Retracing Steps, Sorting Through the Past

The Literary Hill

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Award-winning journalist Elizabeth Becker pays tribute to three groundbreaking women war correspondents in “You Don’t Belong Here.”

No Girls Allowed
Back when female reporters were “usually confined to the women’s section [and] still wore white gloves to work,” a few courageous women forged a new path. The Vietnam war, because it was undeclared, gave them a way around the US ban on women reporting from the battlefield—and it became their crucible. In “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” journalist Elizabeth Becker highlights their remarkable careers.

Catherine Leroy was a feisty French photographer who landed in Southeast Asia with meager prospects but a fierce drive. She endured the rigors of battle with the troops and, as an accredited parachutist, even jumped with them. She nonetheless remained “an interloper,” constantly having to prove herself “because she wasn’t a guy.”

Frances FitzGerald had to overcome the stigma of being seen as an “overprivileged dilettante.” But, like Leroy, she immersed herself in the filth and stench of war, covering stories others did not. Her unique vision resulted in the prize-winning book, “Fire in the Lake,” which helped define the war for “generations of journalists and historians.”

Australian Kate Webb was the first reporter on the scene when the American Embassy was overrun during the Tet Offensive, describing what she saw as “a butcher shop in Eden.” She was captured by the North Vietnamese, but having “survived nearly six years of war…still lobbied to return to cover the end.”

Becker herself began her career as a war correspondent for the Washington Post in Cambodia in 1973. By retracing the steps of the groundbreaking women who came before her, she pays tribute to the “pioneers who changed how the story of war was told” and ensured that “the term ‘woman war correspondent’ was no longer an oxymoron.’

An award-winning journalist, Elizabeth Becker was the senior foreign editor of the National Public Radio and a New York Times correspondent. www.elizabethbecker.com.

In James Magner’s “The Dead Man on the Corner,” the appearance of a dead guy is only the first odd event in a Tucson neighborhood in 1953.

The Pirates of Tucson
Every neighborhood has its characters. And Tucson in 1953, the locus for James John Magner’s new novel, “The Dead Man on the Corner,” is no exception.

First, there are the Sky Pirates, a gang of kids who swagger around in buccaneer gear, bury treasure in the desert, and gather in a scraggly vacant lot to fight epic battles with their rigged kites.

Then there’s Tom Sullivan, an aging barber who entertains the kids with tales of the Old West; his friend Nino, an Apache who is the grandson of Cochise; and an assortment of gangsters, creepy photographers, eavesdropping old ladies, and veterans refighting WWI. “And right in the middle of it…the glue, so to speak, that held it all together, there was the mysterious dead man on the corner.”

The guy found sprawled on the curb is only the beginning of the neighborhood’s sense that “there’s something funny going on.” The police are flummoxed. “You ever feel like there’s a game of blind man’s bluff goin’ on,” the chief says, “and we’re always the ones with the blindfold?” Eventually, it falls to the ever-resourceful Sky Pirates to get to the bottom of things.

Rich in atmosphere and period details, “The Dead Man on the Corner” is a terrific adventure that captures both the joyous freedom of kids let loose to explore their world and the potential dangers that lurk behind the chicken coop in even the most innocent back yard.

A decorated Vietnam vet, Jim Magner is an award-winning author and artist who has written the Hill Rag’s popular art column, “Art and the City,” since 2002. www.jamesjohnmagner.com

Author Tamara Lucas Copeland writes a collective memoir about a group of friends who grew up together in Richmond in “Daughters of the Dream.”

Race as Wallpaper
“You can try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” writes Tamara Lucas Copeland, “[but] we never know what it’s like to be of another race.” She nonetheless does a remarkable job of showing what life was like in the segregated South in the 50s and 60s. In “Daughters of the Dream: Eight Girls from Richmond Who Grew Up in the Civil Rights Era,” Copeland relates the experience of a group of girls who became friends in elementary and high school, went their separate ways in college, and came together again 25 years later to form an even stronger bond.

During her childhood, Copeland “lived in a segregated neighborhood and attended a segregated school,” but because her parents deflected the impact of those harsh realities, “I didn’t know I was being denied anything.” When she and some of her friends entered an integrated junior high school in 1963, the year of the March on Washington, they protested the school fight song of “Dixie” and worked to elect a Black homecoming queen. But, like all teenage girls, they were more concerned with their hair, their clothes, and boys.

“We had lived, perhaps obliviously, through a period of incredible change,” Copeland reflects, and as high school ended, “we were about to go into eight different directions.” The young women went off to college and careers, adulthood and parenthood, marriages and divorces. They mostly lost touch with each other until they came back together in 1994 and gradually re-established their friendship, which continues to this day.

In looking back through the eventful decades they lived though, Copeland notes that race was “part of our day-to-day reality, like wallpaper.” Despite the challenges, though, “those eight Negro girls who started elementary school together became eight successful African American women,” she writes. “It’s simple. We are family. We are the Daughters of the Dream.”

Tamara Copeland is the former president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, and also led Voices for America’s Children, the National Health & Education Consortium, and the Infant Mortality Initiative of Southern Governors’ Association and Southern Legislative Conference. https://daughtersofthedream.org

: Cleaning out her mother’s house leads former columnist Jennifer Howard to a deeper understanding of why we accumulate stuff in “Clutter.”

Drowning in Stuff
Jennifer Howard was faced with a formidable task. So she did what any reasonable person would do. She tackled it “in bits and pieces,” spending more than a year dealing not only with mountains of debris, but also with “emotional snares.” Then she wrote a book about it.

In “Clutter: An Untidy History,” Howard describes the mess that confronted her when she walked into the house that her mother had occupied for more than 50 years. A hoarder who “trailed chaos in her wake,” Howard’s mother had accumulated “heaps and stacks and boxes and bags” of stuff—from festering takeout containers and “glasses with brown sludge at the bottom” to designer shoes and more than 500 cookbooks. And it fell to her daughter to clean it up.

But Howard delves well beyond her charge, examining the dangers of hoarding and of  “a culture that creates a craving for things we don’t need.” She traces the roots of excess consumerism back to the Victorians and follows it through the age of mail-order catalogues to big-box stores and online retailers.

She also addresses the industry that has grown up around decluttering, interviewing professionals who help people pare down their stuff and junk haulers who tote it away. And she notes that accumulating stuff is not merely an individual or family problem, but is having an increasing impact on the environment, “cluttering up the planet in ways that humans have not yet reckoned with.”

Yet still we buy, discard, repeat. As Howard writes, cleaning out our parents’ houses has now become a “generational rite of passage for contemporary Americans.” But thanks to her, we at least have some good company as we fill the trash bags, someone who has rooted beneath the surface and is able to eloquently express the burdensome mix of resentment, forgiveness, and catharsis that go with the job.

Jennifer Howard is a former contributing editor and columnist for The Washington Post, a former senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and a contributor to numerous publications, including the Times Literary Supple