The Red Abalone Shell and WWI: The Backstory

RAS finalcoverThe Red Abalone Shell is scheduled for release the first week in September. Here’s what you have to look forward to:

James finds himself on the steps of a church with no idea who he is or how he got there. His only clues are a map, a red abalone shell, and a dog, Old Shep. Adopted by a German-American pacifist family, James and Old Shep take to life on a farm. Patriotism is running high in Western Oklahoma as the United States considers entering World War I. James and his family are proud to be Americans, but not everybody sees it that way, especially Claude Higgins who bullies James in and out of school. As James tries to stand up to Claude and struggles to regain lost memories, he discovers that his identity is linked to mysterious, magical events that define both his past and his future.

The World I context is essential to the story. As I set out to write the second book in The Last Crystal Trilogy, I deliberately situated it on the cusp on World War I. In doing so, I had to alter the time line somewhat, moving it forward a bit. I explain this in the preface.

I remember my mother talking about World War I. She was a girl of about seven- or eight-years old during the war. Among her many memories was one of her father, my Grandpa Shannon, standing up for a German-American neighbor. Patriotic feelings were fanned by newspaper articles accusing German-Americans of aiding the enemy and public speeches by politicians from President Wilson to local officials. The work of organizations such as The American Protective League and the National Security League may have had the most influence on immigrants–both of these organizations come into play in the book.

defaultMap from Library of Congress files: https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593059/

The ugly history behind events in the book is not as well known as I had expected–but given my ignorance, maybe that shouldn’t have been surprising. In 1910 over nine percent of the population in the US were German-Americans. In fact, immigrants from Germany were the largest immigrant community in the country. German language and culture were thriving and German-Americans were respected members of communities across the country. Everything changed when the US entered World War I. Those who were German-born were suddenly enemy aliens and second- and third-generation immigrants were suspected of collusion with the enemy (Manning 2014; Wasserman, 2016, ). While there were undoWar Bondscroppedubtedly Kaiser Wilhelm II sympathizers among the German-Americans in the US, these were far and away the exception. Most, like my Grandpa Shannon’s harassed neighbor, were good people who were proud to be American and were unjustly shunned, ridiculed, shamed, persecuted, tarred and feathered, beaten, or taken to court

German-born immigrants were rounded up and placed in internment camps, setting a precedent and providing a model that was to be followed in World War II. A nation of immigrants now turned on the newcomer and outsider, defining them as “other” and “foreign.” Theodore Roosevelt said it a 1915 speech, “there is not room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance (cited in Manning, 2014, p.16).” His attitude was one adopted by the public as the war loomed nearer.

Wasserman argues that “despite its lack of scholarship and popular knowledge, German internment left a lasting legacy” (p.4, 2016). World War I left a prototype for how to deal with enemy aliens, one that was to be refined in World War II when German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps (nearly twice as many Japanese-Americans, it should be noted).

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Citizens groups sprang up all across the country, many of them like the vigilantes of the West. They looked for evidence of alien subterfuge. Michael Inman (2014), Curator of the Rare Books Division of the New York City Public Library writes: “By far the largest of these hyper-patriotic organizations was the American Protective League, or A.P.L., which maintained a network of branches in more than 600 cities. . . . the A.P.L. worked to enforce patriotism and stifle dissent.  Unlike these other bodies, however, the A.P.L.’s actions were carried out with the approval of the U.S. government.” The 200,000 untrained volunteers of A.P.L were authorized to ferret out aliens whose loyalties were tested by pledging allegiance to the flag, buying war bonds (sometimes groups assigned an amount, often beyond the means of those expected to pay up), or to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (Manning, 2014).

The National Security League called for military preparedness in the period leading up to World War I. It was the largest preparedness group and probably the most influential (Ward, 1960). The map above detailing the Kaiser’s plans is one of the hundreds of items distributed in the US to garner support for the war effort. Initially the League had the participation of progressive elements in the US, but its work deteriorated into what amounted to witch hunts and vigilantism. Book banning, banning use of German language, teaching German in schools, religious services in German, German names, German food—all things German. Its work deteriorated into “confiscations, lootings, and beatings. . .culminating in the widely publicized lynching of Illinois miner Robert Prager, hanged draped in an American flag (Wasserman, 2016).  You can read more about the Prager case athttp://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/landings/Ambot/Archives/vignettes/government/Prager.

While I think back on my grandfather’s stand with pride, digging into the history was a somber experience. There was too much in it that felt current. As Kimberly Younce Schooley notes in her review of The Red Abalone Shell, “we watch World War I unfold and witness how individual liberties can be so easily and tragically curtailed in the name of narrow-minded nationalism masquerading as patriotism. An important message for today perhaps.” (You can read her full review in “About the Book” when the book is available).

Some of the other resources I drew on in preparation for the book make interesting reading. Most are available on line:

Michael Inman, “Spies Among Us: World War I and The American Protective League,” October 14, 2014, retrieved from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/10/07/spies-among-us-wwi-apl)

Mary J. Manning, “Being German, Being American” Prologue, (Summer 2014), pp.15-22.

Robert D. Ward, “The Origin and Activities of the National Security League, 1914-1919,”The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jun., 1960), pp. 51-65.

Wasserman, Jacob L., “Internal Affairs: Untold Case Studies of World War I German Internment” (2016). MSSA Kaplan Prize for Use of MSSA Collections. 8.
https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/mssa_collections/8

Chapter Discussion Questions for THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX

Teachers who are using The Black Alabaster Box with reading groups, book clubs, or as part of a study of the Great Westward Migration may find these questions useful. You could have students write their take on a question in a journal after reading the chapter, too. I don’t think it would be appropriate to have students answer all of the questions on paper–they are better discussed. The questions may also be found on my website under the Teachers and Parents section where they will be easily accessible once the blog post gets cold.

You will notice that questions allow students to respond on a number of cognitive levels.  They may be answered literally or invite children to dig beneath the surface in much more imaginative ways. Have fun. If you have other thoughts, please post them in the comments section.

Chapter 1:

What were some of the reasons that pioneers decided to go West?

Why did Grace’s family want to go West?

Grandma Rhoads gives Grace a handkerchief. We read that Grace thought of other things she’d rather take with her. What did the handkerchief symbolize for Grandma? for Grace?

Thinking of all the stuff you have, what would you choose to take with you if your family were going West and you could only take four things besides your clothes?

Chapter 2:

How would you describe Junior and Ruby Swathmore?

What role do you think they will play in the book?

On p 12 there is a clue about why Junior and Ruby act as they do. What do you think it is and why might it be a clue?

What does Sid’s way of dealing with Cora and Jimmy tell you about him?

What do you think it is about Sid that makes him somebody you wouldn’t want to fight with?

Chapter 3:

What does this chapter tell us about how a Wagon Train was organized?

Mr. Payne was probably the most qualified person to be Wagon Captain. Why do you think he wasn’t elected?  What do you make of Daddy’s answer when Grace questions him about the election?

What does Mr. Stokes say about risks to pioneers going West? How does this match your image of going West?

Chapter 4:

Why do you think the chapter title is “Hard Words”?

Compare and contrast Mr. Payne and Mr. Swathmore.

Why do you think Grace liked Mr. Payne?

Why do you think she was afraid of Mr. Swathmore?

Chapter 5:

What do you think the possibilities for Grace are now?

Why do you think Mr. Payne wanted to stay behind to help the Willis family?

Mr. Payne involves Grace in helping to cook and make their meals. Why do you think he takes the time to do that?

Chapter 6:

What did you learn about scouting that you didn’t know?

Based on the story, what would you say is the most important thing a scout can do?

Has your idea of Old Shep’s role changed since chapter 1? Why?

Chapter 7:

What does Mr. Payne’s reaction to seeing the Swathmore wagon tell you about his character?

What do you make of Daddy’s caution to Mr. Payne?

What do you think will happen to Grace?

Chapter 8:

How has Grace’s feeling changed about the handkerchief Grandma Rhoads gave her?

What does it symbolize for her?

What do you think the main characters in this chapter want most? Grace, Mr. Swathmore, Mrs. Swathmore, Ruby, and Junior?

Grace reaches a critical moment. What is it and how does it change her outlook?

Chapter 9:

Why doesn’t Grace run away when Swathmores go to the trading post?

How might Jim Payne’s lessons on scouting be influencing her decision?

Chapter 10:

Was Grace right in telling a lie about when the Swathmores were expected back?

Were the Swathmores right to leave her in such all alone on the homestead?

What role does Old Shep play in this chapter?

Chapter 11:

The author leaves us with the impression that Grace has taken more than one beating from Mr. Swathmore in the past. Why did she run away this time?

What do you think will happen to her now?

What are her chances of staying alive in the wildnerness?

Chapter 12:

What does Grace thinks she needs besides magic to survive?

Why did Mr. Swathmore come after her?

Knowing what you know about Grace and where she is, what would you do next if you were her?

Chapter 13:

Did Grace make a good choice in stopping at the homestead instead of going on? Give reasons for your opinion.

At what point in the chapter are you most anxious for Grace?

Chapter 14:

Could Grace have made it this far without Old Shep?

Why do you think Grace trusts Mr. Nichols when he appears when she didn’t trust Leon and Dillon when they appeared?

Why do you think that Grace couldn’t cry when she learned about her parents?

What do you make of Mr. Nichols? What questions would you want to ask him?

What does Mr. Nichols tell you about the role of magic in the story? How is this like/different from Mr. Payne’s idea about magic?

Chapter 15:

Why was Grace worried about losing the handkerchief? What has made it important to her when she didn’t think much of it in Chapter 1?

What do you make of the character Celeste? What role do you think she will play? Use the text to support your opinion.

If you were faced with Grace’s choices, would you choose to go on to St. Louis, stay in Kansas City, or go with Mr. Nichols? Why?

Chapter 16:

What different emotions did you have as you read the chapter? What made you feel them?

How did you react when magic became very important to the story?

How does Grace seem to feel when she discovers there is such a thing as magic?

What do you think is going to happen now?

Chapter 17:

Why do you think Grace volunteered to open The Black Alabaster Box?

What did Mr. Nichols do to prepare her for opening it?

Why do you think he was so particular about directions?

Should Grace be afraid?

Chapter 18:

What part of the chapter did you like best?

What surprised you?

Chapter 19:

Do you think Grace will ever see Mr. Nichols again? Why/why not?

Why do you think she forgot about the carpetbag and its contents?

Chapter 20:

Why do you think that C’lestin (Mr. Nichols) went to the masked ball?

Do you think that Celeste could ever change?

What caused C’lestin to have tears in his eyes when he left the ball?

Chapter 21:

What happens in the chapter that is like the opening scene in Chapter One?

Why do you think Grace puts off returning to St. Louis?

Should Grace feel guilty? Why/why not?

Chapter 22:

Did Junior and Ruby turn out the way you expected them to?

What did you like most in the chapter and why?

What do you think is going to happen now?

Chapter 23:

How does the magic Celeste placed on The Black Alabaster Box backfire on her?

Do you think that Junior and Ruby will be able to find Grace and her family? Why/why not?

Chapter 24:

What evidence do you find in the chapter to suggest that Celeste learned a lesson about paying attention to children?

There are three different scenes in the chapter. What are they and how did each make you feel?

Chapter 25:

Why did James blame himself for what happened?

How did Mr. Nichols reassure him?

What role does the handkerchief that Grandma Rhoads gave Grace in Chapter Two play now?

What did Ruby find that made the hunt for Celeste’s box personal?

Chapter 26:

How does the author create a feeling of uneasiness in the chapter?

What did you think when Ruby and Junior appeared at the back door?

What role is James playing by the end of the chapter?

Chapter 27:

What do you make of this chapter?

What surprised you?

Chapter 28:

Do Junior and Ruby get what they deserved? Explain your thinking.

What did you expect for Celeste to find in the tin box?

Chapter 29:

How does Mr. Nichols try to help James make sense of what has happened?

Why do you think Mr. Nichols doesn’t blame Grace for all the bad things that happened after she forgot about the crystal?

What are some ways Mr. Nichols identifies to heal and repair the world besides using water from The Last Crystal?

James remembers something that his mother told him that gives him the courage to go on. What is it?

General Questions:

If you could ask a question of one of the characters, which character would it be and what would you ask?

What part of the book did you like best and why?

What didn’t work for you and why?

If you could change one thing in the book, what would it be and why?

Mr. Nichols said that there are some things only a child can do. What do you think he meant?