Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

January 29, 2013

True Confessions of an inspiring lady

Last April, I received an email from a woman named Gretchen E. Ganas, who thanked me for writing Velva Jean Learns to Drive, and who told me about her own book, which she wondered if I would read and, hopefully, endorse. I have so little reading time that normally I have to say no to requests like this, but I couldn’t resist Gretchen or her book, True Confessions of a Dying Lady: How to Lie and Bribe Your Way Into Heaven.

In 1983, Gretchen was diagnosed with cervical cancer. In 2001, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, which resulted in having part of her lung removed. Early last year, she was diagnosed with Stage IV mantle cell lymphoma. This time, she was given six months to a year to live.

Due to allergies, she cannot take chemotherapy or radiation (though she isn’t sure she would have done so anyway). Instead, she has done what she calls “literary therapy”– writing down her life and adventures in one rowdy and rollicking memoir, and sharing her particular brand of well-earned wisdom (as well as her own delightful illustrations).

I lost my father to cancer in 2002, and because of that, I typically avoid books and movies about cancer or any terminal illness– they’re just too upsetting and sad. But Gretchen– who is brave and bold and bright– has made me laugh and cry (the good kind of cry) and focus on the fact that, as she points out, this dying stuff is all just a part of life. This is a woman who truly makes the most of every moment. She is inspiring.

As I wrote in my blurb for True Confessions of a Dying Lady, “I recommend this book to anyone who has: experienced aging, gone to the hospital, struggled with another’s illness (particularly cancer) or been ill themselves, loved, lost, or lived. In short, True Confessions of a Dying Lady is for everyone. You’ll be moved, entertained, enlightened, comforted, and, most of all, you will laugh out loud. It’s wickedly funny. It’s also an absolute joy. Be warned though—don’t begin True Confessions if you’ve only got a few minutes because you will want to read the entire book, start to finish, in one sitting. And then you’ll want to read all your favorite parts to friends, family, neighbors, and random people on the street. Ganas may be a ‘dying lady,’ but she embraces life as much as anyone I know.”

So please read, enjoy, and spread the word. And then read the sequel: More True Confessions of a Dying Lady: Where Did I Go Wrong.

For more on Gretchen, listen to her interview with Growing Bolder and follow her on Twitter.

January 23, 2013

The Guilty Pleasure

I once read that Charlize Theron, while filming the movie Monster, cleared her mind after long and grueling days on the set from the intensity of playing a serial killer by watching The Bachelorette.

When I was working on my first book, my mother was working on her third, the first comprehensive biography of photographer Edward Steichen. It was then that she introduced me to the necessity of having at least one guilty pleasure, but preferably more, to sustain me throughout the long, grueling, solitary process of bringing a book to life. Her big guilty pleasure at the time: Baywatch.

I have certain guilty pleasure staples which have helped me through the writing of several books— Supernatural, 90210, The Bachelor, Revenge, and, most recently, Ghost Adventures. Currently, I’m working on more than one project, but the largest and most time-consuming and brain-draining is the rewrite and extensive edit of the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde.

Ghost Adventures is a kind of “reality” Hardy Boys, featuring three paranormal investigators from Las Vegas, Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, and Aaron Goodwin. (Zak’s the muscly, ghost-taunting leader, Nick the poker-faced one, and Aaron– my favorite– is the bald, bearded one who gets easily spooked.) The show first aired in 2008 and, in its eighth season, remains the Travel Channel’s highest rated series.

Using night vision cameras and various ghost-hunting equipment, the trio is famously locked down from dusk till dawn in such spooky locations as the Lizzie Borden House, the Edinburgh Vaults, the Winchester Mystery House, the Eastern State Penitentiary, England’s Hell Fire Caves, and various asylums, hotels, nightclubs, lighthouses, and frontier towns with dark and twisted pasts. They’ve even visited Loretta Lynn in her haunted Kentucky home, and talked to the ghost of Johnny Cash while visiting his Jamaican plantation. Each episode is comfortably similar– Zak taunts and bosses both the ghosts and his crew (and sometimes gets possessed), Nick doesn’t smile and invites the spirits to “use my energy,” and the ever-affable Aaron is used as bait.

It’s wonderful. While I’m watching, I don’t have to do a thing. No research, no outlining, no coming up with ideas and storylines out of thin air, no writing, no editing. For that precious hour (or two, depending on how many episodes I go through), I just turn my brain off and let the guys entertain me.

Next to the sometimes chill-inducing shadow images and EVP’s (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) they often capture, the very best thing about each episode is the sordidly fascinating in-depth history they relate about each place– the only ghost investigation show to do this– and Aaron’s wide-eyed reactions.

So thank you, Ghost Adventures, for seeing me through this stressful time. You’re a much appreciated healing balm for an overextended mind– a kind of brief spa break for the girl who doesn’t have time to go to the spa.

Have any guilty pleasures? Please share them! And enjoy this little clip from the show:

January 17, 2013

Move over, James Bond — seven decades later, lady spies receive their due

This week, an article I wrote in tribute to some courageous female spies appeared in the HuffPost, and I wanted to rerun it here. These are just a few of the remarkable women who inspired Velva Jean’s own spy journey in Becoming Clementine. I’ll be highlighting others soon…

Nancy Wake died in 2011 at the age of 98. The Germans once described this former World War II spy as “the white mouse” because of her ability to evade capture. She killed a Nazi officer with her bare hands. She ordered the execution of a fellow female spy, because she believed the woman was working for the Germans. Before her death, the United States awarded Wake the Medal of Freedom, Great Britain presented her with the George Medal and France gave her its highest military prize — the Legion d’Honneur. As the New York Times reported, “Ms. Wake received so many medals for her wartime service… that she lived out her old age on the proceeds from their sale.”

If only this were true of the other daring women who spied in World War II — some 3,000 in Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive), and an estimated 4,500 in America’s OSS, or Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Last October, the head of Israel’s national Intelligence agency stated, “Women have a distinct advantage in secret warfare.”

Before the war, a good number of these women had been stay-at-home wives and mothers. But wartime found them going to work in Washington, D.C. or in England as code breakers and intelligence analysts, or dropped into France or Africa as couriers and spies. They worked with the French Resistance and the Allies to recover missing or captured agents or prisoners of war. They gathered invaluable, critical information. They helped downed pilots and Jews escape over the Spanish border. They hid precious works of art from the Germans. Before the war’s end, many would be captured and executed by the enemy.

Yet most will never be recognized and too many of them are already forgotten. However, recently the spotlight has been cast on a few of these brave heroines.

On November 8, 2012, seven decades after the death of an Indian princess, a statue was unveiled in London. The statue bears tribute to the courageous and beautiful Princess Noor Inayat Khan — Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine — who was the first woman radio operator dropped into France by the SOE.

She was the descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Her father was Indian, her mother American. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in luxury and comfort, playing the harp and writing stories. She later studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. At the end of 1940, the family fled France (escaping to England by boat) before the government surrendered to Germany. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator, and was recruited by the SOE in 1942. She was sent back to Paris a year later. There, under the codename Madeleine, she sent vital messages to London while trying to evade the Germans. In October 1943, she was arrested and tortured, but she refused to talk. In September 1944, at Dachau, she was executed by the SS. She was 30.

England’s Princess Royal dedicated the statue at Gordons Square not far from the house where Noor was living when she left on her last mission. Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said at the November 8 ceremony, “We owe our freedom to women like Noor Inayat Khan.” A film of her life is now in the works.

In October of 2012, George Clooney announced his latest project — a movie titled The Monuments Men (based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel), starring Daniel Craig, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, an art historian and member of the French resistance.

Ms. Valland was an employee at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. The Germans took over the museum in October 1940 and used it to store paintings and other works of art stolen from private French — mostly Jewish — collections. Valland was the only museum worker allowed to stay on. In the eyes of the Germans, she was nothing to worry about. She was quiet and plain, a dowdy spinster who followed instructions. But, unbeknownst to the Nazis, Valland spoke German, and because of this she was able to track the shipments of stolen artwork from Paris to locations throughout the Reich. On August 1, 1944, days before the Liberation of Paris, she notified the French Resistance that the Germans were planning to smuggle out five boxcars filled with art. The Resistance stopped the train from leaving Paris. Thanks to her efforts and her meticulous, covert record-keeping, hundreds — if not thousands — of pieces of artwork were located and returned to France.

Elizabeth Peet McIntosh grew up in Honolulu, where she learned Japanese and yearned to travel and have adventures overseas. Her father worked for the Washington Herald as a sports editor, and Betty, as she was called, soon followed him into reporting. She was working as a correspondent for Scripps Howard near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. She soon left Hawaii for the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, D.C. In 1943, she was covering an exhibit of sleeping bags stuffed with chicken feathers at the Department of Agriculture (not exactly the grand adventure she’d dreamed of as a girl), when she was approached by an official from the OSS. He said, “Are you interested in a secret overseas assignment?” She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”

At the OSS training facility in Bethesda, Maryland, she learned to shoot a .32-caliber pistol. She swore an oath never, under any cost, to reveal OSS secrets. And then she was sent to India. Her mission: to create deadly propaganda by concocting “fake but authentic-sounding rumors, news stories and radio reports to make the enemy citizenry think their troops were losing and that they should give up.” From there, she was sent to China (with fellow spy Julia Child), where she unknowingly participated in a plot to kill Japanese soldiers, delivering a bomb disguised as coal to a Chinese secret agent. She was one of the few women assigned to the OSS division of Morale Operations.

After the war, she went to work for the CIA, authored a memoir and the book Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS. In March of 2012, the 97-year-old was honored as one of the 2012 Virginia Women in History by the Library of Virginia.

In an era when most women were expected to stay at home and tend to the house and the children, these were women ahead of their time. When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, there were 460,000 women in the military and over 6.5 million in civilian war work. In Nazi Germany, Hitler forbade women to work in German weapons factories because he felt that a woman’s place was at home. Seventy years later, we continue to honor the courageous spying women who — thankfully — did not agree with that.

At the recent ceremony for Noor Inayat Khan, Princess Anne said she hoped the new statue will “remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory?”

January 14, 2013

Dear reader (aka Yes, the WAC did serve in WWII Paris)

One of the best things about being an author is hearing from readers of my books. I love receiving emails and notes and comments and questions and feedback. But every now and then, you hear from someone who takes offense at something you’ve written and has a giant bone to pick.

One man wrote me recently to tell me he found one particular portion of Becoming Clementine “insulting to anyone with the minimum of knowledge of contemporary history! And Gossie in a WAC uniform, no less!” (The exclamation marks are his.)

The apparently offensive passage dealt with one of my characters– the aforementioned Gossie– who works as a member of the 3341st Signal Battalion in German-occupied Paris during World War II. I had no idea, when writing the book, that the details of Gossie’s work, and the wearing of that uniform, would cause such an uproar. (Other readers have also written to question the plausibility of such a thing, and to take me to task for having Gossie wear her WAC uniform in public.)

So I submit the evidence here.

Not only were these women of the 3341st Signal Battalion very much in German-occupied Paris during World War II, they did courageous and daring work. (Work too extensive for me to detail here, but those who are interested can follow the links at the end of this post to learn more.) I based Gossie’s experiences on their first-hand accounts.

One of the members of that battalion, Ida E. Simpson, vividly remembered the training her WAC unit received in England, the deployment to France, the landing on war-ravaged Normandy Beach, and the arrival in Paris in the fall of 1944, where she spent a year operating field switchboards. As she recalled, “When we got to Paris, they assigned us to the 3341st Signal Battalion. We sent messages back and forth across the English Channel and all over the European Theater.”

The women put through hundreds of telephone calls every day. During each call they had to say, “Will you guard your conversation, please? The enemy may be listening.”

The women stayed in Paris until after Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day. “Before we left France, the French people wanted to show their appreciation for women who served there during the war,” Simpson said. “So they had a big parade for us that went all the way from the Arc de Triomphe to the end of the Champs-Elysees.”

You can read more about the work and life of the WAC in occupied Paris here, read an obituary of a WAC who served in Paris here, and read a portion of Ms. Simpson’s interview on the U.S. Department of Defense website.

In my reply to this man, I told him that while I certainly welcome and appreciate comments re. my work, I do expect them to be well substantiated and well informed, particularly when I am being scolded.

To deny these women their history and their selfless contribution is insulting to them and the brave and dangerous work that they did!

(The exclamation mark is mine.)

January 4, 2013

“Dream good” and “read lots good books”

Each new year is like a clean slate, a fresh start, a chance to make goals and follow through on them. It’s a time to refocus and reorganize, like a kind of life spring cleaning.

This week I’m thinking about 2013 and all that lies ahead and making my own mental list, even if I’m not writing things down– mostly to do with writing projects, career focus, spending time with my mom and family, being healthy, and possibly learning another language (something that typically appears on my list each year) like Swedish or French. Or both!

As I come up with my own resolutions, I’m enjoying reading ones written by others, from Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain to Jonathan Swift to Marilyn Monroe.

My very favorite comes from legendary American folk musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who wrote this funny, warm, and wise list in 1942 when he was thirty.

1. Work more and better
2. Work by a schedule
3. Wash teeth if any
4. Shave
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed clothes often
13. Read lots good books
14. Listen to radio a lot
15. Learn people better
16. Keep rancho clean
17. Dont get lonesome
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hoping machine running
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have company but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance better
27. Help win war — beat fascism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love everybody
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight

Here’s to staying glad, loving everybody, keeping that hoping machine running, and reading lots good books!

December 27, 2012

HOME for the Holidays

One of my dearest friends, Angelo Surmelis, is a brilliant designer. I’ll be featuring him in a post to come, but here’s what you need to know for now: he’s a genius. He’s talented beyond measure. And he’s an amazing person. Angelo and I “knew each other When,” as we say– years before he was designing full time and I was writing for a living, back when we were paying our dues and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming of things to come.

Now his Angelo: HOME line is sold in some 100 stores nationwide, everywhere from amazon.com to Overstock.com to QVC, but a little over two months ago, he opened his very first HOME store, right here in downtown Los Angeles inside the historic Eastern Building. I couldn’t be prouder.

In addition to his gorgeous (and affordable!) line of furniture, bedding, and pillows, Angelo also sells books from the Jennifer and Penelope Niven library. Last week, Angelo: HOME hosted Mom and me for a special mother-daughter author holiday event. We discussed how we got our starts and how we came to write the books we’ve written. We also talked about our latest books, Thornton Wilder: A Life and Becoming Clementine.

Briana Harley was our musical guest, and for those who don’t know her, she is brilliant and talented beyond measure herself. Briana first read Velva Jean Learns to Drive when she was fifteen years old, and found in Velva Jean a kindred spirit– Briana, like Velva Jean, is from North Carolina. Also like Velva Jean, she is a guitar player and singer who’s been playing music since she was a little girl. I first met Briana when she wrote a song inspired by Velva Jean– “Live Out There,” the song that now appears at the very end of Becoming Clementine.

In honor of the recent holiday, Briana wrote a lovely, poignant, cozy-round-the-fire tune called “A Fair Mountain Christmas,” which captures the spirit of Velva Jean and her beloved mountain home.

Listen to it here!

And why not browse and shop Angelo’s designs while you’re at it? He has some wonderful sofas and chairs, perfect to read a book in…

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the event. Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story

When I was nine years old, my parents and I moved from Maryland (where we lived on the water and sailed and ate fresh seafood, which we often caught ourselves, and spent time on our own little sliver of beach) to landlocked Indiana (where a narrow creek ran through our back yard).

I wasn’t one bit happy about this move, and our very first Christmas there I wrote a story, which I also illustrated, that… shall we say… reflected this.

All these years later, on Christmas Eve 2012, I’d like to share it with you.

The Late Christmas

In Hoosier City everything was a dark gray. The mail boxes were gray, the people’s clothes were gray, what they ate was gray, and the sky was gray. Not one person was happy.

One day a jolly old man came to Hoosier City. He met Mr. Vox Poxie, the king of gray. Mr. Vox Poxie inquired what he was doing on his property.

“Why I…” the trespasser stuttered.

“Enough!” commanded the king. The king led Santa Claus (for that was his name) through the town. Santa stared sadly at the people. An old woman who was hanging battered clothes on an old clothesline in her tiny, gray yard almost broke his heart.

They walked on. Santa Claus eyed the shabby houses with little children playing unhappily in their yards. A tear rolled down his cheek and soaked his beard thoroughly.

Finally they reached Mr. Vox Poxie’s castle. The king invited Santa Claus inside. “Now once again, why are you here?” the king inquired.

“Well I…”

“Enough!” said the king. Santa Claus stared at the king, thinking this man is crazy! “Well now, what is your name name?” asked the king.

“Kris Kringle. But everybody calls me Santa Claus.”

“Oh well, why are you here then?” asked the king.

“Well I…” Santa Claus started.

“Enough chatter!” cried the king. “Let me show you around.” Santa Claus followed the king through room after room until they were back in the main room.

“You never did tell me why you were here,” said the king.

“I did try, you know,” said Santa. “My sleigh broke down. You see, Prancer and Dancer have this thing going between each other, Dancer being a girl, and Prancer being a…”

“Enough!” shouted the king.

“You might not get any Christmas presents if you keep that temper,” said Santa. “Well anyway, they stopped flying and started to talk, and the sleigh stopped, and here I am,” finished Santa, quite out of breath from talking.

“Oh, I see,” said the king.

“Do you know of a hotel that I could stay in?”

“Oh heavens no!” exclaimed the king. “You can sleep in my wife’s room.”

“Won’t she mind?” asked Santa.

“Her? She’s dead!” said the king.

“Oh,” said Santa Claus. The next morning when the king went in to see what Santa Claus wanted for breakfast, he wasn’t there. But there was a note attached to the post. It said: Dear Mr. Vox Poxie, I have left. But I’ll be back for Christmas. Santa Claus.

The king gasped. Christmas? What was Christmas? He did not know it, but that very day was Christmas Eve.

When he got up the next day, there was gray snow on the ground. No Santa, no presents. The next day and the next day, no Christmas. No Santa. No toys.

On the third day, he awoke in the night to sleigh bells. Was it? Could it be?

Yes it was. It was Santa Claus!

Quickly, the king hopped back into bed, and the next morning everything was green! The houses were new! The people were happy! Everybody was playing with toys! Even though Christmas was late, it was a nice one! And everybody lived happily ever after!

December 19, 2012

A Velva Jean Christmas

When it got toward supper, I went into the kitchen and rolled up my sleeves and started cutting up vegetables for soup. For some reason, it was the only thing I could think to make. There was an actual icebox, not just a springhouse, but the stove was the same– an old comfort stove just like Mama had and just like Ruby Poole had. Granny still used a Dutch oven. I tried not to think of what Granny would be fixing over at home.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive

Minnie Kinsley Justice, better known as Velva Jean’s beloved Granny, is based in part on my great-grandmother Florence Fain. Mama, as the family called her, married my great-granddaddy (they called him Papa) on the North Carolina-Tennessee line just four days after her twentieth birthday.

Afterward, they moved to Murphy, North Carolina, to live on Fain Mountain, named for her family. They raised ten children there when they weren’t following Papa’s blacksmithing work over to Copperhill, Tennessee, or Ducktown, Tennessee, or up to Woodfin near Asheville, North Carolina.

Mama played the auto harp. She loved her children and her husband, even though he was in and out of trouble for most of their married life (he was, after all, descended from outlaws). He called her Bebe. She called him Old Mule. Like Velva Jean’s Granny, Mama was a wonderful cook.

In honor of Christmas and family, tradition and Velva Jean, here is one of Granny’s holiday recipes.

Dried Apple Stack Cake

Cooking time: about 18 minutes


6 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk


Sift together flour, soda, baking powder, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Cream the shortening and sugar, then add molasses and mix well. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla. Add the buttermilk alternately with flour, mixing well. Place the dough on a floured surface. Work in enough flour to make it easy to handle, but not enough to make it stiff. Divide the dough into 9 portions and shape these into balls. Place 1 ball in a greased 9-inch round pan. Press the dough with your hands evenly over the bottom of the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly before removing from the pan. Continue the same process for each ball of dough. You can use the same pans again, but grease them each time.

Stack the layers with apple filling (below). Store the cake in an airtight container or wrap it well at least over night for the very best flavor and moisture. (The cake freezes well.)


1 pound dried apples
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Wash and cook the apples in water until tender. Drain and then mash well, and then mix with sugars and cinnamon.

December 13, 2012

71 years later, a spy girl’s haunting account of Pearl Harbor

Becoming Clementine was read in its early stages by a woman named Betty McIntosh. At 97, she is America’s most famous living female spy. During World War II, she served in the OSS and, after the war was over, in the CIA. She has also authored four books, including one named Undercover Girl, a memoir of her years as a secret agent. When she offered her review of the book, I was (understandably) petrified. After all, she had lived what I’d only researched and written about. She was there.

Here is what she said:

“Reading this splendid novel allowed me to vicariously share wartime adventures with a sister spy. Velva Jean had everything that was required of us operatives in OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a forerunner of the CIA. She had the courage to survive undercover behind enemy lines in constant danger. She carried out life-threatening orders without question and bravely faced capture. Becoming Clementine is a spellbinding spy saga.”

Relief. Tears. Gratitude. That’s the only way I can describe how I felt.

Before she was a spy, Betty McIntosh was a reporter. Elizabeth Peet McIntosh grew up in Honolulu, where she learned Japanese and yearned to travel and have adventures overseas. Her father worked for the Washington Herald as a sports editor, and Betty, as she was called, soon followed him into reporting. She was working as a correspondent for Scripps Howard near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. She soon left Hawaii for the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, D.C.

In 1943, she was covering an exhibit of sleeping bags stuffed with chicken feathers at the Department of Agriculture (not exactly the grand adventure she’d dreamed of as a girl), when she was approached by an official from the OSS. He said, “Are you interested in a secret overseas assignment?” She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”

At the OSS training facility in Bethesda, Maryland, she learned to shoot a .32-caliber pistol. She swore an oath never, under any cost, to reveal OSS secrets. And then she was sent to India. Her mission: to create deadly propaganda by concocting “fake but authentic-sounding rumors, news stories and radio reports to make the enemy citizenry think their troops were losing and that they should give up.” From there, she was sent to China (with fellow spy Julia Child), where she unknowingly participated in a plot to kill Japanese soldiers, delivering a bomb disguised as coal to a Chinese secret agent. She was one of the few women assigned to the OSS division of Morale Operations.

This past week, on December 7, Betty McIntosh’s account of the attack on Pearl Harbor– deemed too disturbing and graphic at the time she wrote it– was published for the first time.

Hono­lulu after Pearl Harbor: A report published for the first time, 71 years later

By Elizabeth P. McIntosh

On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, I was working as a reporter for the Hono­lulu Star-Bulletin. After a week of war, I wrote a story directed at Hawaii’s women; I thought it would be useful for them to know what I had seen. It might help prepare them for what lay ahead. But my editors thought the graphic content would be too upsetting for readers and decided not to run my article. It appears here for the first time.

For seven ghastly, confused days, we have been at war. To the women of Hawaii, it has meant a total disruption of home life, a sudden acclimation to blackout nights, terrifying rumors, fear of the unknown as planes drone overhead and lorries shriek through the streets.

The seven days may stretch to seven years, and the women of Hawaii will have to accept a new routine of living. It is time, now, after the initial confusion and terror have subsided, to sum up the events of the past week, to make plans for the future.

It would be well, perhaps, to review the events of the past seven days and not minimize the horror, to better prepare for what may come again.

I have a story to tell, as a reporter, that I think the women of Hawaii should hear. I tell it because I think it may help other women in the struggle, so they will not take the past events lightly.

I reported for work immediately on Sunday morning when the first news — Oahu is being attacked — crackled over the radio, sandwiched in a church program.

Like the rest of Hawaii, I refused to believe it. All along the sunny road to town were people just coming out of church, dogs lazy in the driveways, mynas in noisy convention.

Then, from the neighborhood called Punchbowl, I saw a formation of black planes diving straight into the ocean off Pearl Harbor. The blue sky was punctured with anti-aircraft smoke puffs. Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound, almost over my shoulder, and below, down on School Street. I saw a rooftop fly into the air like a pasteboard movie set.

For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.

The vision of death became reality when I was assigned to cover the emergency room of the hospital.

The first victims of the Japanese-American war were brought there on that bright Sunday morning.

Bombs were still dropping over the city as ambulances screamed off into the heart of the destruction. The drivers were blood-sodden when they returned, with stories of streets ripped up, houses burned, twisted shrapnel and charred bodies of children.

In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand.

Firefighters from the Hickam Air Force Base carried the victims in. The men had a red T marked on their foreheads, mute testimony of the efficiency of first-aiders in giving tetanus shots to ward off lockjaw. The body of a man with a monogrammed shirt, H.A.D., was marked DOA (dead on arrival), trundled off to make room for victims who were still breathing.

There was blood and the fear of death — and death itself — in the emergency room as doctors calmly continued to treat the victims of this new war. Interns were taping up windows to prevent them from crashing into the emergency area as bombs fell and the dead and wounded continued to arrive. I had never known that blood could be so bright red.

Returning to the city, I felt a mounting sense of fear as Honolulu began to realize that more was in the air than an Army alert.

I went to a bombed store on King Street, where I often, in times past, stopped for a Coke at the cool drug counter.

Seven little stores, including my drugstore, had nearly completely burned down. Charred, ripply walls, as high as the first story, alone remained to give any hint of where the store had been. At the smashed soda fountain was a half-eaten chocolate sundae. Scorched bonbons were scattered on the sidewalk. There were odd pieces lying in the wreckage, half-burned Christmas cards, on one, the words “Hark the Herald” still visible. There were twisted bedsprings, half-burned mattresses, cans of food, a child’s blackened bicycle, a lunch box, a green raveled sweater, a Bang-Up comic book, ripped awnings.

I ran out of notepaper and reached down and picked up a charred batch of writing paper, still wet from a fire hose. There was, too, the irony of Christmas tinsel, cellophane, decorations. A burned doll, with moving eyes, singed curls and straw bonnet, like a miniature corpse, lay in the wreckage.

That Sunday after dusk there was the all-night horror of attack in the dark. Sirens shrieking, sharp, crackling police reports and the tension of a city wrapped in fear.

Then, in the nightmare of Monday and Tuesday, there was the struggle to keep normal when planes zoomed overhead and guns cracked out at an unseen enemy. There was blackout and suspicion riding the back of wild rumors: Parachutists in the hills! Poison in your food! Starvation and death were all that was left in a tourist bureau paradise.

I talked with evacuees. From Hickam, a nurse who had dropped to the floor in the hospital kitchen as machine gun bullets dotted a neat row of holes directly above her; from Schofield, a woman who wanted me to send word to her sweetheart “somewhere in Honolulu” that she was still alive; from Pearl Harbor, a nurse who wanted scraps of paper and pencil stubs to give to the boys in the hospital who had last messages they wanted sent home; a little girl named Theda who had a big doll named Nancy and who told me in a quiet voice that “Daddy was killed at Hickam.”

At the office there were frantic calls from all sorts of women — housewives, stenographers, debutantes — wanting to know what they could do during the day, when husbands and brothers were away and there was nothing left but to listen to the radio and imagine that all hell had broken out on another part of the island.

It was then that I realized how important women can be in a war-torn world.

There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do.

I discovered that when I visited the Red Cross centers, canteens, evacuee districts, the motor corps headquarters.

There is great organization in Honolulu, mapped out thoughtfully and competently by women who have had experience in World War I, who have looked ahead and foreseen the carnage of the past seven days and planned.

December 10, 2012

Readin’ around the Christmas tree

I’m allergic to real Christmas trees, which means that all my life I’ve had an artificial one. This isn’t as bad as it sounds– the tree doesn’t turn brown, you don’t have to water it, and there aren’t any pine needles to clean up.

Also, about half of the ornaments come from my childhood, which means the tree and its contents have great sentimental value. There are the ones I made myself in grade school, the cloth globes from Japan, the pink rocking horse I tried to eat because I thought it was candy, the angel who sat at the top of my very first tree, and who still sits atop my tree today. I even have my dad’s favorite Santa ornament from when he was a boy.

Last week, we decorated our Christmas tree (as you can see, Rumi the cat helped us), and it got me to thinking: what if I made a tree out of books? What better way to combine two of my favorite things– Christmas and reading?

Here’s some inspiration:

(Library tree from the Gleeson Library in San Francisco)

(For those with limited space and a red wall)

(A German book tree)

(From the Moravian Book Shop in, of all places, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)

(A little tree for those limited on space)

(A book tree centerpiece)

(The perfect use for those first editions)

(A tree for your office)

(A tree of books)

(A printed paper pine tree)

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