|A Forgotten Landscape|
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By Ariana Mangum
A panoramic epic about a Virginia family during World War II and the changes it wrought in a peaceful rural Virginia countryside.
Review by Judy Jacobs
It is 1938.
America is keeping a wary eye on
As the adults become more and more
uneasy over the events in Europe, Catherine Dickson, a young girl we come to
know as Doc, is unconcerned.
Europe is far away from the state
of Virginia and she has no reason to believe that life will not go on as normal.
invaded Poland, Doc’s naivety disappeared when she witnesses an elderly woman’s
reaction to this event.
The following lamentation made Doc
realize that nothing would ever be the same again.
“I’ve lived through three wars and
The War Between the States
destroyed my father’s family.
They lost everything:
their farm, their livelihood and
six of their young men.
We were just getting back on our
feet when the depression came.
When Yankee soldiers policed
Richmond, men could no longer vote or hold office and we could hardly keep our
We were poor, dirt poor.
I lived through those times and now
in my nineties I am forced to live through it again.
I can’t face it at my time of life.
Oh God, it’s too much.”
From this point on, Doc lived
in two separate worlds.
world front Erwin Rommel took command of the German Afrika Korps and began his
deadly assault of the British.
The German propagandist Lord Haw
Haw spewed forth his messages on the short wave radio to unnerve the Allied
To counter act these depressing
news broadcasts, the neighbors would gather around the village store and tell of
the courage of their forbearers as they homesteaded Canada or crossed enemy
lines in the Civil War.
Local folk tales about headless
horsemen and coffins that jump out of the grave were repeated to the delight of
Harbor was bombed and all of a sudden the young men wore uniforms and went away
to boot camp.
The work load increased for the
people left at home.
Doc learns how to raise chickens
and keep an egg route.
The Japanese attacked Midway. At home the ladies knit socks for the soldiers, roll bandages for the Red Cross, help spot airplanes and packs bundles to send to Brittan.
the stability needed to survive these turbulent events, Doc turns to her good
friends Harry and Clara Houghton.
With their love, guidance and
wisdom, Doc emerges from her childhood an extremely level headed young woman.
She comes to grips with the moral issues of how to treat a prisoner of war, an
indifferent mother, and a God who seems to let the destruction go on and on.
By the time the last page is read, you realize three different stories have been chronicled: a general overview of World War II, a more detailed account of war on the home front, and an in depth look of country life in the early 1940’s.
A Tantlizing Sample
The Last Peacetime Christmas
From A Forgotten Landscape
By Ariana Mangum
Christmas that year of 1939 felt strange. First of all, Mother’s sister and her family planned to come, an event in itself. They rarely visited us, and we usually saw them when we went to Grandmother’s in Indiana. But this year everyone wanted to be with everyone else, and families traveled great distances to spend the last peacetime Christmas together. Grandmother also came, and after Christmas she’d arranged to take me to Philadelphia to see Father.
Although Hitler made no effort to attack France or Belgium on the continent or England’s island off shore, we lived in dread. Everyone knew this phony war could not last for long. We were certain the Germans would attack, but when or where was only guessed at, and the uncertainty made us all nervous. Father said it would be in the spring. Meanwhile, England tightened her defenses and France prepared for war. The time of appeasement was over, and the world braced itself for another conflict of arms. The uncertainty was nerve-racking ever since the third of September when war was declared.
Grandmother wrote me that she was coming to take me to me to see Father. She also wrote that he had a new girlfriend named Frances. “I’ve known her parents,” she told me, “they lived in Indianapolis and were extremely nice.”
Confused by all these new people in my life, I wrote back and asked, “What do I call her?”
Then Grandmother explained about stepmothers and their roles in fairy tales. “Some stepmothers are wicked in stories, but some are very good people in real life. Why don’t you call her Frances?”
“Yes,” I wrote back, “I like that name. It sounds friendly, and the only other Frances I know is very pleasant. She’s two grades ahead of me at school and is fun.”
I hadn’t thought of Father having a girlfriend or getting married again. But men do, I supposed, usually like a lady to escort to dances and parties.
Grandmother wrote, “He might marry her soon, my dear, with the war starting. He’d like to marry. It’s lonely being a bachelor. Be happy for him, Doc, and learn to like Frances.”
This had never occurred to me. I felt unhinged like a broken door, unsupported by the doorframe. In fact, I went to the stables and swung a door with only one hinge to see how it worked. Not very well, I discovered. This upset me. I didn’t wish to become an unhinged door. Mr. Houghton found me there, and when he asked me what I was doing, I couldn’t explain.
“How long do one-hinged doors remain workable?” I asked him, feeling I must explain myself.
“That depends upon several factors: how strong the remaining hinge is, and if the screws are in tight,” he told me.
“I’m afraid they’re rather loose,” I replied; then I burst into tears.
Flabbergasted at causing such strong emotion, he retreated. I took his hand.
“The world’s terribly mixed up with Christmas visitors and Father’s new girlfriend, and Hitler and war. I can’t stand it,” I cried.
He took me in his boney arms and hugged me, then handed me a bit of rag to dry my face.
“It’s clean,” he assured me. “It’s a piece of the Missus’s torn tea towel. Dry your eyes. Old man Hitler isn’t coming to Virginia, so stop worrying and enjoy your holidays.”
“I know,” I said wiping my eyes. “It’s Father, you know, he’s getting married.”
“Oh, I see what’s caused those tears. He’s in the Reserves too, isn’t he?” Mr. Houghton took the rag and put it in his pocket. “It’s pretty serious stuff for a young girl to cope with.”
I nodded. “Yes, it’s serious. Frances is her name, and Grandmother says she’s nice. She knew her parents. You know, in Indianapolis when Frances was young. I must call her Frances because it sounds more friendly than Aunt Frances, Grandmother says.”
“I see,” Mr. Houghton said, “it’s a big change and difficult to accept. This war that’s not a war has everyone nervous. Hitler’s got to be stopped, and Europe will suffer. No, Doc, these are difficult times for adults much less a young girl. Your father loves you and when things are hard, remember that. Love’s a big thing, you know. It keeps people safe.”
He looked embarrassed as he squeezed my shoulder and walked away. He’d found it hard, I realized, to express these sentiments, and I felt grateful. It was hard for me to tell people my feelings, so I understood. I could express anger, but not other emotions which seemed to choke me. I loved Mr. Houghton for what he’d said.
Later that day I wasn’t so sure. I had a friend, Doris Symonds, who was passed around like a football between her parents. One lived in Florida and the other in Richmond. I felt extremely sorry for her, because, at Christmas, she had to decide which place she wanted to go. It was all very confusing, and it seemed she hurt one or the other of her parents no matter which way she decided. I didn’t want to be like her. I decided not to think about it, so I put the saddle and bridle on Billy and went off into the woods to ride in peace and to think.
About four o’clock when I entered the Houghtons’ kitchen I found them arguing about the war. In haste I retreated, but Mr. Houghton caught me by my jacket and held fast.
“Just a minute, young lady; Come in. We are discussing the war.”
“So is everyone else. I’m tired of it. Can’t you think of something besides the troubles in Europe?”
It’s only a phony war,” Mr. Houghton explained. “A non-shooting war; Britain is too poor to make battle against a flea.”
“Why does Hitler have to go and spoil everything? Things are fine as they are. Really, he’s going to tear everyone’s life to pieces.” I felt if the war was delayed, perhaps Father wouldn’t marry right away.
“Hitler wants to get back the land that the Allies took from Germany in the Treaty after the Great War,” Mr. Houghton explained.
“That man’s a menace if ever there was one,” Mrs. Houghton replied.
“I agree, and that’s why I should buy some cattle.” Mr. Houghton let go of my jacket.
“Now, Harry, we decided if we lived in the country, we would not raise cattle. We left Canada to get away from the severe weather and the responsibility of a large farm. My health isn’t robust enough to take on cattle.” His wife’s tones sounded sharp. “Horses are fine, but no other animals. I don’t want to be tied down again to a large operation. It’s too confining.”
“All right, dear,” her husband acquiesced. “Suppose I buy some chickens?”
Mrs. Houghton sighed deeply then asked, “How many chickens?”
“Oh, just a few so we can sell eggs and have some for ourselves. It will help the war effort when the shooting starts. Chickens will produce food. Remember the last time everyone had to grow something. We’ll get into this conflict soon enough, you’ll see.”
“Okay, then, chickens it is, but not too many. I’m not staying up at night bottle-feeding them as I did with the calves. A few chickens would come in handy, I suppose.”
Mr. Houghton washed his tanned arms and hands under the tap in the kitchen. “I’ll order some baby chicks from Southern States and we’ll go into business with a hundred biddies. That will be a good start.”
“Do you think we’ll get into this war?” I asked Mrs. Houghton, hoping to find a way to keep Father from marrying Frances and from going overseas with the Army Reserves.
“I don’t know. It looks pretty serious. But maybe things will get sorted out in spite of Mr. Hitler,” she said kindly.
Somehow I doubted it.
Soon after this conversation a hundred baby chicks arrived in a large cardboard box. Mr. Houghton fixed up an electric light for heat in an empty stall. Then he bought feed troughs, growing mash and water cylinders.
“This is sort of jerry-rigged,” he confessed to me one evening after school, “but I’ve decided to build a chicken house. You can get a shell sort of thing from Sears Roebuck.”
“What do you mean a shell sort of thing?” I asked him.
“You put it together with directions. But it mightn’t be any good. I’ll have to look into it more and find out what is the best breeding house. I want to get the goodness out of whatever I buy. It’s got to last the duration of the war as things might get scarce.”
“What do you mean – you put it together with directions? What kind of house would that be?” I replied, confused.
Within a week’s time he built a proper chicken house that rose from the red earth with the help of Sears Roebuck’s catalogue and Grievous Sin Snead.
“That’s more like it.” Mr. Houghton stood admiring his new building one late December afternoon. “It’s my birthday present from the Misses. You know my birthday is the twenty-first of December, the shortest day and the longest night. I only get a half a birthday because it’s dark most of the day.”
“How old are you now?” I asked him boldly, knowing it was a personal question and forbidden by good manners.
“As old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth,” he replied. “I’ve got a place now for a hundred chickens with a feed room, water tap and everything included. All I had to do was read those directions.” He indicated a dirty roll of papers stuck behind a two by four.
“It’s all okay,” I said, amazed. “Do you plan to paint it white?” Not impressed by his litany of facilities, I walked away. “It looks too new standing up there without shrubs or paint.”
Mr. Houghton circled his chicken house with a more critical eye.
“Yes,” he repeated, “it’s a fine-looking building. Who would have thought it came out of a Sears and Roebuck catalogue? The Misses was right. It will do nicely. Tomorrow I’ll get Grievous Sin to paint it white with forest green trim.”
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve,” I reminded him. “I doubt if Grievous will come.”
“Yes, green paint around the windows and white sides will look handsome, for sure. Don’t you agree?” He ignored my remark about Christmas Eve.
Mr. Houghton’s new chicken house caused quite a stir in the neighborhood. Miss Emma and Cary were given the “Cook’s Tour”, and even Mr. Harris drove down from Manakin to look over the new building.
“It’s a credit to the war effort, if war comes,” Mr. Harris pointed out after being conducted through the feed room, the nesting boxes and the little pump house.
“Yes, sir,” agreed Mr. Houghton with pride, “I am raising a new variety of chicken called Indian River Cross. They’re just being tried out before they are sold for general production.”
“I’ve heard of them. You should get plenty of eggs and meat with that breed. A very superior chicken, I hear,” Mr. Harris said with authority.
Often during that first winter I’d find a boxful of baby chickens beneath my neighbor’s stove. Huddled together under an old towel for warmth, this corner of the kitchen became their incubator. Over the years Mr. Houghton would raise not only chickens, but also guineas and even a pheasant under that stove – usually ignoring his wife’s objections. As the Christmas Season came and went, Mr. Houghton seemed contented with his hens and his horses. Although the black mares did little work except to plough our gardens and to pull a wagon to bring in the Christmas tree, they lived contented lives.
As the nation’s families assembled for this most special holiday, the clouds of war gathered in Europe. My cousins, Sarah and James, kept saying, “Let’s do that one more time, because nobody knows where we shall be next year.”
“Here,” I told them firmly. “I shall be here.”
“You don’t know that,” said James. “Not for certain. So I’ll eat some more chocolates just in case.”
“You’ll make yourself sick. And, anyway, I’m not going to let old man Hitler spoil my holidays,” I replied with determination.
We all ate too much candy, turkey and plum pudding. I felt as if I’d celebrated ten Christmases all rolled into one. I just couldn’t believe that this would be the last time I would open my stocking or trim the tree or eat turkey and dressing. I soon grew tired of food and took my cousins to the barn to hook up Jackie, our donkey, to the pony cart and drove them up to the Taliaferros’ house for a visit. The adults acted just as crazy as the children. They drank and ate too much, and sang too loudly the old familiar carols at church. Everybody kissed everybody else and slapped each other on the back. After a while it all became rather silly.
“Goodbye until the war is over,” the men greeted each other. “Let me have a little kiss now, before I go to war,” they coaxed the ladies.
Behind all this forced merriment lay a fear, unspoken but real, that next Christmas some of these partygoers would lay dead upon an unknown battlefield in France. I realized that this might be true since a lot of British people who worked for Imperial Tobacco Company planned to return home in the New Year. Colonel Hollis announced he was joining the Canadian Air Force shortly after the holidays. Christmas night I lay in bed and pondered over the events of the day. The dancing, drinking adults who wished each other Merry Christmas and laughed too loudly to cover up what lay in their hearts disturbed me. They acted as if all their frantic merriment would delay the war. Underneath all this false good will, I realized that they were afraid. I was afraid too that my comfortable world would be blown to bits. Father warned in his letters that an all-out war involving many countries was coming. I tried not to think about it. Yet it was there, the fear and the resentment that one crazy German could bring destruction to the whole world and to my life which had hardly begun. I knew one eleven-year-old girl, in America, counted for very little in the big scheme of things. Still I must believe in the ability of good people in the world to counter the evil that crept up behind us. The devil always worked by stealth and in the dark, somebody once told me, and he usually came from behind us unnoticed. I decided to think of other things. Next week I would visit Father, and then I hoped all this mess about war and Hitler would be placed in a different perspective. Father wouldn’t act silly and afraid. He’d show me how I could “deport” myself. Mother always told me my deportment needed to be improved.
But I think it’s what I feel inside, and the way I show my love and affection that’s really important. I just can’t express the same feelings of love for Mother as I can for Father. I’ve tried, but she rejects me. Perhaps she doesn’t love me. Maybe I’m not very loveable in her eyes. Mr. Houghton and Mrs. Houghton love me even when I climb trees and get terribly dirty. Father loves me and calls me “Son”, because he felt disappointed that I wasn’t a boy. He loves me though, very much. I wonder if he marries Frances if he’ll still love me. I’m sure he will, because we ride down to the river together and share secrets. That’s why I love Father and the Houghtons – we share lots of interesting secrets. Safe in the assurance that I would always be his girl, I dropped off to sleep.
The next day Grandmother drew me aside and told me I must not mention Father’s getting married to anyone.
“Your mother will lose face if people know,” she said. “There’s enough talk about her relationship with Rudy.”
“I don’t like him,” I replied crossly.
“Yes, I can see shy,” was her curious reply. “But you must never discuss it. That’s something better swept under the carpet.”
“How very Virginian,” I thought, “all these rules that make no sense one must know. I hate rules and things one can’t speak about. Mrs. Houghton will understand when I tell her.”
Grandmother and I sat in the guest room opposite mine off the upstairs hall. I could see she felt uncomfortable with the situation. She picked up her knitting, but after dropping several stitches she put if down again. I sat on the floor beside her chair rocking back and forth; a favorite position when I wished to think.
“You promise you won’t say anything,” she placed her hand on my shoulder. “Some things are better left unsaid. Gossip can be a hurtful thing, and we don’t need any gossip. Promise me.”
I promised, knowing full well I would discuss it all with Mrs. Houghton who would explain things to me. Once I understood the situation, I would refrain from asking questions. Grandmother seemed happy enough with my promise.
“Tomorrow we shall go see your Father and Frances in Philadelphia! She hugged me.