Tag Archives: 1919

The Night Chicago Died

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist (Broadway Books, $14.95, 384 pages)

“Oh, the winds of Chicago have torn me to shreds….” Bob Dylan, “Cold Irons Bound”

City of Scoundrels (nook book)

Those who have gone on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise will never again look at the city’s buildings the same way. There are many cities in America (New York, with an aura all its own, and Los Angeles with its own unique vibe) that typically rule the pop culture landscape. But there is one city in this country so uniquely American that it is better experienced than described or imagined — particularly when it is paradoxically and arguably the most corrupt city in our nation’s history.

Yes, there is the blue-collar folklore, The Jungle, and everything else, all of which is either true or has elements of truth to it. But Chicago is, and always has been, a mystery of wonder — simultaneously brilliant, politically corrupt, awe-inspiring and bad at baseball.

Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels attempts to capture the essence of Chicago through the lens of twelve particularly challenging days in 1919. The book starts with a blimp crashing into a bank and then, after it gets our attention, chronicles several events, circling back to this tragic event. A racial incident, transit strike (oh, the unions in this great state), and senseless murder of a six-year-old transpire in rapid succession. These events allow the author to paint a picture of a city and its leaders, including the iconoclastic mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson, who dreamed of making the city the architectural gem of the world.

In the meantime, for the baseball fans among us, references to the Black Sox scandal are sprinkled in, and the even more corrupt decade of the 20s and Al Capone foreshadowed in the Epilogue.

The factually accurate City of Scoundrels features meticulous research. It is interesting, though this is likely more confined to those who have some existing knowledge of or personal interest in Chicago. It would be less interesting for general readers.

It is a very good book, but despite the shocking events described, it does not capture the raw emotion inspired by the true experience of Chicago — getting off at the train station and being pressurized out of the building into the sights and sounds of the city, seeing the sun over a brick outfield wall as the latest edition of a terrible team attempts to play baseball on a weekly afternoon, or seeing the juices of a barely edible pizza run down the side of the cheek of another innocent victim.

The book feels like an essay. It would be better if it were an essay that felt like the Windy City.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Talk Talk

A Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (Algonquin)

1.   What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile?

My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it.   His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact.   As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing.   In my case, the feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.

2.   You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life.   What were they?

A few years ago I discoverd an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandmother’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve.   A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith.   Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing.   But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives.   When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.   That packet was what really got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.

3.   Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time.   How much research did you do into that time period to write this book?

A lot – much of it haphazard.   To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research.   The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother.   But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I.   And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B. H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century.   And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the first World War.

I paged through photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newpapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.

4.   In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades.   What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?

I didn’t give him his life back – he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had.   What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a  person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own loses and chances, her own fierce desires.

5.   How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like?   How did you weave those two pieces together?

I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on.   For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them – though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.  

Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family.   So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book.   I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.

To be continued…

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Man on Spikes

Spring training has begun, which also means that the corresponding flooding is about to occur:  flooding of the market with baseball books, that is.   Though greats like Roger Angell (The Summer Game), Roger Kahn (The Boys of Summer), and Thomas Boswell (Why Time Begins on Opening Day) have chronicled the hold that baseball has on the American psyche with some of the finest writing this country has ever seen, it is not uncommon for critics to dismiss most baseball writing as something less than literature – classics such as Marc Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly or W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, notwithstanding.

If a younger generation of readers is unfamiliar with the names mentioned above, they are probably even less familiar with a man by the name of Eliot Asinof, who penned the book Man on Spikes.   In this book, Asinof, who is most noted for Eight Men Out, an account of the infamous Black Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series, tells the story of Mike Kutner through the eyes of the people he encounters on his journey through the minor leagues – a journey interrupted by World War II.

Set in the 1930s, Mike’s love of the game is met with resentment from his coalminer father, who would rather see Mike contribute to the family income than play baseball.   Now that Babe Ruth has burst on the scene, Mike’s street-smarts, fielding prowess, and knowledge of the game are underappreciated, and the scout who signs Mike faces ridicule.   Along the way, the reader encounters – among myriad other characters – a ruthless minor league manager and a black player trying to crack the color barrier.

First published in 1955, Man on Spikes had been out of print until it was finally reissued in 1998.   The new edition features a forward by Marvin Miller, the former Executive Director of the Major League Player’s Association, and a preface by Asinof, who reveals that Mike’s story is based on that of his old childhood friend.

When the urge hits this spring, instead of picking up the latest picture book of minor league ballparks or some insightful account of what was going through your favorite team’s manager’s mind in the seventh inning of a game from last season’s pennant race, go back in time and acquaint yourself with the story of Mike Kutner.   No baseball fan could possibly regret it.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books and Mr. Moyer..  

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