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Beyond the Book Articles
People, Eras & Events

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Semiramis, Queen of Assyria (04/23)
Among the many fascinating anecdotes presented in David Graeber and David Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything, one stood out to me. This was the myth of Semiramis (also known as Sammu-ramat), a woman of low stature who rose to become queen of the empire of Assyria. Graeber and Wengrow mention her in a chapter discussing role reversals, using...
Tawaifs (04/23)
Aamina Ahmad's debut novel, The Return of Faraz Ali, takes place in 1968 in Lahore's red-light district, and several of the characters are tawaifs — sex workers.

'Tawaif' comes from the Urdu word 'tauf,' which means to go round and round. While the term is considered derogatory now, originally it was one of respect for a highly-...
Sybil Neville-Rolfe (1885-1955) (04/23)
Dr. Agnes Vogel, The Foundling's complicated eugenicist arch-villain, has many real analogues in history. As the eugenics movement bloomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women played an instrumental role in how its ideas took shape. In Britain, Sybil Neville-Rolfe (née Sybil Burney) was the founder of the Eugenics ...
The Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme (04/23)
In Lianne Dillsworth's novel Theatre of Marvels, a settlement plan resembling the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme comes to represent the possibility of a fresh start, freedom and community for the story's heroine, Zillah, and fellow Black people living in Victorian Britain who are struggling to feel like they belong.

Located on the ...
The Story of Tunnel 29 (04/23)
Wherever borders and barriers exist, resistance and the desire to escape will also be found. In The Berlin Exchange, Joseph Kanon's Cold War espionage thriller, the Berlin Wall looms as a formidable barricade. The book is set in 1963; only months earlier, the miraculous story of Tunnel 29 — so called because of the number of people ...
Naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes (03/23)
In Unlikely Animals, Clive Starling pals around with a hallucination of Ernest Harold Baynes, a real-life figure sometimes called the American Dr. Dolittle. Through his deep reverence for animals, Baynes helped save bison in America, educated the public about songbirds and befriended all manner of creatures.

Born in Calcutta in 1868 ...
The Spanish Civil War (03/23)
Several of the women highlighted in Judith Mackrell's The Correspondents started their journalistic careers covering the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Spain had been in political turmoil for many years before the war; while the country was still officially a monarchy, a 1923 coup had placed Miguel Primo de Rivera in charge of the ...
The Soviet Atomic Bomb Project (03/23)
In Atomic Anna, the protagonist Anna Berkova is the Soviet Union's top nuclear scientist. Collaborating with famed German chemist Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin, Anna helps discover nuclear fission, the reaction which serves as the basis for nuclear power. As World War II begins, Anna escapes Germany and...
Colonialism's Ecological Damage in Cyprus (03/23)
In Elif Shafak's The Island of Missing Trees, Kostas, one of the protagonists, can be described as having an intimate love affair with nature. The other characters, including Kostas's daughter, are often puzzled by his eccentric passion for the Earth and the creatures we share it with. Kostas grew up on the island of Cyprus, and he ...
Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle (03/23)
In Footnotes*, Caseen Gaines explores the production of Shuffle Along, the first all-Black musical to become a runaway success on Broadway. The show's appeal and popularity are credited in part to the talents of songwriting team Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who had a history of collaborating that predated their exceptional work on ...
The Johnson–Jeffries Riots (03/23)
In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson describes how, in a caste system, challenges to the superiority of the dominant caste can produce 'an epic existential crisis.' This is particularly true for the people situated at the bottom rung of the dominant caste group (in the United States, working class or impoverished ...
Sergeant Richard Etheridge's Second Act (03/23)
In Black Cloud Rising, David Wright Faladé introduces a true and fascinating historical figure in Sergeant Richard Etheridge. Born in 1842 along the shores of North Carolina's Roanoke Island, Etheridge was raised as the property of John B. Etheridge until the Civil War and emancipation ended his physical oppression. As the Union ...
A Brief History of Feminist Organizing in Spain (03/23)
A significant part of Elena Medel's The Wonders is devoted to the feminist awakening of the character Maria. She grows up in a poor neighborhood during Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's rule in the 1960s and early '70s, a time of strict gender roles. As Spain moves out of the Francoist era and comes to a new threshold of feminist ...
The First and Second Sudanese Civil Wars (02/23)
Ghost Season by Fatin Abbas takes place in an NGO (non-government organization) facility in Saraaya, a town close to the border between northern and southern Sudan, during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), which was essentially a continuation of the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972). While there were multiple complex factors ...
The Democrats, Race and the 1994 Federal Crime Bill (02/23)
In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi recalls his adolescence during the 1990s, frequently referencing comments made and policies enacted by President Bill Clinton. Author Toni Morrison famously called Clinton the 'first Black president,' a fairly controversial comment that was nevertheless frequently repeated by Clinton supporters ...
The SCOPE Project (02/23)
Diane Chamberlain's protagonist Ellie Hockley in The Last House on the Street participates in the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project against the wishes of her family. SCOPE was created in the spring of 1965 under the auspices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC proved to be a...
Heartbreak Day and Family Separation During American Slavery (01/23)
For American slaves, January 1 was a day to dread. For on that day, many were hired out to new plantations without warning, and some were sold off. Anxiety was rampant the evening before the new year, which was possibly the last time family members would see each other. It was a tumultuous night for parents wondering if their children ...
The "Lost Cause" Myth and Its Physical Legacy (01/23)
Following defeat and widespread destruction in the Civil War, people in the former Confederate states set about rebuilding their communities and coping with the enormity of their loss. This effort included physical and psychological measures, such as building cemetery monuments and establishing Confederate Memorial Day to honor fallen ...
The Murder of Leo LaChance (01/23)
In Lisa Bird-Wilson's novel Probably Ruby, a chapter set in Ruby's teenage years features references to the real-life 1991 murder of a 43-year-old Cree man, Leo LaChance, by a self-proclaimed white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan named Carney Milton Nerland. LaChance was killed in a Prince Albert, Saskatchewan pawn/gun shop on ...
The Japanese Occupation of Korea (1910-1945) (01/23)
Juhea Kim's Beasts of a Little Land covers half a century of Korean history, including the Japanese occupation of Korea. The occupation began in 1910, when Japan annexed the Korean peninsula. This occurred after years of attempts by the Japanese government to exert rule over Korea, due in part to its economic interest in the country's ...
Sumptuary Laws in Early Modern England (11/22)
The heroine of Lucy Jago's A Net for Small Fishes, Anne Turner, has a unique claim to fame: she holds the patent for the saffron-yellow starch that is taking the Jacobean fashion world by storm. Jago beautifully depicts the colorful world of the court at Whitehall, where all the courtiers are constantly trying to outdress each other. ...
The Children of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (11/22)
The children of the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa form a large part of the cast of Antoinette's Sister by Diana Giovinazzo. This is no surprise: They numbered enough to make up a team roster for many sports, with 10 of 16 surviving to adulthood. Of these, the most famous are her sons Joseph II and Leopold II, both of whom inherited the...
Tang Dynasty Poet Yu Xuanji (844-871) (11/22)
Chinese poetry has a long and varied history. The Tang Dynasty (from 618-907) is considered one of the most vibrant cultural periods for poetry and other arts.

In Qui Xiaolong's mystery novel The Shadow of the Empire, set during the Tang Dynasty, detective Judge Dee professes to be a poet, and much of the plot is driven by clues held ...
The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (11/22)
In Percival Everett's novel Dr. No, a character named John Sill vows to become a 'Bond villain' after his parents' deaths, which he suspects are connected to the assassination of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. When Sill visits James Earl Ray, the man convicted of murdering King, Ray insists that the FBI was behind the ...
Ghost Girls (Radium Girls) (11/22)
In Laird Hunt's book Zorrie, the title character takes a job painting watch dials with illuminating radium in Ottawa, Illinois. The women employed by the company think it's great fun to glow all night after their shifts, and even smuggle extra vials of glow-in-the-dark paint home to create designs on themselves.

During World War I, ...
Vietnam War Draft Lottery (10/22)
One of the ethical debates presented in Jonathan Frazen's Crossroads concerns the United States' use of the draft to supplement its troops during the Vietnam War.

Conscription, commonly known as the draft in the United States, is a term of mandatory enlistment in national service, generally in a country's military. It's been employed ...
Chinese Passengers Aboard the Titanic (10/22)
In Luck of the Titanic, we get a glimpse into the lives of Chinese passengers and workers aboard the famous 'unsinkable' ship, including the xenophobia, racism and classism they face. At the beginning of the novel, author Stacey Lee explains that there were eight real-life Chinese passengers on the Titanic, of whom six survived. While ...
The Fall of Constantinople (10/22)
Parts of Anthony Doerr's novel Cloud Cuckoo Land take place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) had long been an important trading hub by the time it was officially established by Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 330 CE. The ruler moved his government to the city, and it ...
Educational Reforms in the Austrian Empire Under Maria Theresa (10/22)
By the mid-1700s, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, had suffered a significant military defeat at the hands of Prussia's King Frederick II. In the aftermath, she sought to modernize and improve her army to match that of her rival, and that included upgrading military education to focus on ...
Eleanor of Aquitaine (09/22)
In Lauren Groff's novel Matrix, the protagonist Marie (based on 12th century poet Marie de France) spends the majority of her life pining for Eleanor of Aquitaine. This real-life queen of France and England serves as Marie's foil and the source of considerable turmoil, as both women seek to hold and maintain power over their very ...
Movie Columnist Louella Parsons (09/22)
Louella Parsons (1881-1972) was a pioneer newspaperwoman, a famous movie columnist and, for many years, a principal purveyor of Hollywood gossip to the world. Nevertheless, according to Samantha Barbas, author of an extremely thorough biography of Parsons, it was only in 1949 that she first veered into the realm of scandal by revealing ...
The Library War Service (09/22)
The War Librarian features quiet, bookish Emmaline Balakin, who, despite the dangers of World War I, chooses to set off on an adventure by serving as a volunteer librarian to American service members. Her new position sends her overseas to a frontline hospital in France where she must contend with surly officers, German bombers and social...
The Windrush Generation (09/22)
The protagonist of Mike Gayle's novel All the Lonely People is a member of the 'Windrush generation,' which refers to people from the Caribbean who emigrated to the United Kingdom between 1948 and 1971.

Facing a severe labor shortage after World War II, the British government began encouraging mass immigration from citizens of its ...
The Art and Political Imprisonment of Ai Weiwei (09/22)
Ai Weiwei is an influential creator, whose career has given rise to a great variety of works in many mediums. Accordingly, describing him merely as an artist does not do him justice, as he wears many hats, being a visual artist, architect, documentarian and writer. Ultimately, all of his work is underpinned with a strong thread of ...
Holocaust Refugees and the British White Papers (09/22)
'To fight or flee?' This is a question the Polish resistance fighters must ask themselves in Judy Batalion's The Light of Days. As the German army advanced across Europe and persecution of the Jews intensified, those who chose to flee had to decide where to go. As their own countries were invaded, some European Jews emigrated to ...
The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (08/22)
In Lightning Strike, William Kent Krueger includes an author's note about the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (also known as Public Law 959 or the Adult Vocational Training Program), which features as a tragic backdrop to the overall story. According to Krueger, the program was 'the brainchild of a group of men appointed by President Harry ...
Margaret Sanger and the Founding of Planned Parenthood (08/22)
In 1916 in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, three women opened a clinic providing information about birth control. Despite the fact that birth control has existed in various forms for millennia, at the time it was illegal to share such information, and within 10 days the clinic was shut down and the three women — Margaret Sanger, Ethel...
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) (07/22)
The narrator of Rivka Galchen's novel Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is Katharina Kepler, mother of noted astronomer Johannes Kepler. Kepler was born in 1571 in Weil der Stadt, Württemberg, a German territory within the Holy Roman Empire. His father, whom Kepler pronounced 'an immoral, rough and quarrelsome soldier,' was a ...
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (07/22)
On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, having been convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

The Rosenbergs met in the Young Communist League in 1936 and married in 1939. Julius worked for the U.S. Army Signal Corps as an engineer, and though Ethel (né...
Moonlight Schools (06/22)
At one point in Kim Michele Richardson's novel The Book Woman's Daughter, protagonist Honey Lovett discovers that a family friend attended a Moonlight School. The Moonlight Schools were the brainchild of Cora Wilson Stewart (1875-1958), an elementary school teacher and school superintendent in Rowan County, Kentucky. Born in the community...
Belle da Costa Greene (06/22)
Belle da Costa Greene was an American librarian who ran the private library belonging to banker John Pierpont Morgan (better known as J.P. Morgan) and later to his son. During her time working for the Morgans, Greene acquired many rare books, manuscripts and other items for her employers, ultimately contributing to what is now an ...
Classical Music and the Cultural Revolution (06/22)
In Swimming Back to Trout River, Dawn and Momo are united by their love of music during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, particularly Western classical music. There is a special significance attached to a bust of Beethoven within the novel. Beethoven was seen as a revolutionary symbol throughout 20th century China, since ...
Huey P. Newton (06/22)
In Meron Hadero's A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, the main character of 'Mekonnen aka Mack aka Huey Freakin' Newton' takes his titular nickname from Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers were a group of revolutionaries focused on Black liberation in the 1960s-70s. Hadero's character...
Cultural Recognition of the Tulsa Race Massacre (06/22)
In The Ground Breaking, Scott Ellsworth notes that for many Americans, the first exposure they received to the events of 1921 in Tulsa came from a dramatic portrayal on an episode of the HBO series Watchmen that aired October 20, 2019. The show received credit for spurring a renewed interest in the Tulsa Race Massacre in the lead up to ...
Elinor Smith (05/22)
Great Circle features an account of a fictional early aviatrix named Marian Graves, and author Maggie Shipstead inserts snippets of aviation history throughout the narrative. One woman frequently mentioned is Elinor Smith, aka 'The Flying Flapper of Freeport.'

Elinor Regina Patricia Ward was born in New York City in 1911 to parents who...
The Guatemalan Civil War (05/22)
The narrator of Francisco Goldman's autobiographical novel Monkey Boy, like Goldman himself, was a journalist who reported on the Guatemalan Civil War. The brutal war began in 1960 and lasted a total of 36 years. Over 200,000 were killed or 'disappeared,' more than 600 villages were attacked or completely destroyed by the army and 150 ...
The Bielski Partisans (05/22)
In The Forest of Vanishing Stars, persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe take shelter in the Naliboki Forest, located west of Minsk in contemporary Belarus. The area, then known as Byelorussia, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 at the same time as Germany invaded Poland as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that established a non-...
W.E.B. Du Bois (05/22)
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (aka W.E.B. Du Bois) was a noted author, historian, activist and sociologist as well as a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His philosophies play an important role throughout Honorée Fannone Jeffers' novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois; each ...
Mabel Dodge Luhan (05/22)
Rachel Cusk reveals through a note at the end of her novel Second Place that the book is based on Lorenzo in Taos, a 1932 memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan recounting the time the author D.H. Lawrence spent with her in Taos, New Mexico. Luhan, whose full name was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (as the result of multiple marriages), was a...
Village de L'Est and Hurricane Katrina (05/22)
When the Vietnamese family depicted in Things We Lost to the Water arrives in New Orleans, they move into an apartment building called Versailles located in the eastern part of the city. The setting is based on the real-life Versailles Arms public housing project in the neighborhood of Village de L'Est, which attracted a large Vietnamese ...
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