Category Archives: Books

Japanese Treatment of POWs and Eliza Scidmore’s Last Book

Bruce and I watched a powerful film last weekend called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It’s a dark but ultimately redemptive tale, based on a true story of Japanese treatment of a British Army officer captured in Singapore during World War II.

The film was interesting in light of a section I’m now working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore. The chapter looks at her last book, As the Hague Ordains,  a novel about POW conditions in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. It was her only work of fiction.

Eliza was in the Far East on a reporting trip when the war broke out. She got permission from the Japanese War Ministry to visit sites around the country where Russian prisoners were being held, in temples, schools and community centers. One of the four places she visited was Matsuyama, on the island of Shikoku along the Inland Sea. That’s where the book is set.

The topic of POWs interested Eliza because the First International Peace Conference, held at The Hague in 1899, had produced accords governing humane treatment of war captives. One provision called specifically for belligerent countries to treat prisoners of war “as regards food,  quarters and clothing, on the same footing as the troops of the Government which has captured them.” Eliza was curious to see how they were being carried out.

Photograph of prisoner-of-war camp in Japan, from “As the Hague Ordains” (Henry Holt and Co., 1907)

At all the POW camps she visited in Japan, Eliza found the treatment of Russian prisoners exemplary. Even local residents acted sympathetically to the captives, plying them with cigarettes, plums and fans when they arrived on the island.

Because the POW issue was complicated to report in a magazine article, Eliza said, she wrote a novel instead. “I didn’t think people were likely to read a serious article about prisoners of war,” she told a reporter, “but they might do so if the issue were presented in lighter form.” The book purports to be the journal of  a Russian officer’s wife who goes to the bedside of her wounded husband in Japan.

“The Railway Man” shows a very different picture 40 years later, when brutality at many POW camps made war a living hell even off the battlefield.

The main character in “The Railway Man,” Eric Lomax, is one of thousands of Allied prisoners of war sent to help build the Thai/Burma railway under hellhole conditions. He cobbles together a secret radio to bring news and hope to his colleagues. When it’s discovered, he’s accused of being a spy and brutally tortured.

Back home in Scotland, the experience has left him traumatized, threatening a late-in-life marriage that offers a chance at happiness. After learning that the young Japanese officer who tormented him is still alive—giving tours of the old torture camp, no less—Eric sets out to confront him.

Not an easy movie to watch, but one of great human drama, historical insight and good acting.

Order of the Sacred Crown medal (also known as Order of the Precious Crown)

As the Hague Ordains was first published anonymously—reflecting perhaps Eliza’s nervousness at trying her hand at fiction, or to preserve her integrity as a journalist.

Soon after she was revealed as the author in 1908, the Emperor of Japan awarded her the country’s Order of the Sacred Crown. “She wore it,” one friend recalled years later, “when the appropriateness of the occasion overcame her modest inclination to parade her honor.”


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Eliza Scidmore and Other Women in WWI

Elizabeth Foxwell has spent much of her career immersed in mystery and crime fiction. She’s a scholar of the genre, has won an Agatha Award for her stories, reviews mysteries for Publisher’s Weekly, and is managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection.

Elizabeth Foxwell reads from her book at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. (Photo: D. Parsell)

Elizabeth Foxwell reads at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. (Photo: D. Parsell)

She took a very different turn in her latest project: an anthology of writings by American women who served in World War I. Titled In Their Own Words , it uses letters, journal entries, and articles to present a cross-section of women’s experiences in the war.

Eliza Scidmore appears in the book, among half a dozen female war correspondents.

Eliza was in Japan in the summer of 1914 when Japan declared war on Germany. She published an article in The Outlook magazine describing Japan’s entry into the war as an ally of France and Russia. Foxwell read an excerpt from it during an author’s talk last night at One More Page Bookstore in Arlington, Va.

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LibriVox Features Eliza Scidmore, on Alaska

Eliza Scidmore has made her debut appearance on LibriVox.

I discoverNGcovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s free online service of audiobooks recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. And the readers are people from around the world. A big, beautiful universe of book lovers.

LibriVox is great for easing my resistance to gym workouts. I’ve found it’s also a nice, soothing way to “read” in bed on a winter night before falling asleep.

I’ve been working my way through some of the classics I missed. So far: Middlemarch (tough to absorb in audio of mixed narrators, so I followed along in a paperback), several Edith Wharton novels and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the reader was brilliant, quite theatrical in his reading). My latest listen is one of my all-time favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Also have on my download list some works by John Muir and the British travel writer Isabella Bird. Continue reading

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Robert Caro and a Sense of Place in Biography


Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington

I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.

The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.

Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me three years ago at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington. He talked about the importance of place and setting.

[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character  …

The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in the first two draft chapters of my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

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In Boston, Biographers and a Lost Letter by Eliza Scidmore

Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.

I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found—buried in an archive—a very important letter by Eliza Scidmore. (Read more below.)

Happy campers at the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, all of us members of a book-writing group in Washington. From left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

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Giving the Gift of Biography

What better gift is there than books? With Christmas shopping at hand, I have a few biographies and memoirs in mind for people on my list.

John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2006). Don’t know how I missed this when it was first released in 2oo4 since Audubon is a figure who’s long fascinated me and my husband and I are both fans of big biographies. After I heard the author Richard Rhodes speak last summer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, I rushed out to buy this for someone special on my Christmas list (which means I’ll get to read it when he’s done). Born in 1785 in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as the bastard son of a French naval officer and a chambermaid, Audubon went to America as a young man to escape military conscription. Fascinated by birds, he spent 35 years wandering the American wilderness to paint them, resulting in his famous multi-volume Birds of America. Amusing observation in Jonathan Rosen’s New York Times review: “His birds are weirdly anthropomorphic (his white pelican looks as if it might consult a pocket watch before flying) and yet they are preternaturally realistic. They look like people who have been turned into birds and might turn back at any enchanted moment, but they have the simultaneous effect of returning their viewers to the wilderness.”

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D.C. Historical Studies Conference

Good news today. Just got the word that I’ll be speaking on Eliza Scidmore at the 39th Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies in October.

This year’s conference is focusing on several centennial events in Washington, including the anniversary of the first Japanese cherry trees planted in Potomac Park. Joining me on a panel will be Ann McClellan, the author of a new book from National Geographic on the cherry trees, and John Malott, a former U.S. ambassador who now heads the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C.

We’ll describe our respective research on several people whose critical roles in the planting of the trees has been little known— Eliza Scidmore; USDA botanist David Fairchild and his wife, Daisy; and Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine.

Almost no one realizes that Eliza Scidmore grew up in Washington, so I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned.



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Eliza Scidmore and Other Women Writers at the Chicago World’s Fair

Women’s History Month begins this week. The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress is helping to kick off things with a presentation Friday afternoon, March 2, on a new scholarly work, Right Here I See My Own Books, about the special woman’s library assembled for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

I seemed to recall from my research that Eliza Scidmore reported on the fair. Revisiting my notes, I found an article she wrote for the Aug. 19 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine she was contributing to regularly at the time. 

It also made me wonder whether her work was represented in the woman’s library. I checked an online list of the titles. And yes, Eliza Scidmore was included!

The library contained copies of the three books she had published by that time: Alaska and the Sitkan  Archipelago, Jinrikisha Days in Japan and Westward to the Far East. Continue reading


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Some Great Teachers–and Writers

Writing is never easy, and the long-haul process of writing a book — especially if it’s your first — can feel overwhelming at times. When I started thinking about a book on Eliza Scidmore, I decided to do what I’ve always done when there’s something I’m not sure I can easily figure out on my own: take a class. I feel fortunate to live in Washington with access to so many great literary resources.

Here’s my shout-out to a few people I’m especially grateful to for their help as I try my wings in a new genre. Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore’s American Fan Club

I’m not the only one with a fixation on Eliza Scidmore. After I began researching her I met two other women equally fascinated by her remarkable life. Washington writer Ann McClellan learned a lot about Eliza while writing The Cherry Blossom Festival, published in 2005 as a souvenir book for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Hearing about my project, a colleague in the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress put me in touch with Ann, a friend of hers. Then earlier this year I met Andrea Zimmerman, soon after the launch of her children’s book Eliza’s Cherry Trees. We all agreed: Eliza was quite a gal. Continue reading

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