Carry On: Memories of Holland in World War I

This is the text of the oration Aine O’Connor delivered on May 28, 2018, at the Holland Memorial Day Ceremony.

Hello, and let me first say thank you, to all of you for coming out on this very hot day. It is an honor to be here, and I promise to be brief, if only so our lovely band members can get a cool drink of water. To start us off, allow me to ask you a question. It is a simple one, but I hope that you will take a moment to think about it. What do you know about World War I? It’s okay if your answer is, “You know, I haven’t thought about World War I in a while;” I’m sure you’re not alone. If it makes you feel better, it isn’t your fault; World War I is criminally undertaught in schools and remains a largely forgotten section of American history. Allow me to refresh your memory today, and explain why even a hundred years later, this war matters.

My own answer to this question begins here, in this cemetery. Last year as part of my research on the Holland and Hope College experience of World War I, I spent hours photographing graves of World War I veterans from Holland and the surrounding area. As a friend and I combed through the cemetery to find more graves, the weight of what we were doing began to sink in. For many of these men, a photo of their grave would be the only visual of them provided in our research. In my world, where selfies, photo opportunities, and social media run rampant, it seemed unfathomable that an iPhone photo of a gravesite could be the only proof that someone existed. I became obsessed with trying to find more pictures, and many summer afternoons were spent digging through the Joint Archives, hoping to get lucky. As I grew closer and closer to the city of Holland and my chosen college, I looked for photos of men who were being torn away from everything that was becoming my home.

How I wish I could show you every photo that my two research partners and I did find, under the expert wisdom of Geoff Reynolds at the Archives. But, since I don’t have the benefits of a massive projector screen—and since that would probably everyone to sleep anyway—allow me to just describe some snapshots of the Holland and Hope College experience of World War I to you. If you would like to see the real version of these photos, please check out our research website, the link to which I would be MORE than happy to give you once I am done speaking today.

“Counting Off”: S.A.T.C. men practicing formations, 1918, Courtesy Joint Archives of Holland.

Snapshot number 1: Over fifty men between the ages of 18-21 line up in the grassy area of Hope College affectionately known to all as the Pine Grove. They look young, even to me, and I’m their age. Several of these young men seem unable to not smile in front of a camera, their teeth giving them away even as they try to remain in military formation. All of them are wearing caps, and stand ramrod straight while learning a new drill that is supposed to keep them alive. These fifty-odd truly American men were the beginnings of the Student Army Training Corps at Hope College, which would grow to be nearly two-hundred strong by the end of the war. Khaki took over the little campus, as generals swarmed in to shape our young men into a war mindset. SATC members had their own classes, ate in their own mess hall, and used Van Vleck—a building that still stands today—as their personal infirmary. Even chapel services revolved around the war, as wizened soldiers were invited back to give speeches on the “German barbarians” or the significance of prayer during wartime. Although some SATC members would leave Hope to enlist, most stayed on campus for the duration of the war, keeping the college in a constant state of militarism. The men were in formation, ready to do their part to defend their country whether at home or abroad.

The Holland Polar Bear Club in 1942. Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.

For those soldiers from Hope or Holland who did fight abroad, life back home must have seemed like an idyllic dream. In another snapshot, two young, unnamed men stand grinning in front of a log house. That house is barely visible, covered in mounds of snow and ice. Those men look frozen, wrapped in blankets and coats. They are both from Michigan—as explained by their infantry number—and both are very, very far from home. These two men were part of the Polar Bear Expedition, a group of almost 5,000 US soldiers from Michigan who were sent to Siberia as part of an anti-communist campaign. Reportedly the US government chose to send Michigan men to Russia because they were used to extreme, unrelenting winter—which seems, even a hundred years later, like a cruel joke. Without any prior knowledge of communism, Russia, or, in some cases, how to fight, thousands of Michiganders arrived in Siberia by surprise. Hollander Dutch Strowenjans wrote to his family bitterly, “I do not understand this Russian proposition or why we are here or how long we shall stay.” He was joined in Siberia by most other soldiers from the Holland area. Whether or not they knew where they were going or what they were doing, these men were celebrated at home as heroes. Holland and Hope had done their part to “make the world safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson had told them to do. And so for years Holland held its breath, hoping and praying for its men to return home safely.

The too-early parade, Nov. 7 1918. Courtesy Joint Archives of Holland.

Holland actually let out that breath a little too early. Another snapshot reveals an Eighth Street in the midst of a parade, much as it was just a few hours ago. Large Red Cross floats adorn the street, as a hundred or so uniformed men march behind in neat formation. A large American flag is carried in honor, but if you look closely you’ll see there are too many stars for states—this was a service flag, with one star stitched for every Holland or Hope man in service. Only the tiny, handwritten date of November 7, 1918, in the bottom left-hand corner reveals the flaw in this parade—it was celebrated four days before the actual end of World War I. Rumors of a German surrender had caused a premature parade to break out! We just love our Holland parades, with or without tulips or dancers. Undeterred, Holland celebrated with another parade after the war actually ended. Unfortunately, that ending wasn’t quite true for everyone. For many Holland soldiers, coming home was a feat in itself. A late river freeze would trap the Polar Bears in Russia until almost a year after the armistice in Germany, and the original Holland parade. And sadly, twenty-four Holland soldiers would never make it home, either killed in action or from disease abroad.

My last snapshot returns to where we started, in this cemetery. It is a photo that I took, of a memorial to one of those twenty-four soldiers. His name was Willard Leenhouts, the first Holland man to be killed in action in World War I. His memorial stone is a beautiful marble, well-kept after over a hundred years. Behind his stone the cemetery stretches outward to the football field, where young Hope men stand together in a very different kind of formation. When I took that picture last year I was struck at the contrast. This boy, who was my age when he died, and boys, my age, playing football. Leenhouts’s death was seen as a challenge in the Holland community; one newspaper reported, “As a captain, dying, calls to his sergeant to carry on… so this Holland boy, falling out of the ranks is today calling to the people at home to carry on.” And so, the next time someone asks you, “what do you know about World War I,”—I’m sure that’s a question you get asked all the time—I hope that you will think of Willard Leenhouts. I hope that you will think of parades, and Polar Bears. I hope that you will think of snapshots. And your answer? Even though Holland is not my birthplace, I can still hope that you will answer it the way I do, this way: yes, I do know something. I know that my city, my college, and my people did the most extraordinary thing they could do: they carried on.

Memorial for Leenhouts at Pilgrim Home Cemetery, Holland, MI.

Thank you.

Faculty Feature: The Emotional Responsibility of a Historian

Dr. Wayne Tan

At a time when the humanities appear to be in a crisis mode, with declining enrollment numbers across campuses, I want to share my thoughts about how, from a faculty’s perspective, the work I do in history relates back to the core issue of what it means to be in touch with my humanistic outlook. As a historian, it is my job to think critically, articulate my thoughts clearly, and write cogently. This was what I was taught in school and also a lesson that is dear to my heart. Herein lies a question that I had only recently started to reflect on: Can the process of doing history be one that is also rooted in emotions? That is to say, a process that doesn’t pit mind against heart, but instead, one that marries mind with heart? For the longest time, haunting every analytical turn of mind is the fear (stoked gently by conventional wisdom) that emotions cloud judgment. Analysis at its best, we are told, should be clinical, exacting, and stripped of emotional biases in order to present an objective truth. But does it have to be this way—for a historian, fully absorbed as is to be expected in his/her task, to maintain an emotional distance from the object of analysis? After all, is not analysis itself also a subjective experience that is intended to produce a personal interpretive result?

Perhaps owing to my research background in disability history, I am partial to methodological approaches that scour the pages of history to seek out traces of unrepresented and underrepresented communities in our societies. The point of my work, summarized here at the risk of sounding hackneyed, is to give a voice to these communities—communities that have historically struggled for the right to exist despite as well as because of their disabilities and for the opportunities for a better quality of life. This research has also led me down a different yet parallel path of personal growth: I feel deeply for the human subjects who are at the center of the narratives I construct. To disclaim the power of emotions would be disingenuous. I could not ignore the anguished pain I felt upon first reading the case of Carrie Buck (institutionalized and sterilized against her will) in early 20th-century America and her uphill fight against a social system bent on condemning any sign of feeble-mindedness. She was forever ensconced in a legacy of martyrdom because of the inhumanity she had suffered. Nor can I suppress the upwelling current (and sometimes sinking weight) of grief and distress each time I bury myself in victims’ harrowing stories about radiation sickness in the wake of the 1945 atomic bombings of Japan and more recent local and state media reports of residents’ concerns about PFAS contamination and lead exposures from the alleged industrial pollution of drinking water. If these feelings fall under the broad lexical reach of the word “empathy”, then I am proud to identify with an empathetic audience.

There is a reason why I turn to writing. If I could reinvent the metaphor of giving a voice to the voiceless, I see a new significance in restoring emotions to my stories and perspectives—not the formulaic types that evoke sympathy as the be-all and end-all of writing, but the kinds that provide a well-considered context that would frame the writer’s emotional response. The stories I write shape the narratives I tell inside and outside the classroom, in the repertoire of courses I teach here at Hope College and also the everyday conversations I have. Words themselves are a historian’s consummate instruments to disclose thoughtfully an emotional inner self that is inseparable from the context. The singular act of writing, in all its complexity, weaves together the dense substance of words, which impart an emotional complexion to prose. To say this differently, words reveal as much about the emotional state of the writer as they do about the emotional profiles of the characters portrayed and described. That is why when I write, I own my words and take ownership of my emotions. When I speak, I do likewise. This is the emotional responsibility of a historian to himself/herself and to the subjects at hand and my personal response to why history and, more broadly, humanities matter to us. Now more than before.

Alumni Feature: Daniel Owens

Daniel R. Owens
M.Phil Candidate, International Peace Studies
Trinity College Dublin

When I sat down to write this piece about how studying history at Hope has shaped my career and worldview, I found myself unsure of where to begin. Do I write about conducting archival research on the Liberian Civil War and exploring the role of historical narratives in post-genocide Rwanda? What about the semester I spent studying post-conflict transformation in Durban, South Africa? Or perhaps I should devote this space to detail the countless conversations I had with the department’s professors—in their offices, over coffee at Lemonjellos, and even over dinner—about history, yes, but also my aspirations, sense of calling, and fears.

After a few moments staring blankly at my computer, my history training kicked in. Where should I begin? By reviewing what has already been written on this blog, of course! Two themes quickly became evident that mirrored my own experience in the department—the ability to think critically and communicate effectively. I’d like to offer my own perspective on these topics, focusing in particular on critical thinking.

For me, studying history at Hope was not about memorizing dates and events; it was about learning how to analyze messy, competing narratives and ultimately weaving them together into a coherent argument. Through this process, I came to realize that nothing occurs in a vacuum. Exploring the context surrounding a given event or action is often the first, essential step to take in order to unlock explanations (or at least better understand) something that at first glance might seem nearly impossible to comprehend. Allow me to offer three examples of why this matters and how my history training has served me well in this area.

First, as a graduate student in peace studies at Trinity College Dublin, I found that determining potential avenues for resolution to conflicts—be it in Ireland, South Sudan, or Central African Republic—always required a lengthy look back at prior events and the people that shaped (and continued to impact) the conflict.

Second, in my current role working for a leading online travel agency, I’ve learned that how partners and colleagues respond to the requests I make is closely linked to factors that go beyond the specific issue at hand. By keeping things such as their underlying interests and responsibilities as well as their perception of me at the forefront of my mind, I am better positioned to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.

Finally, in keeping with recent trends, one of the overarching themes of 2018 so far has been rapid change. Headlines of dramatic shifts in politics, economic policy, and technology seem to appear on daily (or hourly) basis. It can be exhausting and more than a little stressful to keep up. That said, I’ve noticed that examining the context of each blaring headline can help make things far less startling, enabling me to more easily grasp what is driving these events or actions. In short, my history training has positioned me well to confront the all-important why question.  

Faculty/Alumni Feature: Chad Carlson, ’03

So I’m in a social setting, mingling with a new acquaintance. I’m asked what I do.

“I’m a professor.” Bad start, haha.
“Of what?” Obligatory response.
“The history of sports,” I say, getting uncomfortable. I don’t like where this inquisition is headed.
“So you must know a lot about sports.”
“Sure, I guess,” I answer noncommittally.
“Well then, do you know who won the World Series in 1984?” Ugh.

As a historian, I’m offended by this question and the many like it that I’ve received over the years. History is not trivia. And yet so many people seem to connect sport history with sport trivia, as if my time in grad school was one long training session to acquire orange wedges (Sports and Leisure) in Trivial Pursuit.

But I have a parlor trick that usually satisfies those who ask about my profession. I can name every team that has ever won the NCAA men’s basketball national championship. (This might be my epitaph!) I have this trick down pat not because I study sport history but because I love college basketball.

It’s my love for college basketball that led me to write the book, Making March Madness: The Origins and Early Years of the NCAA and NIT Basketball Tournaments. I knew all the facts long before I began writing the book.

But what separates me from any other college basketball fan is the fact that I’ve studied history. My book is not an almanac of facts. There are a lot of facts in it, but they serve as nails that fasten the floorboards of the story. My book is a history. It’s a reconstruction of the ways that individuals and organizations navigated the social, economic, and political forces of the 1930s and 1940s to create and sustain the college basketball postseason tournament that has become among the most popular events on the annual American sporting calendar.

The story is fascinating to me. The more time I spent at university archives scouring through previously untouched telegrams, handwritten letters, and microfilms, the more amazed I was at the way certain coaches and administrators created and sustained what is now known as March Madness. The tale is unlikely, unusual, and, more importantly, untold.

The tournament had an inauspicious start. When college basketball coaches offered to run a 1939 college basketball national championship tournament under the auspices of the NCAA, two similar events already existed. Third on the scene, without a home base, without many of the top teams in the country, at the end of a decade marked by severe economic depression, and with the uncertainty of escalating international political tensions, the inaugural NCAA tournament actually lost money. Indeed, the NCAA covered a debt of $2,500 to keep the event going in 1940.

In 2010, CBS and Turner Broadcasting committed to paying the NCAA $10.8 billion for the rights to televise March Madness games. In 2016, the deal was extended for another 8 years, adding $8.8 billion to the contract payout.

This means that a small, poorly attended basketball tournament in 1939 that lost $2,500 has transformed into a mega-sporting event that, 85 years later, makes more than $1 billion per year.

These are some of the facts, the trivia points that people want to know when they ask what I do. And these facts matter. They serve as touchpoints of the past and they flavor the story. But the history, the academic work of understanding human behavior of the past, is in the narrative I’ve created. It’s in the flow, in the trends, and in the arc of the story.

My parlor trick helps me occasionally in Trivial Pursuit and every so often during Trivia Night at the local establishment. But the history of March Madness is so much more complex.

So when you watch March Madness this year, know that there’s a deep, rich, and nuanced story of its origin and early years. The story is compelling and attractive, and it brings an acute and robust context to any facts that anyone can rattle off about the event.

In short, it has a history—a story that I’ve tried to reconstruct as a historian…who also knows some trivia!

Chad Carlson is  Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach at Hope College. He will be leading a History Colloquium titled “Why March Madness Matters: Reflections on a Popular Sporting Event’s Forgotten History. The talk will take place on Wednesday, March 28 at 7:00 pm in the Fried-Hemenway Auditorium.

Student Feature: Mariah Bensley

Mariah Bensley in Venice

It was never my plan to declare a major during my junior year at Hope. I had a solid psychology major in process and on the way to completing my degree. My feet were firmly planted on the on the snowy sidewalks of Holland, so it was a surprise to many, especially my parents, when I changed my history minor into a second major. I am pursuing two majors in what appears to be two very different fields. On the surface, one is a social science while the other has roots in the humanities. However, what many people do not realize is how perfectly these two majors complement each other. In fact, I am surprised the world has not officially declared them sister fields of study and made some sort of interdisciplinary course requirements for both majors.

As I grew up, I was never certain of my future. One day I would be convinced that I should become a counselor, and the next I was planning out my world travels as a professional journalist. There was barely a career aspiration that lasted longer than a month or two, so upon coming to Hope, all I was certain of was that I was uncertain about everything. Nevertheless, when one is taking classes and paying tuition, there tends to be an urgency to find and create a path for themselves. Through personal reflection, I tried to find a common thread behind each of my potential professional interests. What I found is that I love more than anything is trying to understanding people: what people do, and more importantly, why they do it.

With this in mind, I felt the obvious major to pursue was psychology. I get to take classes where I learn the inner workings of the brain, the science of behavior and what defines a person as a unique individual. We learn to understand motivations, likes, dislikes, and quirky traits. However, all this understanding of the human mind still left me feeling unsatisfied. I, therefore, decided to consider a history major because I love stories. As we know by studying works of historical non-fiction, a person’s motivation is nothing without their succeeding actions. In the big picture, what a person chooses to do and how that affects others is essential to understanding the world in which we live. Choices, actions, and consequences all mingle together to create the century-old web we know as history.

A view of Sienna, Italy

This semester I am pursuing an incredible opportunity to study history in Siena, Italy. In my course, The Black Plague we began by learning the facts and numbers: which areas succumbed to the disease first, the death toll, and so on. I like to refer to this information as “Jeopardy Questions.” That is, Quick facts that would likely come up on everyone’s favorite prime-time trivia show. However, as historians, we are called to uncover more. In the course, we have been able to read primary source material, personal journals, and books written during the medieval time. Citizens of the day believed the plague was the end of the world, so once it was over chaos ensued across Europe. There was a power grab and extensive slaughter ensued. Citizens were scared and those who survived saw an opportunity to change their fate. People wanted answers for why this awful disease took so many and affected everyone. Christians blamed Jews, and brother abandoned brother. I was able to research the uncertainty, the conflicts, and the impact. I learned about the choices, the actions, and the consequences. In other words, I used insights from each discipline to develop a more intimate understanding of this tragic event.

“History is written by the victors.” This famous quote by Winston Churchill tends to encapsulate much of our study of the distant past. After all, history is made up of stories, written about people, by people, and for people about the human condition. Psychology and history are two sides of the same coin. On one side, history teaches us how human nature affected the past. We learn details about kings and queens, generals, and the ordinary of all ages who lived in different social/political structures and made an impact on the world. On the other side, psychology teaches us the relationship between the individual and the social, the nature of why people built or followed the paths that they did.

I am happy with my choice to combine psychology and history.  The two fields complement one another and strengthen the learner. I truly feel I am a better historian because I know how to look at the past through the lens of a psychologist.

It’s Course Registration Time!

Take a look at the upper-level courses being taught by our great professors for Fall! If you have questions about them, please contact Dr. Jeanne Petit (petit@hope.edu).

History 210-01 The Greek World
T 6:30-9:20 pm
Albert Bell

The ancient Greeks created many elements of our cultural heritage—philosophy, drama, democracy, to name a few. But contradictions, such as a democracy based on slave labor and ruled by a “first citizen,” lie behind the beautiful buildings and the dramatic victories over larger forces. This course explores the rise of Greek culture to its height in the fifth century B.C. and its evolution into the Hellenistic world that prepared the way for the Roman Empire. Flagged for global learning international.

History 221 01: Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa:
African Perspectives on Colonialism
TR 1:30-2:50 pm
Lauren Janes

This course explores the colonial experiences of Africans as well as the legacies of European colonial rule in Africa. We will examine the different ways Africans responded to European military conquest and political domination from the mid -1850s to the 1960s and the ways Africans struggled for independence. We will take an especially close look at Kenya and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The course is flagged for cultural diversity and Global Learning (International).

History 256 01: Recent America: From World War II to 9-11
MWF 12:00-12:50 pm
Jeanne Petit

This course will focus on the ways the United States changed in the years between World War II and the attacks of September 11.  Key question of this class revolve around the changing power dynamics of the last half of the 20th Century: How did the government and military respond to the fact that the United States had become the major world power? How did American economic dominance and economic struggles shape the ways Americans saw themselves and their role in the world?  How did American men and women of different races, classes, regions, ethnicities and religions understand and shape the meaning of social power?  Major topics include: the Cold War; the economic and cultural changes of the 1950s; Vietnam and the rise of protest in the 1960s; the economic and foreign policy challenges of the 1970s; the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, and the challenges of diversity and globalization in the 1990s. This course is flagged for global learning domestic.

NOTE: Instead of a traditional research paper, students will complete research and build websites in an effort to use the past to explore and analyze present-day issues.

History 295 01: The Age of Exploration in Global History
MWF 11:00-11:50 am
Wayne Tan

The world that we live in today continues to be shaped by the legacies of past empires. From commerce to cultural activities and diplomacy, societies between the East and West were interconnected in more ways than can be imagined since European and non-European explorers took to the seas on a global scale. This exciting period of exchanges and conflicts, known as the age of exploration, roughly spanned the late 14th through the early 18th centuries. This course will probe the context of exploration with focused discussions of topics like the rise of the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms, the Atlantic slave trade, the international networks of Jesuit missionaries, the spread of Christianity and Islam, the discoveries of India and the Spice Islands, and the silver trade in East Asia, among others. This course fulfills the global/international component of the History major and meets the Global Learning International requirement.

History 361 01: U.S. Military History
MW 3:00-4:20 PM
Fred Johnson

The United States’ military shaped and defined its character, culture, and politics and, ultimately, catapulted the nation into superpower status. This course examines America’s rise into becoming the world’s most potent warrior democracy, tracing the history of the U.S. military from its establishment to present day. Along with investigating the purpose and performance of the military during time of conflict, its role as a political and socioeconomic institution will also be examined, especially with regard to its power and limitations within America’s constitutional system.

History 372 01: The Social History of Early Modern Europe:
Wanderers, Warriors, and Witches
MWF 3:00-4:20 PM
Janis Gibbs

Are you interested in how people lived their lives in the past?  Consider early modern Europe—the period between about 1450 and about 1800.  This period saw significant changes—the expansion of Europeans beyond their continent to the New World and Asia, the fragmentation of the Christian church in Western Europe, the evolution of warfare and the beginnings of the change from feudal or mercenary armies to standing armies.  People’s beliefs were challenged by all this change, and some people reacted to change by accusing people they distrusted of witchcraft.  How did women and men navigate the changes of this dynamic period?  Come and find out.  Students will read both primary and secondary sources, and will write a significant research paper on a topic of their choice.

 

 

Student Feature: Avery Lowe

Dr. Fred Johnson and Avery Lowe

Anger and guilt are left at the doorway. Class begins with a prayer, and then for an hour and twenty minutes, my classmates and I listen attentively as Dr. Johnson enlightens us in his 300 level history course- the History of Slavery & Race in America. We are different races, we have different political affiliations, and our religious ties vary, but for that set amount of time, we come together to discuss the history of race and slavery in this nation.

Most of us have been exposed to at least some prior knowledge about the history of slavery. I personally remember learning about the Underground Railroad for the first time in second grade and driving to the Civil War’s many battles in high school. However, the issue of racism and the problems that come with it are not always so open. For many, racism is an uncomfortable topic, better left undiscussed so as not to offend or be misunderstood. But after just a few weeks in this course, I believe quite the opposite. All of us have been impacted by racism in one way or another. Taking the time to study this allows us to better understand ourselves and the history behind this nation.

As a history major I’ve been asked the same prompts over and over: “Was the [insert time period] a period of social progress or regression for the U.S?” What this class has taught me is that it depends on who you’re asking. The U.S was forged from a society that operated under systemic racism. Even our constitution was written to be ambiguous enough to deny rights to certain people. I shouldn’t have to go into great detail to describe America’s racial issues today. They’re prevalent in our society, and we can either look the other way or try to do something about them, and that’s where the importance of history comes in.

We have made a great deal of progress since the first African American slaves were brought to the United States in 1619, but racism still affects our society even today. Racism is a result of willful ignorance and ethnocentrism, and this combination was the beginning of a long road of race relations in our country.  Slavery, the Civil War, Social Darwinism, Jim Crow, eugenics, immigration laws, segregation, deportation- it’s all a part of our nation’s history of slavery & race. It’s imperative we are able to sit down and discuss these topics openly and honestly.

As I’m finishing up my history major, I’ve had a good deal of exposure to different historical periods throughout the world. Having a greater understanding of history, specifically America’s history has allowed me to see the progress we have made as a nation, but it also highlights the issues our country still faces. It is one thing to talk about the past, but our discussions are surprisingly relevant to the present.

I would recommend everyone take this class, regardless of one’s major. It offers invaluable insight into the past and present, allows for incredible introspection, teaches empathy, and for myself, has inspired a desire for great change.  If there is just one person denied the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” then there is still room for improvement in this country. As British philosopher Thomas Reid once declared, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Faculty Feature: Pliny was the Answer

Hope College Professor Albert Bell

Coming out of a class one evening I got a text from my wife: “Guess what the answer was on Final Jeopardy.” I replied, “Since I don’t know what the question was, I can’t know the answer.” She couldn’t remember the exact wording but it had to do with letters written by a Roman and it mentioned the death of his uncle, so the answer had to be Pliny the Younger.

She knew this because she’s heard me talk about Pliny for years. He wrote almost 250 letters, including two famous ones that describe the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, which covered Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, died in that eruption. A later letter tells the emperor Trajan how Pliny dealt with Christians in the province of Bithynia (part of modern Turkey) in the year 112. It’s the earliest non-Christian source we have about the Christians.

I became interested in Pliny in seminary and graduate school, more years ago than I care to recall. I have used his letters extensively in my research and academic writing, especially in my book, Exploring the New Testament World. Somewhere along the way, I began playing with the idea of writing a historical mystery set in ancient Rome. The main question was who would be my detective. Several writers—Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, John Maddox Roberts and others—write Roman mystery series that use fictional characters as their investigators. The more I read Pliny, though, the more I realized he had the skeptical, analytical mind that would make a good detective.

So, just as in Final Jeopardy, Pliny was the answer for me.

I like punny titles. The phrase “All Roads Lead to Murder” struck me as appropriate for a Roman mystery novel. That meant I would need to set my first novel at a time in Pliny’s life when he was traveling. In the spring of 81 AD he was returning from a year of government service in Syria. I found a small publisher that was interested, and off we went. That publisher put out three Pliny novels before the owner died. I was fortunate to find another small publisher right away, and the series now runs to six books, with a seventh due out this year.

I’ve been gratified by critical comments about the books. Library Journal said the second in the series, The Blood of Caesar, was one of the 5 Best Mysteries of 2008, “a masterpiece of the historical mystery genre.” One reviewer of the sixth book, Fortune’s Fool, said, “Bell reinforces his place among those who are pushing the mystery beyond genre, toward the literary.” I thought I was just telling stories.

All of the Pliny books are available online, along with my contemporary fiction and a couple of non-fiction books.

Student Feature – Noah Switalski

Noah Switalski class of 2018

When I decided to pursue a history degree, I never expected to be able to experience history firsthand; however, I proved myself wrong by traveling abroad to Seville, Spain in the fall of 2017. There, and throughout my European travels, I visited museums and historic sites and greatly deepened my understanding of history and how it has impacted the world in ways that are not immediately obvious.

13th-Century Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) in Seville, Spain

Seville is a city of around 750,000 people and is located in the south-eastern part of Spain, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, of which it is the capital. The city has experienced a tremendous amount of history, and all of it is evident in the structure of the streets and the buildings that remain. The city traded hands between the Romans, the Frankish Christian kings, the Omeya dynasty, and the Arabic kingdom of Al-Andalus and then the reconquering of the Catholic Kings in 1492. All of this rich history is on full display in the varied and fascinating architecture of the buildings and art museums. My experience as a history major allowed me to ask important questions when visiting such sites and to analyze the historical material offered, which was often biased in one way or another.

I was lucky enough to visit Rome while I was abroad, which was the crown jewel of my travels, as it contained many of the historical sites that I had been reading about since my childhood. The Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the many museums and buildings all captured my attention in a way that I could never have anticipated. My historical knowledge greatly improved my visits to these sights, as I could allow myself to fully comprehend the significance of each location and to really enjoy the work of our ancestors.

History, both modern and ancient, has captivated me from a young age, and experiencing the sights of history textbooks was truly a marvel for me. The buildings I visited and streets I walked all served to deepen my appreciation for history. Furthermore, I took a history class at the University of Sevilla while I was abroad and therefore observed how history was taught in a foreign university. It was enlightening to see the differences between the American classroom and the Spanish classroom, as the treatment of subjects such as World War II and the social revolution of the 1960’s were handled in a vastly different manner. Even the small anecdotal information was different, as the common history assumed to be known was that of Spain, whose history stretches back much farther than American history – at least according to written textbooks.

I would recommend that all history majors travel abroad – the experience of living history by visiting famous and important sights of human heritage is invaluable, as is the experience of exploring a culture apart from that of the United States. Even if it is not possible to make the voyage as I did, visiting the historical locations in places that you travel to is a crucial and often underappreciated step in for historical understanding. History is everywhere, written or not, and to truly understand it, one must get out and explore it!