Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book R & R: Some Spring Reading

One of the great things about spring break was the opportunity to read some books of my choosing. I've had a couple on the shelf that I've been saving for the break. One is historical fiction, the other is California history. Both were good reads.

The Road to Kandahar, A Novel of the Second Afghan War, 1878-1880 by David Smethurst.

I've said before that I believe that reading a historical fiction is a great way to gain some familiarity with a historical period or event. David Smethurst sent me a copy of his book several weeks ago. I've been a bit of an Anglophile lately, having read a number Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series. So given the chance to read a book about the British competing with the Russians for influence and control over Afghanistan peaked my interest. Here's the description from the author:
October 6, 1879. The roar of guns and the shout of men reached a heightened pitch as the Highlanders and Gurkhas crested the ridgeline and attacked the Afghani trenches. Khaki and green uniforms mixed with the scarlet of the Afghans as the battle sea-sawed for a few minutes. Then the line of scarlet-clad Afghani troops wavered and broke. British Army lieutenant Robert Burton watched as thousands of Afghani troops fled in headlong retreat. The British had seized the first line.
The Road to Kandahar is an historical fiction novel about a forgotten period of history when Britain and Russia fought the very first Cold War in the heart of Asia. In this book, a British political officer, Robert Burton, and his friends, Richard Leary and Ali Masheed, fight a battle of wits against a cunning Russian political officer, Count Nikolai Kuragin. Against a backdrop of the high passes and deserts of Afghanistan, Burton, Leary and Ali must stop a potential Russian invasion during the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and fight against treachery and injustice within their own ranks.
Without giving anything away, that pretty much sums up what the book is about. But I have to say that it is well written, and has all the elements of a good adventure story: a likable protagonist, a sidekick, a girl (of course) and an easy to hate bad guy. There's plenty of action and the book is faithful to its historical accuracy. As the author sums up in his historical notes, there might be a lesson for the United States in evaluating the British experience in Afghanistan during the nineteenth century.

On September, 13, 1859, just south of San Francisco, a California State Supreme Court judge shot and killed a United States Senator from California. It was the culmination of a decade long argument over whether to allow slavery in the Golden State. 

These days we teach California history in the fourth grade. So you can imagine that the story get sanitized a little bit. For many years I accepted the version that California was rushed to statehood because the gold rush. Well, what does that even mean? Author Leonard Richards will explain that the forty-niners wanted to keep Southerners from bringing slaves to work the claims in the gold rush. Moreover, if California skipped the whole territory status thing and went straight to being a state, the residents could decide whether the new state would be free or allow slavery. This situation also upset the delicate political balance in Washington that had been kicking the can of possible secession down the road for decades. Needless to say, coming to a compromise was a bit of a pickle. 

This was my nonfiction choice for spring break, and it turned out to be very enlightening and very readable. My one criticism might be that the book goes into too much detail on the debates and political moves in both California and Washington D.C., but that might be that I'm not a huge fan of political history. That being said, the history of California is a lot more interesting when told at a level above fourth grade.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

La Purisima Mission State Park

Or, what I did on my Spring Break.

As you can tell by my lack of posts that I am still busy with working on a masters in education and working full-time at an alternative education school. I will not kid you, having a Spring Break is as good for the teachers as it is for the students. Sheila and I had our first days off together in two and half months. So what's the first thing we do? That's right, road trip to a historic site.

The first stop is the museum at the  
visitor's center.
We chose to visit La Purisima Mission State Park in Lompoc, California.  La Purisima was the 11th of the 21 missions established in California. The first mission was established at a site that is now in Lompoc on December 8, 1787. But that site was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and the mission was rebuilt on its present site about three miles northwest of the city. When you visit you'll notice that the new site is actually an improvement over the old. The mission is tucked into a hillside that will help block the winds that come with being so close to the ocean. There is a fresh water source via a spring and creek that flows through the site. Also, being at a slightly higher elevation you have an excellent view of the farm fields in the valley below.

The walking tour will take you past
the heritage animals kept at the
Mission: sheep, pigs, foul, donkeys...
and this critter. Very impressive.
Your first stop is a fairly new visitor's center with a great little museum that devotes a large amount of space to the Civilian Conservation Corps project that rebuilt the mission in 1934. We joke that once you've seen one mission, you've seen them all. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I visited seven missions at different times in my life and they are all a little different. What they usually have in common is a beautiful garden surrounded by historic buildings. Many are still owned by the Catholic Church and are still active. What is different about La Purisima is that it is not owned by the Church but rather the State of California and operates as a state park. The only way I can describe it is that La Purisima seems to be in more of its "natural" state. There is not a perfect garden and there are no church services. But there are historic buildings that are not surrounded by suburbia. There are active displays and even heritage animals on display (the bull and the donkeys are very popular). As a result it's a lot easier to get your history on and try to imagine what mission life was really like.

A real benefit is that the mission
buildings are not surrounded by
modern life.
Admission is free but it will cost you a dollar for a brochure/walking map to the site, which is worth much more than a buck. There are no food or drinks sold on the site, but there are some nice shaded picnic benches. I highly recommend brown bagging it, but Lompoc is only three miles away for restaurants and hotels. Some weekends there are living history folks demonstrating weaving, woodworking, and other skills from the mission days. So check out the State Parks site or much better the foundation site, Prelado De Los Tesoros, at lapurisimamission.org, for hours and a calendar of events.

Nothing like a nap after breakfast.
We finished our weekend with drive up the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur to Monterey. So enjoy a picture of a pile of elephant seals just north of Cambria. :-)

There is a recreation of the Native
American Chumash houses that would
have been located at the mission.
Inside the buildings are working
museum displays.
If you visit during the week, you'll have
the place to yourself. That is until the
elementary school field trip arrives.

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