Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — DiRusso’s


My wife and I were stopping by the local Gordon Food Service store to pick up a variety of items. And what did we spot by the front entrance of the store? A DiRusso’s cooler loaded with their wonderful Italian sausage! We ended up buying a box, which we do periodically. We like to fry up our own pepper and onion mix that we top the sausage with on a good hoagie bun. Brings back memories of many trips to the Canfield Fair.

Our latest DiRusso's purchase

Our latest DiRusso’s purchase

The summer we moved to Columbus was a hard one for us. Our son, five at the time, broke the femur in one of his legs in a freak mishap. Usually, we would meet up on Labor Day weekend with friends at the Canfield Fair. We couldn’t that year and so they brought DiRusso’s down to us and the whole house had that smell you notice as you approach a DiRusso’s concession.

A DiRusso’s stand was always one of our first stops at the Canfield Fair. It kind of became a bonding experience with my son and we had this thing going of who could go hotter–kind of our version of chest thumping. All I can remember is the first bite into one of those sandwiches, particularly if a year had gone by without one, was heaven on a bun!

Father and son at DiRusso's

Father and son at DiRusso’s

DiRusso’s is a Youngstown original. From what I’ve been able to learn in a Vindy article, it all started with Adeline DiRusso’s sausage recipe and a family grocery in Lowellville run by her son, Augustine, “Augie” DiRusso. In the beginning, they just sold the sausage out of the store on East Water Street in Lowellville. By the 1960’s, Augie started setting up concession stands at the Mount Carmel festival in Lowellville, and at the Canfield Fair and other county fairs in the area. Back then, you could get a sandwich for 40 cents. Now they license concessions at over 100 events in the tri-state area.

Nephew Robert DiRusso began working with the company and had his own trailer by age 16 in 1975. Eventually he took over the concession operation while Augie continued running their sausage plant in Lowellville. In 1993 Robert took over the entire operation from Augie and made the decision to go into retail. Eventually they moved their plant to 1035 West Rayen Avenue, its current location where all their products are manufactured and packaged to be distributed to more than three hundred stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.

We’re glad DiRusso’s has made it to our city. We particularly like to get their meatballs and medium-hot sausage. They also sell turkey sausage, sausage patties, turkey meatballs, wedding soup meatballs, breakfast sausage, beef patties and beef hoagies. Makes my mouth water just to type the list. You can also buy direct from them through their website.

Are you a DiRusso’s lover and what is your favorite sandwich or other product?

[Like this post and want to read more about Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown? Just click “On Youngstown” on the menu bar to see all the posts in this series.]

Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf


Charles William Elliot (Public Domain)

I recently came across a post announcing that I could “Read the World’s Best Books for Free with the Harvard Classics“. Actually, the article is quite useful in giving the background, contents, strengths and deficiencies of this selection of great works assembled by Harvard President Charles William Elliot in 1909. The reason we can now access this collection for free (in electronic form) is that it is now in the public domain, its copyright having expired. The article also gives links to sites where The Harvard Classics are available and tips for reading this collection on an assortment of e-readers.  All in all, quite helpful.

The Harvard Classics, published for many years by P.F. Collier occupies five feet on one’s shelves and Elliot maintained that by reading from this collection for 15 minutes a day, one could attain to the elements of a liberal education. I figured out that if you followed Dr. Elliot’s advice and read 10 pages a day from this 22,000 page collection, you could finish this project in just over six years. My brother bought a print set years ago. I have to ask him if he ever was able to get anywhere close to reading through it.

The article explored the underlying attraction of acquiring sets like this or the more extensive “Great Books of the Western World” assembled by University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, and professor Mortimer Adler. For any of us who love to read, there is this daunting, and maybe depressing awareness, that we cannot hope to read even the tiniest fraction of the books published, and even books that might be considered of note. “So many books, so little time.” These might not be all the greatest books, but it is a great start and can certainly keep us occupied for some time. And as the article mentions, it saves me from the nagging question of what to read next.

I also wonder if there is an attraction, exacerbated by the internet, and all the sources of free great books, of succumbing to the temptation to hoard knowledge. It is an alluring temptation indeed to think that one might have access with the flip of a switch, a touch of a screen, to the libraries of the world and the knowledge of the ages.

I know in times past I’ve been tempted to acquire one of these sets by the thought that by reading these I could be wiser, more literate, more understanding of the existential realities of life. Then my wife, the practical one,says to me, “we have no place for another five foot shelf of books (or more with the Great Books), and besides, if you have that much time for reading, I’ve got work around the house for you!”

There is a personality typing system called the Enneagram that consists of nine types. Each type has certain strengths and an “underside”. Type five is the observer. They are curious, insightful, and sometimes at their best visionary and innovative.  Their underside is hoarding–of knowledge, of energy, and even of physical objects. I’ve wondered if many bibliophiles (myself included) fit into this type.

Hoarding is a way we make ourselves feel secure, and perhaps even godlike, when what is healthier is a life of giving and sharing and mutually interdependent relationships. Writing about the books I read is a way of giving away what I learned and sharing the goodness I’ve found. And in recent years, there has been a certain liberation in boxing up and giving away or selling hundreds of books.

One of the gifts of growing older is realizing our limitations and to treasure what we have rather than building illusionary “castles in the air”. Even a freely downloaded Harvard Classics is not a temptation for me. I know I won’t read all that is in it, and I will read a number of other things, many of which I will enjoy and profit from and share with others.

Colossians 2:2-3 speaks of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge being hidden in Christ. As a Christ-follower, I don’t have to pursue these hubristic dreams of literacy and great knowledge. It is clear that there is one who has these qualities–and it isn’t me!

None of this is to discourage you from acquiring such a collection. I wonder about the reading of such books on e-readers. Yet I do believe in the value of great works of writing, both classic and contemporary. I just hope you won’t look to them to do what books alone cannot do in your life.

Review: Buffalo for the Broken Heart

Buffalo for a Broken HeartBuffalo for the Broken Heart, Dan O’Brien. New York, Random House, 2002.

Summary: Part memoir, part nature-writing, this book describes the story of a cattle rancher who hits bottom, and makes the transition to herding buffalo for economic and ecological reasons.

Dan O’Brien grew up in my home state near Findlay, Ohio and even holds a degree from Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio. He has traveled a long way from the flat, rich farming land of northwest Ohio to the plains of South Dakota. Along the way, he has written novels and worked as a wildlife biologist who helped reintroduce peregrin falcons to the Rocky Mountains. Eventually he bought the Broken Heart ranch on the Great Plains of South Dakota, and like so many around him, tried to make cattle ranching work.

Dan O'Brien

Dan O’Brien

This book describes those efforts, and the losing struggle to make cattle ranching viable. The book alternates between his efforts to use the range land in an ecologically thoughtful way, the economics of the cattle industry that worked against him, and the attempts of others to make a go of things on this land before him. He hits rock bottom when his wife leaves and the bottom drops out of the market for beef. About this time, he encounters a buffalo on the road, and then begins to talk with others who have turned to raising this creature which lived on these plains until nearly exterminated.

He helps out at a buffalo roundup on another ranch and comes home with thirteen young buffalo. And so begins the story of how he and his ranch hand Erney convert the Broken Heart to a buffalo ranch and the “wild idea” they come up with to circumvent the typical feed lot and meat packing industry to provide buffalo meat as it was eaten by the people of the Plains for thousands of years. Along the way, he continues to narrate the stories of the people around him, including the suicide of the son of a Native American family living next door to him, and the redemptive experience of allowing the husband to shoot the first buffalo harvested on the land. This story was beautifully narrated, both in the description of what it meant for the neighbor, and the almost mysterious way the buffalo bulls came to their hunter. I won’t say more because you must read this in context to fully appreciate it.

O’Brien writes in the tradition of ecological writers of place going back to Aldo Leopold, Louis Bromfield (Pleasant Valley, his narrative of restoring Malabar Farm near Mansfield, Ohio), Wallace Stegner, who also wrote of life on the Great Plains, and Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. Some of his best writing in this book comes in his observations of how buffalo just “fit” the ecology of the Great Plains:

“Was the increase in bird life on the ranch a partial result of a different, evolutionarily more compatible kind of grazing? Did the buffalo’s way of moving quickly from one part of the pasture to another affect the grass more positively than the wandering of domestic livestock? Was the entire matrix of the ranch’s ecosystem improved by the simple conversion back to large herbivores that had evolved to live here? In my heart I was coming to believe that the answer to all these questions was yes. I wanted to shout it to the skies, but I had learned long before that when profound questions are asked of the heart, the answers are best kept to yourself” (p. 168).

The concluding part of the book narrates the beginnings of The Wild Idea Buffalo CompanyThe big idea was to kill buffalo at the peak of their development on the range, fed on the range grasses and not artificially fattened on feed lots (destroying the beneficial qualities of lean buffalo meat) and killing them in their natural habitat without the trauma of slaughterhouse. As you can see from the web link above the company has continued to grow and you can buy from them. The website describes Wild Idea this way:

“The Wild Idea Buffalo Company is the leading provider of grass-fed, naturally-raised buffalo meat in the United States. All the buffalo (also called bison) meat we sell is antibiotic and hormone free, 100% grass fed, non-confined, free-roaming and humanely, field-harvested. Ours is the best gourmet meat you can buy on-line and have delivered to your home. No other red meat is better tasting, better for you or better for our planet.”

This book was a birthday gift from my wife, along with Dan O’Brien’s sequel, Wild IdeaShe knows my love of writers like Wendell Berry and Wallace Stegner, and heard about this book, and O’Brien’s story on public television and it truly was a wonderful gift and leaves me looking forward to the sequel. And you can look forward to a review in weeks to come!


"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

Scapegoating. It’s a favorite political activity these days. You identify a particular group of people and blame them for some or all of the nation’s woes. Right now it seems that teachers, public service unions, immigrants, and the police are particularly popular ones. A few years ago “welfare mothers” were popular but that seems to have passed.

The term “scapegoat” comes from the Bible and it is an apt one for what politicians and pundits are doing. The story is in Leviticus 16 and it has to do with dealing with the national sins of the people of Israel. As part of this, two goats were selected. One was sacrificed and the other was the “scapegoat”. The priest would confess the national sins of Israel over the goat, and then it would be led into the wilderness, “bearing” those sins.

The idea is one of making a particular person or persons responsible for the sins or problems of a nation and then sending them into the “wilderness”–socially ostracizing them in some way, treating them as a lesser class of human beings.

It trades on this haunting awareness that nations aren’t what they think they ought to be, that there is something wrong with us. Instead of acknowledging that the problem really is with all of us, in all of the complexity that involves, scapegoats make life simple. For example, one candidate said if he were king, not president, he would abolish teachers lounges.

It’s interesting that we scapegoat the people we trust to teach our children. I suspect most people, when asked, actually think their own children’s teachers do a pretty good job, it is just those “other” teachers. Is what we are dealing with an awareness that our schools, our children are not turning out as we would want them to, which may be a far more complex problem than just our teachers? Could this not also involve school leadership, education funding, media usage, and parents themselves? But that’s complicated, and may put the spotlight on us. Let’s just blame the teachers.

One of the reasons scapegoating works is that you can always find an individual example because, among a group of people, there will always be one. And thus the whole group is suspect, a specious form of logic at best.

I, for one, think this is far from a harmless activity. It can have consequences that impact the liberty, livelihood, and even life itself of people. Nurtured over time, it can even become genocidal as was the case with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Tell a lie long enough, loud enough, repeatedly enough and people will believe it to be true and you can use it to incite people to action.

Scapegoating is playing God. Only God could designate scapegoats in the Bible, and there were only two in all of history–the scapegoat of Leviticus, and his own Son, who bore the sins of all humanity. Christians believe that this was enough to deal with individual sins and national sins. No more are needed.

Every country has its problems, but it seems to me that we need the genius and efforts of all our people, and even the industry of those who want to make their home in our country, to address these. A culture of blame and scapegoating will prevent us from seeing the truths about ourselves that may be the real first step to progress. Let’s leave scapegoating to biblical times and to God who may know better about these things.

Reading on your Phone

IMG_2384Well, I finally drank the Koolaid recently and plunked down for a smartphone, retiring my five plus year old flip phone with a dying battery. I bought one of the new Samsung Galaxy S6’s and have to say I’m a convert, not entirely to the pleasure of my wife. There really are times I shouldn’t be playing with it! I’m slowly learning to have a time in the evening where I plug it into the charger and turn off the alarms.

One of the things about the new smartphones is the size and resolution of the screens (5.1 inches on the Samsung) that makes reading possible, particularly if the print size is fairly large. And so it was with interest that I read the Wall Street Journal article this past week on “The Rise of Phone Reading“.

I haven’t read any books on my phone yet, although I’ve downloaded the Kindle app, and also the Logos app (Android versions), so that all the content I have on these two applications on my computer, and in the former case, my Kindle reader, is now available on my phone. So far, the main reading on my phone has been email, and checking different social media, much connected with this blog. I also watched a missed episode of The McLaughlin Group, sitting in my driveway on a nice summer evening, streaming it over my wi-fi.

One sign to me that phone reading was gaining in usage was complaints about this blog before I went “responsive” back in April. The print was too small and it didn’t reformat well for the phone. Now it does, as I’ve discovered when I’ve checked out the blog on my phone.

Phones are also changing e-reading habits when it comes to books. The WSJ article indicates that using phones to read at least part of the time has grown from 24 percent in 2012 to 52 percent by the end of 2014. E-reader usage has dropped from 50 to 32 percent and tablet use from 44 to 41 percent in the same period.

The capabilities of the phone make it possible via GPS features to offer books at specific GPS coordinates like airports or train stations and some publishers are offering free access to some books at these locations. Publishers are also re-thinking covers and other formatting issues to make books phone-friendly.

I also discovered that the Goodreads app includes a bar code scanner that automatically enters a new book into your book lists on Goodreads–something you can’t do on the computer version, where you have to search titles or hand enter ISBNs to find your edition in their database.

And people are responding to these phone apps and adaptations. The number exclusively using their phones to read has grown from 9 to 14 percent in the last two years. And one can see the sense in this. I’ve already discovered that I almost always have the phone with me when I’m out, as opposed to print books and e-readers. Already, people have reported reading books like Moby Dick and War and Peace on their phones.

It seems to me, however, that the best type of book to read on this format are books that can be read in “snatches” without losing the continuity necessary for making sense of longer works. Short essays, meditations, “One minute…” kinds of things would seem to especially lend themselves to this format, where one is often reading while waiting for a bus, or a flight.

Interrupted reading is definitely more of an issue in the settings where many read using these devices. One thing that can help is turning off the alarms, which can be very distracting and enticing and put phones at a decided disadvantage to dedicated e-readers. As far as external distractions, they have always been there. If you listen to books on audio via headphones, you can tune some of that out as well.

I can’t speak to how the reading experience compares with e-readers or physical books yet. My hunch is that these, like e-readers are better for light reading than the kinds of things one would read closely. And I have to say that I won’t be using it in the places where I enjoy physical books. But I just might have occasion where I start a book on my phone, when I don’t have my e-reader or it isn’t handy. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, I’d love to know if you’ve seen a change in your reading habits if you’ve acquired a smartphone and what that has been like for you.

Review: Global Evangelicalism

Global EvangelicalismGlobal Evangelicalism, Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, eds. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This collection surveys the global growth of evangelicalism from historical and theological perspectives, including case studies of growth in each region of the world, and special concerns of ecumenism and gender issues.

One of the most surprising things for readers not familiar with the global growth of evangelicalism is that it is indeed a global phenomenon and not confined to Europe and North America. Indeed, the populations of those who would identify with evangelical Christianity outside these two areas actually exceeds that of those in the West.

This work explores this growth from a historical, theological and regional perspective. Part One of the book includes an essay defining evangelicalism by Mark Noll, where he surveys our understanding of evangelicalism in its global manifestation, centered around four hallmarks of conversion, The Bible, activism, and crucicentrism. Beyond this there are wide variations in terms of fundamentalists, the pentecostal movement and various cultural expressions. William Shenk then considers the theological factors behind the expansion of evangelicalism including pietism, personal renewal, voluntary societies and theologies of mission. Finally Donald M. Lewis looks at the relationship of globalization, religion in general and evangelicalism. One of the themes that comes up here that recurs in the regional studies is the indigenous character of many evangelical movements. Given their origins in non-state-sponsored voluntary associations in many cases, these have succeeded, especially in places like Korea and China in establishing powerful indigenous movements where Catholicism and other mainline churches have not.

Part II then includes regional case studies of Europe and North America, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Each explores the history of the growth of evangelical movements in these regions, the challenges faced, and particularly the challenge of indigenization, and the current situation throughout these regions. I would say these treatments, while including some self-critical material, tend to make the “best case” for evangelicalism–which perhaps may make up for its under-representation in religious scholarship.

Finally, Part III considers two issues. David Thompson explores ecumenism and interdenominationalism in the evangelical movement. The picture broadly speaking is the grow of organizations like the Evangelical Alliance within evangelicalism that spans evangelically rooted denominations while, until recently, eschewing broader ties, the recent exceptions including the work of Billy Graham, John Stott, and the Lausanne movement. Sarah C. Williams then addresses the record of evangelicals around gender issues. The stereotype is one of conservative patriarchy, but while acknowledging the presence of this, Williams presents a much more nuanced picture ranging from the initiative and leadership of women in the Sunday School movements of the nineteenth century, and more interactive ways in which men’s and women’s identities have been constructed.

I found this a highly readable collection of essays that spoke with a consistent voice. It was illuminating to see how often there was an early emphasis not only on Bible translation, but on translation of major cultural works into English. Likewise, the development of Christianity in each of these parts of the world that is culturally distinctive and indigenous, paints a picture of a global Christianity that is not a western export but many faceted mosaic of distinctive expressions of commonly held truths. Some scholars might find this overly sympathetic, or perhaps even biased by the scholars’ evangelical convictions. But perhaps this is necessary to balanced scholarly approaches that read into the history things like cultural imperialism even where the praxis has been otherwise.

The work is a great resource for anyone wanting to survey the growth of evangelical Christianity throughout the world. It includes a glossary of terminology that might be unfamiliar (I think this is a must in this kind of work) and helpful bibliography after each chapter for further study.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Things Our Parents Wouldn’t Get

Vanity Plate

Life has changed a good deal since many of us grew up in Youngstown. I know that before he passed my dad would just shake his head at some of the changes he saw around him. Here are some of the things I suspect would have been baffling to our parents, back when we were growing up:

  1. Cell phones. You mean you want people to always be able to phone, text, tweet or message you?
  2. Vanity license plates. What, pay money to say cute things and draw attention to your self?
  3. Limos for senior proms. The only time you ride in a limo is when someone close to you died.
  4. Gym memberships. If you have to pay money to stay in shape, you must not be working hard enough.
  5. Designer anything. You want me to pay extra money just so I can have a swoosh on my shoes?
  6. Bottled water. I guess a sucker must be born every minute if you can get people to pay good money for the stuff that comes out of the tap.
  7. Social media. What a crazy idea, sharing your business with the world. Mind your own business and I’ll mind mine.
  8. Cable TV. We already have three TV stations–you want me to pay money to watch more TV?
  9. Fast food. Maybe on special occasions, but who would ever think of making a steady diet of that stuff instead of good home cooking?
  10. Wanting to move away from Youngstown. Family, job, home and a piece of paradise in the Mahoning Valley–who wants to leave that?

Times have changed and even our parents, if they are living, may have changed with them. But when we were growing up in Youngstown, I suspect much of what we take for granted today would have been considered wasteful or just plain nonsense.

What are some things your parents just wouldn’t get?

Review: Deep Mentoring

Deep MentoringDeep MentoringRandy D. Reese and Robert Loane. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Deep Mentoring proposes that the development of Christian leaders of integrity is a lifelong, God-driven process that mentors play a crucial part in through attentiveness and focus on the spiritual and character formation of rising leaders.

We usually become aware of our need for leaders of spiritual depth, character and skill when we don’t have them. And far too often, our response is the crash, leadership course and filling positions with warm, and maybe willing, bodies–only for the whole thing to end in many cases with disappointment.

Reese and Loane contend that spiritual leaders of character and skill are developed over time through the deep work of discipleship and the attentive guidance of mentors. The book is broken into three parts. The first begins with “noticing God’s already present action.” Informed throughout by the leadership development work of J. Robert Clinton, they believe God calls leaders but that critical in the work are attentive mentors willing to engage in the slow, deep work of leadership development eschewing superficial, one-size-fits all, ends over means, hurry-up approaches. And what do mentors pay attention to but the stories of persons recognizing the three critical formations of character, skill, and strategy that are worked out in the course of our lives.

The second part focuses on four seasons of our life stories. These are:

  1. Foundation. In leadership development, consideration needs to be given to how God has been shaping a person from their earliest years and also the “family of origin” influences that shape us for good and for ill.
  2. Preparation. This ten to twenty-five year period is focused around growth in holiness while discerning and cultivating one’s gifts and the skills necessary to effective leadership.
  3. Contribution. If one has prepared well, this is the season in which character, gifts, and skill come together in service that has spiritual authority. It is the season of one’s maximum impact.
  4. Multiplication. In this final phase, the focus shifts from one’s own leadership to developing the leadership of others while continuing to grow spiritually.

Part three goes further with this last phase, which in some sense is involved in helping with the development of others through the four phases. It looks at how Jesus came alongside others in a way that was deepening, particularizing, hospitable and patient and then in the succeeding chapter how mentors might do the same.

Five premises serve as bookends to the book:

  1. Shape the person and you stand a much greater chance of shaping everything else.
  2. Discipleship and Christian leadership development are inextricably linked and together make a slow and deep work.
  3. Igniting a grassroots way toward renewal is possible. It doesn’t have to be top-down.
  4. A Christian approach to leadership formation requires a ministry of paying attention.
  5. Conditions can be cultivated in order for local communities to become significant places of learning and growth.

The book concludes with several appendices. “Lessons from those who come before us” is worth the price of admission as they discuss both why leaders finish badly and well. Three other appendices include one on lifelong perspective in developing leaders, observations from Clinton’s leadership emergence studies, and five practices to sustain long haul leadership.

I appreciated the book’s character-driven, developmental perspective and the practical counsel throughout for those mentoring or being mentored. Working in collegiate ministry where one often thinks of the academic year or the four to six years students are with us, the slow and deep perspective can be challenging. Two things seem of importance. One is to never neglect the dimension of investing deeply in people simply to get things done. In our work, we need to think how leadership activities not only accomplish goals but develop people, and make sure they do. Second is to realize that the most important things we do is lay down the preparation for a lifetime of leadership, and a contribution phase still to come.

This is a good book for anyone thinking about leadership development, but is far more than the typical leadership book in thinking of how leaders are formed and of the depth of attention required of those who engage in this work.

Magic Moments in Reading

Manguel QuoteYou know those moments. You are reading and the magic happens. It could be an exquisite description, an evocative scene, an insight that makes sense of the perplexing, an unexpected but thrilling plot turn, or a satisfying resolution. They are the moments that make reading special. Here are some of mine:

  1. Aslan’s romp with the children when he comes back from the dead in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  2. The arrival of the hobbits at Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings. Not the end of the journey but a truly “homely home”.
  3. The banquet scene in Babette’s Feast when hearts thaw and the good, the beautiful and the true are glimpsed over a magnificent meal.
  4. The radio broadcasts on science in All The Light We Cannot See for the sense of wonder they evoke.
  5. William Manchester’s magnificent description of Winston Churchill’s moral and political courage in The Last Lion, and particularly how he resolutely spoke against the Nazi threat when everyone else wanted to appease Hitler.
  6. The wonderful reconciliation between Jarvis and Kumalo in Cry the Beloved Country.
  7. The scene in My Name is Asher Lev, in which Asher and the Jews are dancing with Torah at Simchat Torah and he asks his Catholic friend if they love scripture as his people love scripture.
  8. Hannah Coulter for its exploration of how one can look back on one’s life in a place, and begin to make sense of what in the moment was baffling.
  9. Susan Cain’s wonderfully clarifying insights in Quiet of how introversion is not a problem but a gift.
  10. The moment I realized in the opening pages of The Institutes that I was encountering in John Calvin a truly fine mind who could write with clarity and depth about the love and glory of God.

I suspect not all of you would agree with this last, but there you have it, there are no two of us readers alike! And thankfully, we do not have to agree. In fact, part of the delight in getting bibliophiles together is discovering delights we’ve never encountered. There is also the delight of “you, too?” when we discover shared magic moments.

While I can’t gather you all in my living room, it would be delightful to use this “social” media to share some of our “magic moments” in reading. I’d love to hear what were some of your magic moments in reading that have contributed to your love of books and appreciation of life.

Review: Ecstatic Nation

Ecstatic NationEcstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.

Summary: Ecstatic Nation explores the period of 1848-1877, and the heightened feelings and frenzy of a country contending over slavery, going to war with itself, and then engaging in the conflicts of westward expansion and Reconstruction.

Ecstatic Nation opens with the death of John Quincy Adams in the chambers of the House of Representatives. Adams was the last tie with the founding generation, and the compact that was forged by intelligent, thoughtful men who created a nation. His passing marked a passage into a tumultuous period of national life as a growing nation wrestled with future of slavery and how the rights of men (and women) would be determined in this growing republic.

Wineapple gives us a narrative as expansive as the spirit of the people of this time, encompassing both the colorless James Buchanan and Rutherford B Hayes, and the colorful Nathan Bedford Forrest and P.T. Barnum and George Armstrong Custer. We have the revivalist Charles Finney and the advocates for women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

The book is organized into three parts. The first covers the years of 1848-1861 and the attempts to seek alternately compromises that balanced slave and free state representation as the nation pushed westward and territories became states and changed the political fabric of the country. We have the abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and the nullifiers like John Calhoun. We learn of the dashed hopes of women, who must wait another half century for the right to vote because a nation couldn’t focus on both abolition and women’s rights. And there are all those in between trying to preserve the fabric of the nation. Most striking, and tragic, was Stephen Douglas, dying months after his failed attempt to garner enough Southern support to win the presidency, and save the Union.

The second part is the Civil War itself and the paroxysm of feelings both on and off of the battlefields matched by the almost mystical sense Lincoln had of the war as some form of expiation for the sins of slavery, even while he sought for the military leadership that he found in Grant and Sherman to bring an end to the terrible conflict. We glimpse the anticipated the work of reconstruction that would give the black man what the Union had fought so hard to achieve, while pursuing the reconciliation that would heal the wounds of the war.

The third part tells the story of the dashed hopes of Reconstruction, beginning with the death of Lincoln in the midst of the glow of victory and renewed hope. We see amendments passed and rights bestowed to land and the vote, only to be seized away to be replaced with the law of Jim Crow. And there is the westward expansion, hungry for land and gold and the war on the Indian led by Sherman and Sheridan, punctuated by the tragic folly of George Armstrong Custer. The period ends with the election of the colorless Rutherford B Hayes, and the compromises he makes with southern states to obtain that presidency.

“Ecstatic” is indeed an apt description of the period. At the same time, it seemed to me that Wineapple was content to narrate the ecstasy of the period without attempting to tease out the underlying causes of the kind of messy, destructive tumult we went through as a nation. Yet one cannot read a narrative like this without wondering whether it would have been possible to avert the paroxysms of conflict and brutal expansion, or whether this was simply the inevitable outgrowth of social and political structures unable to contain the expanding and changing nation.

Nor is this merely idle historical speculation. I wonder about our own day and the seeming breakdown of political discourse, continued racial discord, gun violence and various social fault lines. We have our own bloviating pundits and politicians whose incendiary rhetoric seems to overwhelm the voices of reason trying to appeal to our highest ideals. It leaves me wondering who will prevail, and with what consequence?

Wineapple’s book neither asks nor answers those questions. It simply shows what a mess we can make of things, and how slow real social progress often can be. And perhaps that can be good to give us pause before we enter ecstatically into “crusades” that turn citizens with whom we differ into enemies who we must fight, defeat, and maybe even kill.