Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story, by Mark L. Shurtleff

I graduated from college with a degree in history, and have taught American history and written numerous test questions over various issues in American history. But I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Dred Scott before I read Mark L. Shurtleff’s Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story, newly released by Valor Publishing Group. (Disclosure: I received an advance reader’s edition of the book from the publisher, with the expectation that I would review the book.)

I knew the basics—the kind of thing you read in American history textbooks. Dred Scott was a slave in the years before the Civil War, and lived with his master in a free state for several years. Because slavery was illegal in the free states, he sued for his freedom on that basis: once free, always free.

At first this was granted by the court. But then—as we see in the opening chapter of Am I Not a Man? --his owner had that decision reversed. Eventually the case Dred Scott v. Sanford went all the way to the Supreme Court. Here the court delivered a stunning verdict that slavery could not be outlawed in any state, because to do so would be to deprive owners of their property. The American ideal that all men were created equal did not apply to blacks. As a result, the Missouri Compromise, which had been keeping the slave and free states in an uneasy balance for the last few decades, was unconstitutional. The slave issue continued to spiral out of control from that point, and the Civil War began only a few years later.

So that’s what we get in the basic history books. But Am I Not a Man? shows us Dred Scott and his family as real people, torn apart by injustice. It shows some of the background of the slave question, the history of Dred Scott’s family and the first family who owned him (who were shown to be good and caring people, by the way). It shows Dred’s faith in the American system of justice all the way to the point where it completely betrayed him by declaring that as a black and a slave he had no rights.

The book does not quite read like a history book, although it is full of information and quotes from real individuals. Neither does it really read like a novel. It’s something in between: something a reader can learn from, and something with historical information, but probably not something a scholar can definitively quote from because scenes have been dramatized and to some extent fictionalized. Chapter notes would definitely have been helpful; in any given scene, I wondered how much dramatization had occurred. However, there are also long strings of narrative that simply explain background situations; these are the parts that read more like a history book and less like a story.

The action of the book begins at the crucial event of Dred’s being arrested and returned to slave status. The pivotal event is a great place to start. Then it explores several backstory lines, and returns periodically to the “real” story of Dred trying to regain his freedom. Dates are given at the beginning of each chapter, and I understand a chronology is available in the final printed version. Still, there is a dizzying array of events and people spanning multiple centuries in non-chronological order for the reader to keep track of. That said, it creates a nice effect of showing the contributions of many individuals to Dred's final triumph--or defeat.

The story of Dred Scott, slavery, and the conflicts that led to the Civil War are important for Americans to understand, and this book does a fine job of laying these out. Yes, these things are in our past, and there are few people who would support slavery today. But it did happen. It is a part of our past and we need to understand what went wrong. Besides explaining the ongoing issues of civil rights and other difficulties blacks encounter and overcome today, it reminds us that Americans—even those who consider themselves enlightened, pious individuals—can support causes that are terribly wrong. And no amount of legislation and trying to keep the peace can change whether something is wrong.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Man of His Word, Or, OU Really Should Have Won

Let's face it: the Sooners really, really should have trounced the Cougars in the big game last weekend. I mean, this is the Sooners we're talking about. The Sooners live, breathe, and die football. They have little bitty footballs flowing through their veins. I'm an OU alum myself, and even though I was never interested in football as a sport, I couldn't help but get excited about it when I lived on campus. It was just something in the air. (Or maybe it came from living across the street from the stadium.)

But OU has been a consistently strong team and has brought home several national championships. BYU won the national championship once, in a fluke season when no one could figure out a good reason not to give it to them. (Yes, I said that! Boomer Sooner!)

This situation, in which the Sooners really SHOULD HAVE won, sets the scene for an interesting tale from Eagle Mountain, Utah. Much of Utah, of course, is Cougar country. But Alen Howard, a teacher at Rockwell Charter School in Eagle Mountain, is a graduate of OU and a true Sooners fan. (I know this because he is also one of my many awesome brothers-in-law.) Knowing the sport and the teams like he does, his prediction of an OU win didn't seem unreasonable to, well, anyone. (At least, to anyone who wasn't a Cougar.) And before the game, he made a wager with his class that if BYU won, he'd eat a cricket.

Guess who had to eat a cricket.

You have to agree, Mr. Howard did keep his word to his class. Of course, I'm sure his kids have just loved the whole thing, and they all think he's really cool because he ate a cricket in class. And I'm sure they love having the video up on YouTube to show everyone.

But twenty years from now, they won't remember specific lectures their teacher gave, or most of the information he tested them over. They may not even remember their teacher's face (except from re-watching the YouTube video). But they'll remember that he ate a bug in class. And they'll remember that he kept his promise to them.

Well, there's your inspirational thought for the day. Enjoy the video!


GO UTES!!!!!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Altared Plans, by Rebecca Cornish Talley

As a teenager, part of me thought teen romance novels were really stupid. After all, falling in love as a teenager and scoring a date to the prom certainly were not end-alls to everything in life. Besides, as soon as the hero and the heroine are introduced and the sparks fly, you already know how the story’s going to end. It doesn't matter what else happens; you know they'll be together in the end. Why read a whole book about it? (Incidentally, there is a reason why I was voted “Best Scholar” of my graduating class, and not “Most Romantic.”)

But part of me enjoyed reading teen romances anyway. I liked the idea that there was someone out there who cared deeply about the heroine (and maybe that meant that there was someone out there who would care deeply about me, too). And I have to admit I was fascinated with scenes that actually showed how guys and girls acted when they were interested in each other and how relationships were built. (Yeah, that’s me again—taking something romantic and turning it into an educational opportunity.)

I bring all this up because as a teenager, I also was very curious about what it would be like to date LDS guys with the objective of marrying in the temple. After all, I knew that as an LDS girl, that was supposed to be my ultimate goal as far as romance went. So I think I would have really liked Altared Plans by Rebecca Talley, if it had been available a few+ years ago. It’s now available in bookstores.

Altared Plans is a fun romantic novel that does in fact involve students at BYU dating with the objective of marrying in the temple. Books with characters at this stage of life can be hard to classify, since marriage involves adults, but most adult readers are older than typical BYU singles. Altared Plans has been listed as a young adult novel. And while I enjoyed reading it myself, and I’m sure many other adults would enjoy it as well, I think it would best resonate with young adult readers looking forward to this time in their lives. It does address some serious issues such as marrying outside the temple, the importance of commitment, and dealing with nonmember parents and painful break-ups, but the whole tone is light-hearted. The banter between the characters is great, the dialogue is well-executed (especially important for young adult readers) and the whole thing is fun.

The book starts with Caitlyn’s wedding day—or, with what is supposed to be Caitlyn’s wedding day. She arrives at the temple only to find that the groom has decided to date someone else instead. Without anything better to do, Caitlyn returns for more school at BYU, but with an enormous chip on her shoulder against the whole dating scene. This eases with time, and with some good masculine attention. But she’s still afraid of trusting her heart to anyone again.

That’s the gist of the story. I could discuss individual characters and twists to the plot, but—hey, it’s a romance. You can guess how it will end.

I would have liked the relationship between the hero and heroine to be fleshed out more; I felt like their mind games took precedence over a real courtship. But then again, I’m probably the only female in the world who thinks Bella should have just decided she wasn’t going to date until college and then skipped the Edward thing altogether. So all you romantics out there, do take what I say with a grain of salt. Or two.

And enjoy Altared Plans. I did. And while I was happy for the characters in the end, I was sorry the book was over.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Blueberries for Sal and My Lifelong Dream

Today I fulfilled a lifelong dream: I picked blueberries. Now, it's not my only dream, and it's certainly not the only thing I ever want to accomplish. But it's something I've wanted to do since I was about four.

You see, my mom checked out Blueberries for Sal from the library for me when I was little, and we read it together. And I remember being completely enthralled with the story of Sal and her mother picking blueberries together. Her mom had a big bucket, and Sal had a little bucket. Sal picked her own blueberries, and they fell plunk! into her pail. And she could eat the berries, too. In fact, she ate all three berries in her bucket.

The pictures in the book were beautiful, and Sal and her mom looked so happy. By the time the story was over, I knew what my mom and I needed to do.

We had to go pick blueberries.

However, there was a small problem with my plan. We lived in Oklahoma, and there were no blueberries there. It wasn't just that we couldn't go right that minute, or it wasn't the right season. We couldn't go, period. Ever.

The idea that I just couldn't do something I wanted to, no matter how much I wanted to do it, was quite a concept. After all, I still believed kisses made owies better.

Fast forward a few years to today. I'm, well, a lot older now. My own kid outgrew the Sal book a long time ago. And I don't live in Oklahoma anymore. Here in Wisconsin, there are blueberries to pick.

And when friends invited me to go berry-picking with them, I figured I at least owed it to myself--my four-year old self is still in there somewhere--to go pick blueberries just like Sal.

And you know, in a way it was as magical as I'd imagined. The berries are sweet and plump, and come right off the bush when you pick them. They're full of good flavor, unlike the bland ones from the grocery store. I'd tried the grocery store ones occasionally over the years, and always wondered if blueberries were really as good as they were supposed to be.

They are. The real ones are.

Another interesting parallel is that Sal met a baby bear when she picked blueberries. I did not meet a bear today, but I did manage to bring home a tiny slug who was hiding in my berry bucket. I even picked it up and let it crawl on me, and I forgot to be grossed out.

Now that's some real magic.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Day I Locked My Keys (And My Husband's Keys) in the Car

Author Janet Kay Jensen is running a contest at her blog, which you can find at, where readers are sharing stories about times that they've locked their keys in the car. After writing out my sad story in Janet's comment trail, I looked at it and thought...hey, this looks like a blog entry. So, my apologies to anyone who has already read or will read this on Janet's blog, but here is (drum roll) THE STORY OF THE DAY I LOCKED MY KEYS (AND MY HUSBAND'S KEYS) IN THE CAR--with some paragraphing and other edits added in that I couldn't make when this Blog Entry was only a Comment.

I have some fun stories about times (yes, multiple times) that I've locked myself out of our house or apartment over the years. And times when I've "lost" my keys and had people looking everywhere for them, including the dumpster, only to find them later in my coat pocket.

But the time I actually locked all of our keys in the car, we were about to hike the Narrows at Zions National Park. I didn't have any pockets in what I was wearing, so I'd already put my keys away carefully in the car. My husband let me use his key to open the trunk for some last-minute rummaging around--making sure we had everything, making sure I was wearing the shoes I wanted, and so forth. I set the key down while I took care of my business. When I finished, there was a split second between the time that I slammed the trunk lid and the time that it actually latched where I suddenly realized that I'd left our only key in the trunk! Of course, the split second was not long enough for me to have a second realization that I really should stop the lid from closing and grab that key!

I felt very sheepish as I told my husband what I'd done. Our solution? We went on our hike anyway.

But when we came back, we had to involve the park service in unlocking our car. And they had to involve a highly technical device known as a coat hanger. It left little scratches on our newly tinted windows, and the fancy security locks were tricky to get past. But they did finally get our car open.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Glasses

I ordered some new glasses last week. I've worn glasses since grade school, so I've been through this ordeal several times over the years. And I have to say that I've never really enjoyed it. Actually, it's kind of scary to choose something that's about to become a part of my face.

At the optical shop last week, I did everything I was supposed to do. I found several frames that I liked, tried them on in front of a mirror, narrowed down my choices, and finally settled on the one I liked best. It helped when the saleslady oohed and ahhed over one frame in particular. (I have to wonder if she was ooing and ahhing over the price tag more than the style.) Well, I liked them, and I decided they looked pretty good.

But one thing I failed to take into consideration was that what I could see in the mirror at the optical shop was not actually quite in focus. They have lenses in the frames there, but they certainly weren't the same as my prescription. So, what I saw when I looked in the mirror there was slightly blurred--sort of like those hazy glamour shots that blend away your flaws and make you look like an angel on a cloud. Or something like that.

So when my new glasses came in yesterday and I tried them on, I was amazed at how crisp everything looked--including every single wrinkle and line on my face.

To be honest, I'm not sure I like these new glasses. I'm still going through the shock of seeing myself every time I pass a mirror, because I'm not used to seeing these new glasses on my face. So I can't really be sure if I like the style of the frames until I'm not surprised to see them. Meanwhile, I do like seeing the world around me in crisper detail. So I guess the new glasses are a good thing, whether or not I end up liking the frames. But I'm not sure I like seeing myself so clearly.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Brilliant Writings of My Unconscious Body

I am living proof that trying to get more done by getting less sleep just doesn't work. And until early morning seminary is over in a couple of weeks, I'm going to keep proving it. 5:30 comes awfully early every morning. In a couple of weeks I'll be getting a little more sleep.

Today I actually accomplished quite a lot, and I didn't feel sleepy at all...until I sat down to work on my book. A few paragraphs into the scene, I was nodding off.

Yeah, I know; it doesn't sound too good for an author to talk about falling asleep while writing her own book. But my book really isn't that boring, I promise. I can assert this on the basis that it doesn't always put me to sleep. Just sometimes.

Today, after snapping out of my fog, I eagerly checked my computer screen to see what I'd come up with while I was out. After all, maybe my unconscious mind had come up with something so utterly profound, or so completely creative that I'd be praised later for the brilliant insights contained in my book...someday, after it's hit all the bestseller lists and sold millions of copies.

Turns out I did actually type something during that brief moment when I was out. And now, here it is, completely uncensored and in its entirety:


I still may find some way to work that in to the rest of the book, but I have a feeling I'll be cutting that line.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Does This Make Me a Twit?

After months of resistance, I have finally joined the Twitter revolution.

The annual LDStorymakers writers conference was this weekend, and since it was in Utah and I was not, I wasn't able to attend this year. Fortunately, a couple of Storymakers on set up a Twitter grid that allowed them to send tweets from the conference. And so...I followed.

And even though I wasn't there, following the Twitter grid made me feel like I'd been there a little, in spirit, participating and cheering everyone on in some disembodied sort of way. Very cool. So I really have to thank all those who supplied the tweets to those of us who wanted to be there but couldn't--particularly Marsha Ward, Matthew Buckley, and Ben Crowder.

And, of course, there's this little side effect now--I now know how to Twitter and I now have an account. So I've been giving it a go. I think I've sent two whole tweets outside of the ones I sent during the LDStorymakers conference.

I was worried that Twittering would be incredibly time-consuming, sending out periodic tweets and keeping up with everyone else's. But at first glance, it seems like keeping up with the occasional tweet might actually be a lot easier than writing big blog entries and keeping up with everyone else's. (Sorry, blog fans; that's just how it is.)

We'll just have to see how this thing goes. After all, the experience of my two tweets and six followers has not yet catapulted me into the position of Supreme Twitter Guru.

So, if you're in the Twitter neighborhood, you can find me there at @katie_parker ... Yes, that underscore between "katie" and "parker" is important. No, I don't know who snagged the username without the underscore before I did. But you might get to if you try to follow her instead of me.

Seriously, though--I'm not going to say that everyone has to go Twitter now. But I will say that it might not be as crazy as I'd previously thought.

And, congratulations to the LDStorymakers for putting on a fabulous conference this year! I might not have been there personally, but I could tell it was definitely fabulous.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Way to Go, Miss California!

Big kudos go to a young lady who demonstrated recently that there are things more important than even the Miss USA crown--something that she'd undoubtedly worked towards for a very long time.

During the recent Miss USA pageant, as a finalist for the crown Miss California was asked whether she thought that every state should legalize gay marriage. None of the questions for the finalists were meant to be easy, but this one was a loaded cannon. Her answer, quite simply, was that she believed that marriage was between a man and a woman.

Since that time, she's been razzed, first off, for stating her personal beliefs in such a forum as the Miss USA pageant. (But why shouldn't she? The judge asked her what she thought. What else was she supposed to say?) She's also been razzed for not coming up with a more middle-of-the-road answer that would have pleased everyone. She was so close to winning that crown; if she'd just told the judges what they wanted to hear, she very likely could have had it. She could have said something more general, such as, "I think the states should decide this issue for themselves," and she could have been crowned Miss USA.

But even that wasn't really what she thought. Instead, she stood up for her beliefs and she called it like she saw it. After all, dumping the responsibility on the states still doesn't change the real heart of the question: Do you believe that this is what they should choose?

In an interview on the Today show, she said that she'd realized that winning the Miss USA crown wasn't God's plan for her. She went on to explain to the skeptical interviewer that the pageant outcome has opened up many opportunities for her already to share with people the idea that they should stand up for their beliefs, no matter what the consequences may be.

After all, it wasn't the woman who'd ultimately won the Miss USA title who was receiving all this publicity now. It was her, Miss California. She's now in a far better position to spread that message than she ever would have been if she'd hedged on her answer. And she knows that even though she may have offended some of the judges with her answer, she did not offend her own conscience. Nor did she offend her God.

So, way to go, Miss California! You've already made a bigger impact by staying true to your beliefs than you would have if you'd simply kissed up to the judges. Thanks for your example and for continuing to handle the situation gracefully.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Word to the Wise

Do not keep houseplants on your television set.

Especially if you're going to water them.

Especially if you're going to water them too much.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Breaking Dawn and Other Library Holds

I had never been even remotely interested in vampire stories before, but I've been working my way through Stephenie Meyers's Twilight series by listening to them on CD's checked out from my local library. And, of course, there's been quite a waiting list of patrons waiting to take their turns with the CD sets--particularly with the most recent book, Breaking Dawn.

So this morning I wisely wondered if I might be able to get Breaking Dawn more quickly if I requested the print version instead. After all, the library system would have more printed copies than it would of the audiobook version.

It was a wise idea indeed. Now I can proudly tell you that, even after all these months after the book's release, I am number 146 in a queue of 147 patrons who are waiting for the print version of Breaking Dawn.

Obviously I must have something going for me, because I am not number 147.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Missionary House Rules

When the missionaries in our ward moved into our house a little over a year ago, we were encouraged by our stake leaders to give the missionaries a list of rules and expectations up front. I've always thought this was a good idea. As various elders have come and gone over the months, I've added to our initial list. I always thought I was clarifying our expectations, but all I was really doing was making the thing so long that the guys weren't reading it anymore.

Since we're getting a new missionary today, I've spent some time revising and cutting the list. Rather than try to enumerate every little thing that could possibly happen, this time I've tried to keep our rules broad, clear, and simple.

Here are a few I considered, based on our now-vast experience. But they didn't make the cut, for whatever reason:

1. Squirrels are not pets.

2. Missionaries aren't allowed to have pets anyway.

3. Whether you think it's a stupid rule or not, it's our house and if we want to make a rule, you'd better keep it. (This refers to rules we make in general, not anything about the squirrel. In fact, the squirrel never made it into our house...that we know of.)

4. Keep your clothes on. I don't like to hear missionaries scream when I go into my storage room. (Note for the uninitiated: our missionaries have to go through our storage room to get to and from their bathroom.)

5. If you think you need to build a fire outside, you should consider going out tracting or doing a service project or something. Without the matches.

5.5. Yes, we realize that you have to build a fire outside if you're going to ice-glaze the interior of your igloo.

5.75. Which you built outside.

5.9. After all, what's the point of serving a mission in Wisconsin in the middle of the winter if you're not going to build an igloo with all the snow piled outside your door?

5.95. We are sorry we didn't take a picture of your igloo before it melted last year. It was truly amazing.

5.97. I really do mean this.

6. It is helpful, when you have other missionaries stay over before zone conference, if you introduce them to us when you bring them upstairs to make breakfast, and we stumble into the kitchen half-asleep before school and see all these strangers in our kitchen.

7. "Lights out at 10:30" does not mean turn off all the lights at 10:30 and then stay awake in the dark.

8. We love you guys and admire and respect you so much for taking this time out of your lives to serve the Lord and your fellow man. We know the work is not easy or even always pleasant, and it can be tough to be away from your families and loved ones at home. And we know that guys are interested in squirrels and fires and things whether they're missionaries or not. But you are doing such a great thing, and becoming great men and great leaders in the process.

Well, maybe I should put that last one on there anyway (I say oh-so-nobly). Someone once mentioned to me that if all young people would spend two years of their life in volunteer service like the LDS missionaries do, they'd have such a different picture of the world and their place in it and their need to contribute. I have to say I agree wholeheartedly.

But hey, these guys don't stop being individuals just because they wear missionary name tags. They're all one-of-a-kind, and they're all pretty cool.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration Day

I was pretty excited about watching the Presidential inauguration yesterday, even though I watched the coverage on TV instead of in person, and I was mending a pair of shorts while I was watching.

(Yes, you read correctly. I needed to mend a pair of shorts in the middle of winter in Wisconsin where we just emerged from a frigid spell of temperatures of 30 below. And the reason why I needed to mend a pair of shorts in the dead of winter? Well, think about it. You think I'm going to be able to buy new ones off the rack at this time of year?)

Being something of a history junkie, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to watch a piece of history being made. And whether you agree with Barack Obama's philosophies or not, you've got to admit that the fact this man with an African name and dark skin to match was able to become President of the United States is pretty inspiring. The United States is still a land of opportunity, and it's still a place where people of all races and creeds can belong and contribute.

I was impressed with the way President Obama emphasized our need to work together as a people to put our nation back on track. He recalled the pioneer spirit that built our great nation in the first place, and the ways that so many have worked diligently and sacrificed so much to make this a land of freedom and opportunity. Now greed, laziness, and out-and-out evil have gotten us into some pretty big messes as a people, and those who suffer today are often not even those at fault. But as I listened to President Obama's speech, I felt hopeful that as a people we could turn this nation around--on principles of hard work, sacrifice, and selflessness.

However, my hope diminished quickly. In all of the interviews and news analyses that followed the broadcast on the station I was viewing, the emphasis was not on Obama's speech or on turning the country around or any of that. Instead, people seemed blinded by the fact that we now have a black man as President.

Yes, this is an exciting and inspirational moment for our country. It's the result of the sacrifices and tears of many others who hoped and fought for a brighter future for African-Americans. But it's not the end-all.

No matter what color our President is, we need to unite as a people and work together to turn our country around. We're in the middle of two wars and an unprecedented economic crisis. Schools are failing, health care is a mess, and values and work ethics are going downhill fast. It's time--past time--for us to go to work as a people. It's not time for us to rest on our laurels because of who we managed to vote into office. There's a lot of work for us to do.

And if we will do the work and make the sacrifices, we can do great things. Greater, even, than paving the way for an African-American to become President.

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