Armed Forces. Each wall acknowledges a particular war or period served. The Tulalip Tribes Veteran’s Department has combined forces with other veteran programs to help provide services for returning warriors.

A special exhibit, Coast Salish Canoes, will be on display until June, giving visitors an opportunity to learn about different types of canoes, their construction, and important canoe carvers. The display shows the canoe travel routes in Puget Sound and traditional canoe-based gatherings ranging from canoe races to festivals and journeys. Following a time-line approach, the display shows the history of canoes to present day.

Plan on spending some time at Hibulb Cultural Center. Although it can be self-guided, I recommend joining a guided tour. The short stories and anecdotes are fascinating and informative. To learn more about the Center, visit

Book Review: Crow Planet

crow-planetCrow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt beautifully blends nature and science. Haupt, an award winning nature writer, shares her keen observations about how crows relate to ever-encroaching urbanization.

Crow Planet delves into the fascinating study of these distinctive members of the Corvidae family which also includes jays, magpies, and ravens. The book describes crows’ impressive intelligence, their living habits, and how they’ve adjusted to dwindling natural habitats. The author takes her readers into her West Seattle backyard and shares her own little pocket of wildness. Haupt’s vast knowledge as an observer of nature mixed with her gift of language makes this book of interest to anyone concerned about our planet.

It’s easy to become alarmed about diminishing wildlife, but Haupt presents a viewpoint of hope and inspiration of what individuals can do to enhance nature’s bounty to change the course of events.

I particularly enjoyed the many intriguing crow stories, especially my favorite about a crow following a mail carrier every day for more than two years, walking behind him like a golden retriever. This book is loaded with lore and facts, world concerns and minute details that only a keen observer would notice.

From Crow Planet the reader learns how to really observe. Haupt lists ways to become a student of nature and she emphasizes the beauty of living simply. The book is an informative, well-stated study of crows and how they have adjusted to the planet. Haupt makes a strong point of recognizing the importance of the interconnections of all life.

For more information about the author and her work, visit

Book Review: Liberty’s Christmas

Libertys Christmas

Liberty’s Christmas by Randall Platt follows the unpredictable path of teen Liberty Justice Jones. An unusually bright girl, Liberty says of herself, “A brain like mine requires strict control.”

When Liberty gets even for a trick played on her, she finds herself in deep trouble, at school and at home. The Great Depression has hit Texas hard and the family struggles to make ends meet. In fact, they’re losing the battle. Their home and tree farm are being threatened with foreclosure.

Liberty has a plan, but like many of her plans, she hasn’t worked out all the details. If she could only win a Christmas tree contest being held in Austin, the prize would solve many of their problems.

When her prize tree is “accidently” cut down and hauled away with other trees, Liberty takes drastic action, getting herself and her companion in ever-deepening trouble.

Liberty’s Christmas shows the hardships of the Depression in vivid detail. It was a tough time for many, particularly those already on the edge of poverty. But through it all, a teenage dynamo is determined to make life better for her family. Humor, love, compassion, and resourcefulness bring this book to the forefront of excellence. The book’s glossary identifies regional expressions of the 1930′s.

Reviewer’s Note: I was present when Randall Platt received the coveted WILLA Award for Children’s/Young Adult Fiction & Nonfiction at the Women Writing the West conference in Kansas City, Missouri. When accepting the award, the Northwest author shared that Liberty’s Christmas originally took place in the Northwest, known for its Christmas trees. However, when Texas Tech University Press accepted the book for publication, they requested that she use a Texas setting, explaining that yes, Texas does indeed grow Christmas trees. The resulting regional research involved is a tribute to Platt’s creative talents and dedication to her craft.


Book Review: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

A_Long_Way_Gone2Ishmael Beah, 12 years old, lives in a small Sierra Leone village in West Africa with his father, step-mother and brothers. He loves hip-hop music and, with his secondary-school friends, goes to a neighboring village to show off their dance skills in a talent show. While they are away, anti-government rebels attack their village, causing the villagers to run for their lives, scattering in all directions.

Ishmael and his friends attempt to find their families, but as the war rages, they are forced into hiding. As the boys get deeper into unfamiliar territory, their situation becomes more desperate. They forage for food, sleep where they can, and continue to look for their families. Occasionally they come to other villages, but are met with suspicion or hostility when the people accuse them of being boy soldiers. In some instances the rebels have already ravaged the village and the boys find dead bodies. They witness ghastly scenes where villagers have been tortured and left to die.

Ishmael and his friends, desperate, hungry and homesick, come to a village occupied by the government army. Finally, they feel safe, are given food and a sheltered place to sleep. The boys are manipulated into becoming soldiers, issued clothes, shoes, and guns. They receive training and learn how to kill.

At first Ishmael believes they are fighting for the “good side,” the ones who did not kill their families, but soon, caught up in the madness of war, it becomes hard to discern the good guys from the bad guys.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah is told with arresting and vivid detail. Having lived in Africa for two years with the Peace Corps, I found the book especially interesting. In Gambia, we experienced an attempted coup and 118 of us expatriates sought shelter in a house for eight days. I well remember the feeling of helplessness and dread. But our experiences were nothing compared to Ishmael’s. His journey is a stark reminder of the horrors of war and its resultant life-changing effects. Not everyone would enjoy this book, but I feel it is a well-written, heartrending account of actual events. I can’t say I enjoyed the book as much as I was intrigued with the honest writing of gut-wrenching experiences, and the realization of what mere children, boy soldiers, are experiencing in war-torn African countries.

Thanksgiving in a Far Away Place

Thanksgiving RoosterThanksgiving was almost upon us. Even though it wasn’t a celebrated holiday in West Africa’s The Gambia, we intended to make it a special day and invited two fellow Peace Corps volunteers to join us.

Our chickens were all producing eggs so we didn’t want to slaughter one of them. I decided to buy a live chicken. Buying one already slaughtered, defeathered and prepared to cook was unheard of in this rural, third-world country.

That morning, soon after I arrived at work at the Health Centre, I asked Sister Roberts if live chickens were always available at the market. I didn’t even bother asking about a turkey–I’d never seen one in The Gambia. Sister was familiar with our Thanksgiving. “You’ll want a big bird, Mariama, so you should buy a rooster. But you must leave now or they’ll all be gone. People buy birds early in the morning.”

“Leave now? But I have this work to do.”

“That work can wait. You need to get your Thanksgiving bird.”

So I left the Health Center and walked to the market. Sure enough, the few birds for sale were going fast. I found a large rooster and bought him, probably paying more than I should have. I’d forgotten to ask Sister Roberts what it would cost. It was big and I had my hands full of flapping wings before I could settle him into the crook of my arm.

Planning to put him in our chicken coop, I stopped by the hospital to tell Sister I’d purchased my bird and I’d be back as soon as I took him home and walked back again.

“Why walk all the way home and back again? Here, give him to me.”

She opened a supply closet door, put the rooster on the floor and closed the door. My mind whirled with the idea of a live chicken in a hospital closet.

Once in awhile that day we’d hear a muffled cock-a-doodle-doo coming from the closet. No one else seemed to think it was strange at all.

At the end of the day I picked up my bird and carried him home. I stroked his smooth head feathers. Already I’d grown attached to him, but I steeled myself for his pending demise. I wasn’t looking forward to that part of our Thanksgiving preparations.

I had a renewed appreciation for America’s pilgrims and how they had an even more difficult struggle for food. We added a new level of appreciation and thanksgiving..

Book Review: Cowgirl Up!

cowgirlup-cover-3x5Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women by Heidi M. Thomas provides an exciting insight into women’s role in one of America’s greatest passions, rodeo.

American rodeo started at small ranch gatherings when cowboys showed off their roping, bulldogging (steer wrestling), and riding prowess. In those days, it was pretty much a male sport.

Many ranch girls learned to rope and ride as they helped their fathers, brothers and later their husbands with ranch work. These girls learned to “cowgirl up,” which means to rise to the occasion without whining or complaining. As local competition became popular events, girls got into the spirit and began competing with the men. Girls’ involvement raised some eyebrows, but they persisted, often wearing cumbersome skirts to be less offensive and more ladylike. Even so, many people thought of rodeo cowgirls as “loose women.”

Cowgirl Up! is about these women of rodeo, many of whom started their careers as young as fourteen, competing against and often earning higher points than seasoned cowboys.

The 1920s were rodeo heydays for cowgirls, producing more champion female riders than any time since. These girls knew hardships, but persisted in their rodeo dreams.

Soon organized circuits formed and performers traveled from rodeo to rodeo, paying their own travel expenses and fees, often sleeping in tents. Many women brought their babies with them. It was a tough life for both men and women, but in addition to roping, riding bucking broncs, staying atop a writhing, twisting bull, these women made it their business to still appear feminine when not in the arena.

Two fatal injuries in1929 and 1933 among notable women competitors contributed to eliminating women from the Rodeo Association of America (RAA), later renamed Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), events.

Despite these setbacks, women persisted in rodeo competition, turning to smaller privately-produced rodeos. Many became national stars, sought after by such venues as Madison Square Garden in New York. New events geared toward women were added including trick riding, barrel racing and breakaway roping (where a calf is roped, but not thrown).

Cowgirl Up! is a riveting and personal account of individual Montana women who followed their dreams to hard-won fame. Tenacity is a common thread among their impressive achievements. One thing that surprised me was that despite broken bones, concussions, torn muscles and ligaments, many of these strong women have lived into their nineties.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a notable personality. My favorite is Oprah Winfrey’s “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” That quote perfectly sums up the cowgirls’ struggle for rodeo recognition.

Author Heidi M. Thomas grew up on a working Montana ranch and speaks with authority on rodeo history. Her grandmother rode bucking stock in the early days of rodeo and Thomas’ trilogy–Cowgirl Dreams, Follow the Dream, and Dare to Dream–are fictionalized accounts of her grandmother’s life. Her latest work, Cowgirl Up! is a well-researched history of individual women’s impressive role in rodeo.

For more information about the author and her work, visit