Friday, September 8, 2017

. . . And Hurricane Irma

These are the ruins of the steam-powered rice mill at Butler Plantation, on Butler Island, just south of Darien, Georgia. It's on the Altamaha River and is part of the Sea Islands of Georgia. [The house is actually a later addition--the original house is gone.]

And it appears to be in the path of the impending wrath of Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall. It probably won't be a direct hit; the storm will probably spend itself over the length of Florida (poor Florida!), after having left a wake of destruction across the Caribbean. But this is personal, and I do worry about what's left of Butler Plantation. I just hope that that chimney still stands. There's a national trend of removing anything that might remind us of the slave-holding past, but these things are very important. It's personal for me, because it's essentially the setting of two novels I've written. [For more about Butler Island, have a look-see here.]

So I'm going to cross my fingers, hold my breath, and hope for the best for Butler Island . . .

Sunday, August 13, 2017

. . . And The Virginia Room and Manassas

A flower in the gardens of the
Ratcliffe-Allison House in Fairfax.
Today was a success. Aside from getting a lot of writing done in the bright morning light while sitting in my corner spot in my favorite chair with a cat occasionally stopping by to ask why I wasn't paying her more attention, I also visited the Virginia Room at the Fairfax County Library and hiked part of the Manassas/Bull Run battlefield. And there was a milkshake involved, too, as a reward for 3.5 miles of hiking.

Because I had a great time and I think it'll be informative, I'd like to share a bit of my experiences.

First up, I stopped by the main library in Fairfax County, which is right downtown. The upstairs is the "Virginia Room", dedicated to the history of the state. Let me tell you, there's a lot of history to cover. There's a lot of great local history, too, all of it important stuff. Make no mistake, Virginia has seen a lot. I was focused on Civil War history. I had stumbled across a list of resources in the Virginia Room having to do with Civil War history in the area. There were books about battles, big and small, that took place there in Loudoun County, books about Quakers who remained loyal, and so on. I was interested in one book in particular: Where Did They Stand? This one is about how county residents voted on the secession question and then covers reparations that were (or were not) granted to residents for damages they suffered during the war. I was interested in this because one of my WIPs--in fact the one I'm working on now--involves civilians who suffer loses because of the war. Granted, the story takes place a bit further south, on the main stage of the war. But I figured that, in general, what was true of Loudoun County would be true of the Fredericksburg area.

And what did I learn?

1. General Phillip Sheridan sent a party to burn Loudoun County farms--not the homes, but the barns and crops--as he had done in the Shenandoah.

2. There was a special commission to deal with claims, but that more generally, the Southern Claims Commission dealt with repaying loses sustained by civilians.

3. Civilians could make claims for livestock/goods that were carried away, but they couldn't be repaid for damage to their property, e.g. burned buildings. So, considering that a lot of buildings were burned, the government wasn't very generous.

4. Those who wanted to be repaid by the US government had to show they were loyalists throughout the war. Secessionists need not apply.

5. Only property that had been taken as part of an official act was included. Looting and "inadvertent acts of war" didn't count (bummer for those who, for instance, got a canon ball through their front parlor).

Ratcliffe-Allison House, Fairfax, VA
6. SCC officers evaluating applications for relief reportedly kept on their desk voter lists from the secession ordinances. If you'd voted for secession, you were automatically disqualified. No soup for you.

7. A majority of claims were disallowed.

8. During the war, there was really no formality to how/whether residents were paid for the belongings that were requisitioned. An officer might pay the person on the spot, but more likely he would give them a receipt of some kind to be redeemed later (maybe) or vague promises that the US government would pay up at some later date (...maybe).

After finishing my dive into that book, I decided to glance at the books on the shelves nearby and found a book about field medical services during First and Second Manassas. And I learned:

8. The last of the wounded weren't removed to hospitals from Second Manassas until ten days after the battle. This is interesting/important to me because in my story I have the wounded men cleared out of a field hospital fairly quickly--within three days. However, it takes place two years after Second Manassas, and organization had progressed by that point. Also, just because wounded men lingered in some field hospitals/homes/wherever for ten days doesn't mean that other places weren't cleared out sooner. Say your house was turned into a hospital, and so was a schoolhouse down the street. Maybe all the wounded are moved from your house in two days, but it takes a whole week before they move the wounded men out of the schoolhouse. That's what I'm thinking.

I feverishly made photocopies of all this information, rubbing my hands together in delight like a mad scientist. Can you picture that? Okay, so from the outside, it probably looked a bit more tame, but that was definitely what was going on inside my head: evil genius stuff.

After gathering up my bounty of photocopies, I got in my car and headed for the Manassas battlefield. I wasn't going to see any particular site, and I've been there many times before. I was going there because I wanted to spend time out in the beautiful weather, and battlefields are some of the loveliest, best-preserved, and most peaceful places you'll find. Anyway, it was a beautiful summer's day--not too hot--and I had a blast. Here are some pictures for your edification:

Bull Run

Bull Run

Bull Run

Thursday, July 13, 2017

. . . And The Beguiled

[Warning: the trailer has SPOILERS. I actually would NOT recommend watching it before you see the movie. Also, my review below contains ALL the spoilers.]

This past weekend, I went to see The Beguiled, a movie based on a movie from the '70's starring Clint Eastwood and ultimately on a novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan. It stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Kirsten Dunst, and is directed by Sofia Coppola. I want to pull this movie apart as far as history plot, and themes. Second WARNING: spoilers lie ahead. I'm not going to hold back.

It's a beauty of a film. It's set in "Virginia" in 1864; as the Civil War stretches into it's fourth bloody year, a wounded Yankee soldier is found in the woods and brought back to a young ladies' academy, which is abandoned except for two teachers and five students, all of them women. The scenery drips with mist, steamy sunlight, and Spanish moss. None of it is quite right for Virginia--because it was filmed in Louisiana--but it is undeniably pretty and very Southern.

Our first scene shows young Amy walking through the lush Virginia/Louisiana countryside in search of mushrooms, humming either Aura Lee or Lorena (I wasn't sure which it was at the time and my memory of the tune is too hazy for me to figure it out now). I want to point out that there is essentially no background music. The choice both to limit the music and to choose a few lesser-known, but period-correct and atmospheric songs, was spot-on. The movie is more intense because the only sounds we hear are the insects and the footsteps and the voices. The absence of a score also highlights those few songs that are used.

In any case, as Amy scours the woods for mushrooms, she comes across a wounded Yankee named John McBurney (Colin Farrell). She helps him to the school, where the no-nonsense Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to his leg wound. Pretty soon, he's feeling well enough to sit up and talk. Farrell is charming and attractive as he gets to know the ladies of the seminary. Farrell's natural Irish brogue lends an extra air of romance, which apparently all the women fall prey to. Amy thinks she has found a kindred soul in Farrell's McBurney. Miss Martha find him a reassuring presence when her establishment is in need of some manual labor. Miss Edwina (Dunst), who seems to feel out of place at the seminary, believes she has found someone who can sympathize with her outsider status. Alicia, who is a student but older than the other girls, is a bit of a rogue and sees McBurney as an opportunity to rebel, have some fun, and prove herself a real grown-up. It's really not clear what the others girls think of him. We see much less of them, though they, too, start to simper when he's around. They seem alternately to want his attention and to be afraid of getting it--and sometimes to be afraid of him as a physical force.

There is a lot of tittering and pointed remarks, and the girls all break out their finery to impress McBurney, who generally reacts with barely-suppressed amusement. It all seems harmless (too harmless, perhaps; he doesn't seem threatening, though the story doesn't work well if he's no threat), at least until he whispers in Edwina's ear that he will come to her room that night. When he doesn't come, Edwina goes in search of him and finds him in bed--with Alicia. Edwina and McBurney get in a little tiff, and she ends up pushing him down the stairs (not in anger, exactly). It's not clear-cut really who was "wrong" here. Did McBurney owe Edwina a visit to her bed (maybe)? Should he have gone to Alicia (probably not, given her age)? Should Edwina have pushed him down the stairs (probably not)? But in any case, the fall badly reopens the leg wound that initially brought him to the seminary and that had been healing well. It's such a bad break that Miss Martha decides she has no choice but to amputate the leg.

When he wakes, McBurney is, understandably, upset at having lost a leg. He blames Miss Martha. Did she really punish him for going to Alicia's bed, as he claims? Or was it necessary to amputate his leg in order to save his life, as she claims? Is he justified in his yelling and screaming? Or is he really a danger to the women? As far as the first two, I don't know; maybe a lot of things went through Miss Martha's head when she made that decision. As for the third, I think he was justified, yes. He had just lost his leg, which meant his life was forever changed. He would be a cripple for life. That isn't easy to take. And while he did rampage, he didn't seem to be be making specific, immediate threats, and he could have.

The ladies manage to subdue McBurney and lock him in a room. Are they justified in this? Maybe, since he was on a rampage (though it's not clear they were in danger). But was it wise? Probably not. It only made him more angry. Eventually, he escapes the room and institutes a sort of reign of terror. But Edwina steps in and sleeps with him. The timing is peculiar and Edwina's motive is unclear. Was she trying to simply calm him down? Was she just super attracted to his anger and rage, to the fact that he was a damaged, broken man? In any case, it did (apparently--why?) work to calm him. But in the meantime, Miss Martha has been trying to think of how "to deal with" him. One of the girls--Marie, who's otherwise been fairly quiet--suggests that they poison him with mushrooms. Amy goes to pick some, and at dinner they feed him the mushrooms. He is calm, polite, and apologetic, but no one stops him from eating the mushrooms. The only one who isn't in on the plot is Edwina. She's shocked when he falls to the floor, dead. None of the women except Edwina even blinks.

In the final scene, they sew McBurney's body into a shroud and carry it outside the seminary's gate, tying a blue rag there to signal Confederate troops.

Although it flows logically, it didn't all quite click, maybe because nothing feels quite big enough. We have to justify  murder, after all. Although we see some primping and giggling, we more or less have to take it on faith that all these women are dangerously fascinated with McBurney. It all seems quite innocent and harmless, and the story would have come together much better if it had all felt more sinister. That goes for McBurney's role, as well. He seems like a man pleased but somewhat bemused by all the female attention. He doesn't seem threatening, in spite of the fact that his maleness in the presence of so many young women is (apparently) meant to be inherently threatening. Frankly, if he had tipped his hat politely and left the house, it would have fit perfectly well with the interactions that are depicted through the first half of the movie. And when he does end up in Alicia's bed, it doesn't feel (to me) like a grand betrayal of the other women. Perhaps that's why the ending didn't feel justified: the actual threat he posed seemed minimal (especially since he's hobbling around on one leg!).

Still, the final scene outside the gates fit on a plot level. But it didn't make practical sense. The blue rag on the gate has been mentioned previously as a signal to passing Confederates that there is a Yankee prisoner within to be picked up (in this case, it's McBurney's body). But it's been established that soldiers pass through at most every few days. So the body will be lying there for a long time, and will both rot and be torn into by wild animals in the meantime. And when Confederate soldiers do see their signal, they will. . . what? They won't take the body with them. They'll bury it, obviously, which the ladies would be better-served to just do themselves instead of letting it rot until someone else can do it. Why would they wait for the soldiers to do it, aside from a desire to avoid the physical labor? The only sensible course of action would be for them to bury the body themselves.

What does it all mean, all this murder and girl-on-girl jealousy? Who is in charge? Who is the victim? How did historical views of gender roles shape the characters? How did the (more) modern views of gender shape the characters (who were created by a 20th century writer)? As I see it, it's an intriguing look at both how women can work against each other and together--because the women here do both. For a large part of the movie, they are all at cross-purposes, because they are all hoping to get McBurney's particular attention. Now, I've heard that this is anti-feminist. Why should women lose their minds just because there's a man there? It's a legitimate question. But the answer is there in the premise. McBurney is charming and wounded and "other", and he's the first man who they've had much interaction with in a very long time.

Also--and this to me is an important point--women are not always strong and moral and upright. The world's problems would actually not be solved if women ran everything, because women are, actually, human. We don't all have the same wants and needs, and sometimes we feel the need to work against one another. Is this the fault of patriarchy? Maybe. Or maybe it's just because we're flawed human beings. Sometimes we make mistakes. So, no, I don't think that the women all vying for a man's attention is anti-feminist per se, and all the more so because at the end the women do end up working together to--oopsies--murder McBurney. In the end, there's a message of solidarity there. Even Edwina, who didn't participate in the murder and seems uneasy about it, doesn't overtly protest. Yes, there are some themes of female obsession with men and female jealousy, but there are also themes of female solidarity and triumph, of women trying to rescue a desperate situation, and of women who don't give in to a male presence.

Now, there is another, more troubling, matter that has been remarked upon extensively: the erasure of a mixed-race character and an enslaved black character. This Slate article makes astute points about the erasure of not one but two black/mixed-race women. The reason for the omission is fairly obvious: Coppola didn't want to delve into the deep, murky, and fraught waters of race relations. Also, I can understand from a story perspective that, as a director, she wanted to have a laser-like focus on McBurney and the women, and that race would create a whole new set of subplots and subtexts. The problem, as the Slate article points out, is that when you set a story in the South during the Civil War, and you have a Union soldier crossing paths with Southern women, those murky waters really can't be avoided. Or, rather, they can be, but the avoidance is painfully obvious. Saying once, offhandedly, that the slaves have left is really not nearly enough. And quite frankly, a bit more subplot and subtext would have done this movie some good. Basically, this is 2017, and in this day and age you simply can't get away with glossing over these issues. Plus, as the Slate article points out, the character Mattie, who is enslaved, isn't infatuated with McBurney like the others, which would have been a very nice counterpoint.

Lastly, I wanted to say a word about the costumes. The costumes were, on the whole, lovely and floaty and, well, white. The symbolism for purity and virginity is not subtle. I did find the lack of crinolines (hoop skirts) questionable, though I'm content to say that it was late in the war and the ladies were isolated, so being super-fashionable didn't matter, and that these women were doing things like hoeing the vegetable patch. There's no counter-argument to the fact that gardening in a crinoline ain't easy, but as for the first part, well, they all get gussied up when McBurney comes down for dinner, so surely they would break out the crinolines for the occasion. Besides, they each seem to have at least a handful of fine dresses left, so surely their crinolines haven't fallen to dust just because it's 1864. In any case, Frock Flicks gives a rundown of the costumes here.

Having just picked apart plot, character, and thematic issues, I probably sound as though I didn't like the movie. But I did--I enjoyed it for many reasons. The setting and atmosphere are almost worth the price of admission. I appreciated that the accents weren't over-the-top. Though the subdued tone made it a little hard to buy into the whole murder thing, it did strike me as a nice contrast to the bombast and melodrama of some movies. I enjoyed Miss Martha's cool, pious efficiency and that she didn't waver from that. The performances were uniformly strong, especially Farrell's. It also made for some tense, fun story-telling. Though I can nitpick and say that the tone didn't quite justify the ending, the story flowed along neatly and quickly. Though the movie is beautifully atmospheric, it doesn't ever slow down. These are no small things, and they make for a good movie--though not a great one.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

. . . And a Shilling

When she was found, unconscious and bloody in the front seat of an abandoned car in the middle of the woods, she had a shilling in her pocket.

The shilling was found in the pocket of the blue pea coat she wore—a bit worn about the edges, old, with no maker’s label and the faint whiff of camphor about it. The rest of her clothes—t-shirt and jeans, simple espadrilles—were the same: well-kept but old, no labels and no sign of identification.

 Thus begins one of my completed WIPs (works in progress). The manuscript isn't ready to be shared with the world, but it is something I've worked on sedulously over the last few years (part of it set in 2015, which was the "present" when I wrote it!). It's undergone major overhauls and a complete rewrite. Finally, it's in a form I deem to be acceptable. It needs a polish, but eventually I will enlist the help of beta readers. Unfortunately, "real life" is keeping me busy at the moment.

The point is that the shilling that's mentioned in the opening line, while not integral to the plot, plays a part in the story--largely a symbolic one. It adds a touch of mystery: the setting is Pennsylvania and the "she" in question is a young woman who wakes from a coma with no knowledge of who she is or how she came to be in that car. The rest of the WIP is about her discovering the answers to why she was where she was, where the shilling came from, and why it's from 1913 (the date is later specified).

Me being me, I wanted a little memento. I enjoy making artwork or wearing jewelry that has some connection to my writing. In this case, the "she" of this story is alternately called Wendy and Alice. I have a bracelet with an illustration and quote from Alice in Wonderland, and I painted a small picture based on one of the original Alice illustrations. I plan to work on a Peter Pan-themed one, too, when I get a chance.

In any case, it occurred to me that a 1913 shilling is an actual object that exists and I might be able to get my grubby little hands on one. So I searched eBay, and lo and behold: 1913 shillings for $10. I'm hardly rich, but I figured I could afford that. So I bough it, and now I have my shilling and, well, I'm chuffed!

On the left is the profile of George V. The inscription is Latin for "George V, by the grace of god ("dei gra[tia]") King of Great Britain (Britt[annia] Omn[ia] Rex])". On the other side is the year, the denomination, and another Latin inscription meaning "defender of the faith" ("fid[ei] def[ensor]") and "emperor of India" ("Ind[iae] Imp[erator]").

Friday, June 23, 2017

Update on the Lock-keeper's House

I've written in the past about the Lock-keeper's House, one of the oldest buildings on the National Mall in DC, and a remnant of DC's less glamorous past.

I have two things to add. First, the work has gotten underway, thusly:

It kind of looks like it's been patched up with cardboard and duct tape, though I'm sure that not what it is. Also, though the picture is bad, it says that the Lock-keeper's House is moving "only 50 feet." Which is good, I guess? It will at least get it away from the (very) busy street.

Second, there's this article about the remnants of the Washington City Canal. The "lock" part of "Lock-keeper's House" refers to locks on the Washington City Canal, which ran under what is now Constitution Avenue. I had no idea, but apparently you can actually kayak right into part of the old canal, in a tunnel under the street:

I seriously want to do that someday.

Monday, June 5, 2017

. . . And Wonder Woman Mixed with WWI

Ah, superhero movies. They've become as ubiquitous and constant as a the sound of a river flowing to the sea. The money, likewise, flows from the pockets of movie-goers into the pockets of movie executives. I like the occasional superhero movie. I mostly like the ones that don't act like Superhero Movies with a capital S and M--you know, the ones that are just movies first.

Wonder Woman was one of those superhero movies that was a movie first. The "superhero" part did come back to bite it in the end (and by "the end" I mean the third act), but it succeeded spectacularly by really respecting the audience as well as the themes and making it work in a context that by all rights should be somewhat ridiculous (she's a bloody goddess; her family are bloody Amazons, literal Amazons).

But what really got my interested going into this movie, much more than the fact that it was a female-led superhero movie or that it was Wonder Woman's first big screen adaptation or whatever, was the World War I setting. I was a little disconcerted by the confusion the trailer caused. So many people seemed to think it was World War II. It's a little upsetting that people can't tell the difference in uniforms and weaponry. Also a little distressing was a video review in which the video reviewer quite sedulously avoided naming the time period the movie took place in, because he clearly had no idea when WW1 took place.

Which is one reason I was excited, because it would give a little more exposure of a wide audience to the Great War.

It didn't disappoint. Overall, the depiction of the time period and the war was really good. Not only did they got the facts right--they mostly did--they also got the tone right and hit some of the most important themes and lessons that emerged from that war. Those themes inform and shape the entire movie, and they're universal. The main theme: there isn't necessarily a Big Bad you can kill to make the world Right again. We're our own enemies.

The Great War was messy. It was messy in terms of politics and in terms of the deaths it caused. There was no good reason for the war, not really. it was simply a series of political dominoes that led to all-out war. In this way, it's a perfect setting to explore the moral ambiguity of war and good versus evil. Unlike in the Second World War, there was no clear "Bad Guy". Wonder Woman uses that to its advantage, for instance when Steve Trevor, Diana/Wonder Woman's male counterpart, says that he's done terrible things, too, in the service of what he things is ultimately right. This even filters down to a moment when Diana wants to go directly to the Front, but he pulls her back and says that first they have to deliver the notebook he stole. She still sees Good and Bad, and thinks that killing Ares will erase the bad. Steve sees a messy conflict where delivering information can be a thousand times more vital than storming No Man's Land.

The political messiness was mirrored in literal messiness. The trenches were muddy and miserable places. The deaths were ugly and horrifying. Perhaps worst of all were the gas attacks, which were unleashed for the first time in April 1915. The gas would blind men and/or damage their lungs so that they drowned in their own fluids. It was, along with machine guns and tanks and airplanes, one of the new horrors of warfare unleashed in the Great War.

So I appreciated the fact that the MacGuffin (look it up) they chase is a new and improved version of poison gas to be unleashed just as the Armistice is about to be signed. I don't know that it was handled particularly well, but I appreciated that that was the angle they took.

I liked that Steve had to keep emphasizing that this war was nothing like anything Diana had seen. I thought they did a good job depicting the ugliness and horror of the trenches and the war-torn towns, within the confines of a PG-13 superhero movie. As far as the time period--I thought they handled Diana's interaction with a very unfamiliar world intelligently and without making Diana seem stupid or too naive. The scenes with her and the secretary were wonderful. And they give more than a passing nod to the fact that Diana is not dressed AT ALL appropriately for Edwardian London. In many movies like this, she would just walk around in God knows what and there would be a few gasps and then it would be okay. Nope. They had to make sure a few times that she wasn't traipsing around in a breastplate and miniskirt.

Now I have to go into a few things I did not like, especially in regards to the time period. While the scene of her crossing No Man's Land is awesome to see, I just . . . don't quite believe it. I suppose she's basically bulletproof, but I don't think that even with super speed she could dodge that many guns firing on her at once.

The Germans appeared to be very Nazi-like. This isn't really accurate. While they were militaristic and had, in some ways, precipitated the war, they were not evil like the Nazis. So it rubbed me the wrong way to make them mustache-twirling villains.

Speaking of mustaches, and this isn't entirely related to my critique of the depiction of the time period, can we talk about David Thewlis's mustache? It worked just fine while he was Sir Patrick. But later, when he revealed himself as Ares? Then it did not work at all. It looked silly. Anyway, more on that twist later.

I was also a little baffled that the bad guy--Not Ares--was named Ludendorff. Why? Ludendorff was a real man, a real general in WW1, and he did not die in the war. He died in the '30's! So why make him a real person but have him die twenty years too early and be an evil bastard? Why not give him a different name? Also, aside from the oddity of being named for a real person but not being that person at all, he was kind of a useless character, and what was with that crazy white stuff he kept sniffing? There seemed no point to it.

There were a few plot holes that even I noticed, especially in act 3. For instance, Dr. Poison (who was a weak villain) appears to create a HUGE amount of her newest poison in about 24 hours. How does she manage that? And what is the crazy aircraft that its put it, that Steven flies to its--and his--doom at the end? The one he crashes in at the beginning--little more than a few sticks and some canvas--is more typical of the period. The one that holds the poison gas is . . . not.

Speaking of the poison gas . . . Well, first of all it's basically the third act of The Dark Knight, substituting the Bat Wing for Whatever the Hell Steve was Flying and atomic bomb for poison gas. The same goes for this as for the bomb in Dark Knight: fallout. Just because he flew it up into the air and exploded it doesn't mean that the poison gas wouldn't effect those in the area. It could fall out of the sky like nuclear fallout. Second, there must've been some better way to dispose of it, surely?

Still, that sequence is saved by the interactions between Steve and Diana before he leaves. We actually care about both characters and about them together (the actors have great chemistry) so I was willing to happily overlook the somewhat questionable assumptions we were asked to make.

My biggest issue was the descent into a sloshy CGI Big Fight Scene. It's apparently required for every superhero movie, but they're all the same and mostly they are just a lot of noise. In this case, it was rescued by the fact that at least no cities are being destroyed and, again, we care about the characters. But I didn't care about Diana and Ares (with his silly mustache) frolicking around in CGI glory amoungst CGI flames and explosions.

This may be a crazy idea, but I would have had no Ares. I would have had Diana kill Ludendorff and realize that there is no Ares, and that's the arc. She learns that she was placing her trust in a magic-bullet kind of theory that was a myth. Of course, it's a superhero movie, and the idea that there is no Ares wouldn't jive with what has been established on this world (Zeus and Amazons and whatnot). So I don't think my idea would work for this movie. But in a slightly different context, I think that would serve the story best.

I think those are all my observations.

Monday, May 29, 2017

. . . And The Great War

I know that some of you may not be very familiar with World War One, aka The Great War. I know that it may seem obscure and unintelligible, most especially to my American friends who are taught more or less nothing about it in school. The United States played a significant role in the war, but that role was (relatively) brief, and American casualties were (relatively) much smaller than that of other countries.

BUT, it is still an utterly fascinating period, when warfare--and medicine--were becoming recognizably modern. Obviously, medicine constantly evolves, but times of war seem to really accelerate the pace, or at least put the changes into focus. I've done quite a bit of research on Civil War medicine, which saw advances particularly in plastic surgery. Still, medicine was still very basic by modern standards. Just fifty years later, however, the field of medicine was almost unrecognizable. Germ theory had revolutionized the way medicine was conceived of at its most basic level. Not only was it finally clear what caused diseases, we could even see the little monsters. And with that knowledge, infections could, with careful attention, be prevented to some degree. Surgery improved by leaps and bounds and the danger of post-surgical infection went down dramatically thanks to simple sanitization. There were new anesthetics and antiseptics, and drugs like cocaine were used to alleviate pain. Blood tranfusions became viable and common (which, by the way, plays a major part in one of my WIPs). Doctors were more professionalized, and scientific research was more regularized. X-rays (even mobile x-ray units) came into use to spot broken bones and other internal problems. Motor ambulances and trains got the wounded to hospitals quicker.

But there was still one major problem: while doctors knew what caused disease and had tools to fight the advent of infection, there was nothing much they could do once an infection set in: there were no antibiotics. It was a paradox. They knew what was wrong but couldn't fix it. It wouldn't be until penicillin was discovered in the '40's that we would have effective antibiotics.

In any case, the Smithsonian put on a small exhibition about medicine in the Great War, and it is fabulous:

For being so small, it packs a punch. The website provides beautiful images, and you can zoom in close for magnificent details. I went to the National Museum of American History to see it myself, but you get a great view from your living room computer, too. The exhibit talks about how enlistees were measured for physical and mental fitness before they could join the ranks, about women in the war and professional training for medical personnel, and about the care of wounds and the wounded. I was interested in the role of women in the war, since one of my characters is a VAD nurse. The Smithsonian happened to also have several ladies' uniforms on display as part of a different exhibit. No VAD uniforms; VADs were British, and the exhibit was about the American experience of the war. These uniforms were from various organizations, such as the Army Signal Corps. Here's a link to that exhibit. The x-ray machine looks like something from Jules Verne, and the medical chests and belts really bring home the reality of what the medical officers were facing. It can be hard, staring through a glass case, to put the objects in context and really understand how they were used and the stories they tell. 

My favorite part, though, and the reason I made the trip to the museum, was to see the hypodermic needles. Yes, hypodermic needles. They were in use by the time of the Civil War, but they weren't all that widely used. By the time of the Great War, they were ubiquitous. The reason I particularly wanted to see a WW1 syringe was that a syringe plays a major part in that same WIP that involves a VAD. It's filled with cocaine because the male main character has a bit of a habit. I realize that's somewhat cliche, but the context is very unusual, and so is the use of the syringe. But it any case, I geeked out just a little bit and took some pictures.

This was a fun side-trip for me, and it was a reminder that no matter how many times you may have been to a museum, there's always more to see, especially when it's a museum like the American History Museum here in DC.

Hypodermic needle, shown here without the case it comes with. Click here to see the Smithsonian item details

Per the Smithsonian website: Hypodermic syringe kit: US Medical Department around 1918: U.S. medical officers carried hypodermic syringe kits on their belts with potent drugs such as morphine, strychnine, and cocaine to combat pain and shock.