Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Old South balls and Southern values

Image from Gone With the Wind
Recently in the University of Mississippi student newspaper, a fraternity was ‘outed’ for attending an Old South ball. The author of the opinion piece asked of the fraternity members, “Is the perception you put forward one you can be proud of?” He quoted the chapter’s description of the event as celebrating and perpetuating “the social attributes of courtesy, graciousness, and open hospitality, which are values of the Old South.” A few days later, an irate law student defended the fraternity event in a letter to the editor, writing, “If people wish to value the Old South because of proper etiquette and manners in social society, I don’t think there’s a problem with that.”

This exchange in the Daily Mississippian begs the question, what are the values of the Old South? Are they indeed courtesy, graciousness, open hospitality, proper etiquette, and manners? A website promoting a similar annual ball in South Carolina describes their event as, “An old- fashioned War Between the States Ball” ( The home page features a quote from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: "There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South" The full text of the introduction to the famous novel reads:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...

So we’ll add to our list of Southern values celebrated in Old South balls: a pretty world, gallantry, knights and ladies fair, master and slave.

Here’s what we have so far for Old South values:

  • courtesy 
  • graciousness
  • open hospitality
  • proper etiquette
  • manners 
  • a pretty world
  • gallantry
  • knights and ladies fair
  • master and slave

Image from
The tradition of the Old South ball has been banned in some places, undergone a name change in others (Dixie Ball, Old South Formal), and been promoted by wedding planners who promise “the ultimate Southern experience.” Several websites incorrectly attribute the ball’s origins to the 1939 release of Gone With the Wind. However, the Kappa Alpha Order’s own laws explain that the ball evolved in 1920 and was based on the 1865 establishment of the fraternity. The Old South Ball website instructs gentlemen to wear ‘period military uniforms’ from the 1860. Photos and video on their website show men in Confederate dress uniforms waltzing with women in hoop skirts under Confederate flags hung from the ceiling. In 2001, the Kappa Alpha Order revised their laws, banning symbols of the Confederate flag and in 2010, banning Confederate uniforms. Old South Ball, on the other hand, does not adhere to these proscriptions, preferring instead to maintain the authenticity of the ball’s origins.

Let us for a moment review the dates associated with Old South balls. These events purport to celebrate Southern values, yet are centered on a particular time period, the 1860s, within the South’s 300-year history. Then there is the tradition of the ball, established in 1920, not 1939. In 1920, the women’s suffrage movement gained the vote for women, the first game of the Negro National Baseball League was played, prohibition went into effect, the second rise of the KKK was picking up steam, and the great migration was underway, a movement that allowed “African Americans began to build a new place for themselves in public life, actively confronting economic, political and social challenges and creating a new black urban culture that would exert enormous influence in the decades to come.” (

Protests at an Old South ball in 2009
Is it unfair to associate Old South balls with the Confederacy? The Kappa Alpha Order was founded by Confederate veterans and modeled on the ‘chivalry and gentlemanly conduct’ of the Confederate’s general, Robert E. Lee. In addition, the order has been repeatedly accused of racism and racial insensitivity for members sporting Confederate symbols at parades, balls, and other events. The order’s national chapter finally banned these symbols. Clearly the order is making strides to overcome the less honorable aspects of its history.

The timing of the establishment of the ball and its focus on the Confederacy notwithstanding, what do we make of the values it claims to be upholding? All of the values listed above point to a patriarchal culture that sets wealthy white men at the top of a hierarchy that controls women, non-whites, and poor whites. Courtesy, gallantry, and graciousness may have been practiced among the ‘knights and ladies fair’, but these virtues did not cross the color line. And what kind of hospitality was extended by plantation owners to slaves and poor whites?

The old South, like many cultures in 1865, was not a merit-based society. Men rose in power and influence according to the color of their skin and the wealth of their fathers. Women rose or fell in society based on their relationships with men. Women were not encouraged to have aspirations outside of being a wife and mother. Of course, that’s if they were women of means. Poor women of every color labored. They did not have pretty dresses and invitations to balls.

The law student who defended the Old South ball wrote that he is “tired of hearing about it.” His gallant forefathers no doubt were spared this irritation. They could walk away from the wailing of slaves separated from their families and brutalized by the whip, and retreat to the plantation house where the gracious ladies spoke only pleasantries.

The values of the Old South are not unique to the former Confederate States, nor are they unique to the 1860s. Margaret Mitchell’s inclusion of ‘knights and ladies fair’ in her description of the South hearkens back to a romanticized view of medieval European culture. People all over the U.S. and in the UK take part in medieval fairs, dressing in costume, feasting on modern imitations of medieval food, and playacting with swords. However, these fairs do not purport to celebrate and perpetuate medieval values. They allow people to experience the food, the music, the dancing, and crafts of medieval Europe without encouraging the antisemitism, violence, and superstition of that era. Last year, celebrity chef, Paula Deen, was nationally chastised for staging black slaves at a Southern-themed wedding at her restaurant. A few years ago, the UK group Maker Heights was eviscerated in social media for putting on a witch ducking at its medieval fair. People understand that the patriarchal values of earlier eras are offensive to modern sensibilities.

Southerners pride themselves on their manners – not cussing, men holding doors for women, refraining from hard liquor on Sunday, and saying ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ when speaking to elders. Do people really need to attend a plantation-era ball to learn these manners? What of the other old South values these balls claim to promote? Are these appropriate for modern culture? With their patriarchal foundation, do they create a perception to be proud of?

Patriarchy promotes the interests of the few above the well-being of the many. It is a system contrary to democracy, social mobility, and human dignity. Its pillars are violence and injustice. Now, you might counter that going to an Old South ball doesn't mean you agree with these values. But the problem is that the purpose of Old South balls is to promote these values whether you buy into them or not. There are better ways to teach manners and to celebrate Southern culture without romanticizing plantation life.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Awesome Justice

A year ago today, my friend, Linda died. We hadn't known each other very long, less than a year actually, but Linda had a way of touching people immediately with her warmth and welcoming them into her life. It was late May when we met in the choir room of the music department at the University of Mississippi. We'd both signed up to play nuns in a summer production of The Sound of Music. Almost every day through July, the cast spent hours together learning, rehearsing, and waiting. There is a lot of waiting in theater, and this is when people really get to know each other.

When I learned in December that Linda had terminal cancer, I couldn't believe it. But when I visited her in her home, I knew it was true. This woman who'd embraced life, was now embracing death. She was adamant about not fighting a futile battle. She was ready to go. Linda not only lived and died with dignity, she respected the dignity of every person. She was a woman of faith who believed that love, not exclusion, is the purpose of religion.

I am releasing Awesome Justice on this anniversary of Linda's death as a tribute to her life. I dedicate the novel to her, and to the Theater Arts Department at the University of Mississippi for fostering friendship, diversity, and respect in our community.

Back cover blurb:

Straight-A student Austin Justice is only four weeks away from graduating high school. But after being outed as gay, he’s harassed by his classmates. When he's suspended from school for fighting back, Austin has had enough. He goes to live with his sister, a college student working in a summer theater program. Pulled into the world of dark theaters, dingy costume shops, and free-thinking actors, Austin realizes that his whole life has been a dull performance. For the first time, he lives life unscripted, allowing himself to follow his heart and learning that love can overcome fear even in the most difficult circumstances.

You can purchase a digital copy of Awesome Justice here for $3.99.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Athelstan’s Newport – is there hope for the tiny Viking?

Vikings writer and creator, Michael Hirst, has taken a page from J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) and George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) by warning fans of his History Channel series to expect the death of a major character this season. Many of us were sure the victim was the monk-turned-Viking, Athelstan, who was brutally beaten and crucified by the Bishop of Wessex at the end of episode four of season two. However, just before the Bishop’s henchman plunged his spear into Athelstan’s side, the king of Wessex rode up and granted him a reprieve.

Viking fans all over social media breathed a sigh of relief, revealing that Athelstan is one of their favorite characters in the series. The young monk, captured as a slave by the Viking adventurer, Ragnar Lothbrok, but later granted the status of a free man, decides to remain with the Vikings even as he clings to his Christian faith and his monastic vows. Seven years have passed in the story’s timeline, from 793-800, giving Athelstan plenty of time to integrate into Viking culture. However, what is so interesting about his story is how he does not fully belong to either culture and is essentially powerless in both of them.

In my novels about 17th-century religious conflicts, Hope of Israel and Legend of the Dead, I wrote similar characters caught between religion and culture, and their difficulties trying to survive while existing at the margins of both worlds. Hope of Israel’s main character, Domingo, is a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition who is thrust into the world of London commerce while having to pretend he is Catholic, because Jews were not allowed to live in England during the 17th century. Domingo lives at the margins of society because he is young, poor, and a Jew. His book-learning and language skills give him a foot-hold in London, but because he has the look of an Iberian, he will always be an outsider. Domingo is not at home in the faith of his ancestors either. He can never go back to Portugal because of the Inquisition. On the other hand, he has pretended to be Christian for so long, his loyalty to Judaism is questioned by religious authorities. Like Athelstan, Domingo does not know where he belongs culturally or religiously.
Domingo settles in Newport in the English colony of Rhode Island, a diverse and unusual settlement that allowed religious freedom in the 17th century. There he meets Benjamin Vieira, another Jewish refugee and an orphan. Benjamin was born in Brazil while it was a Dutch colony. When he was still quite young, the colony was taken over by the Portuguese and the Jews were forced out. The ship Benjamin is traveling on gets lost in a storm and rather than returning to Europe, the Jews on board are forced to settle in New Amsterdam’s Manhattan Island. Having grown up in a Dutch colony, Benjamin is used to living among Christians, however, when he is captured by a Mohawk warrior and brought to live as a slave among the warrior’s tribe, Benjamin finds himself having to adapt to an entirely different way of life. Like Athelstan, Benjamin is brutally punished by Christian authorities for his association with pagans, whose culture he has come to respect. Additionally, both men are exploited by for their usefulness as sources of information about the enemy culture and suffer deep guilt about their role in subsequent massacres of communities they’d once considered themselves part of.

Some viewers of Vikings suggest that Athelstan’s inner conflict stems from Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological bonding between one who is captured/enslaved with his captors. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment. Human nature is wired to organize the world we experience into predictable patterns. Thus we look to the sky and see constellations rather than a mass of stars. We seek meaning in the events of our lives, no matter how random they may seem. When we can’t find the pattern, we are wont to say things like, “Everything happens for a reason” hoping that someday we’ll be able to fit the event into a bigger pattern of events. We take comfort in believing that there is a bigger pattern of events even if we cannot see it. Feeling our lives have some greater meaning is a survival skill. We thrive on stories in which a hero suffers with dignity and dies nobly. Suffering is inevitable. Infusing suffering with meaning is what makes suffering bearable. This meaning is provided by in-group loyalty in the form of tribalism, religion, and nationalism.

Athelstan grew up at the monastery, but he is not an orphan. According the History Channel biography of the character, he was given to the monks at a young age because his large family could not afford to feed him. Though he and his fellow monks call each other ‘brother’, Athelstan is just as much a captive at the monastery as he is when he first comes to live with the Vikings. Medieval monks were bound to their communities and lived under the absolute authority of their abbot. We see this dynamic in a scene early in the series when Athelstan entreats his abbot, Father Cuthbert, to see the signs of end times in a storm. Father Cuthbert orders Athelstan silent and sends him back to bed. As Athelstan obeys, the viewer understands that he is not a free man in this life.

Michael Hirst frequently raises the issue of freedom in Vikings. Athelstan presses Ragnar to give him the status of a free man. He points out how slaves in Viking society have no rights. He witnesses the ruling of a free woman against her husband in a Viking court presided by Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha. Later, in the Christian court of King Ecbert of Wessex, Athelstan is told that Christian women, even free women, have no rights and live entirely at the mercy of their husbands. After years of living with the Vikings, Athelstan remains bound by his monastic vows, which he struggles not to break. He has not taken a consort or wife, he refuses to kill for pleasure, and he does not have property of his own. Binding himself to these vows is his way of being a free man. Binding himself to Ragnar’s family is another way Athelstan acts as a free man.

Athelstan never speaks of a family before becoming a monk. When the monastery is destroyed and the monks all killed, he loses the only community he’s ever been a member of. Ragnar treats him like a member of his family and Athelstan takes up this role not as a suffering captive, but as a free man. Ragnar does not mind Athelstan’s secret loyalty to the Christian god, in fact, he seems to respect this aspect of Athelstan’s character. At this point in the series – midway into season two – Athelstan is thrust back into the Christian/English culture of his youth, but he is once again a captive, living at court rather than in a religious community. On top of his precarious position as the king’s tool, Athelstan seems to be having a mental break down.

The patterns of Christian religious ritual and practice have become muddled with those of the Vikings in Athelstan’s mind. In addition, he sees that neither culture can claim moral superiority when it comes to the treatment of enemies and the treatment of women. Athelstan wants to belong and he seeks meaning in what has happened to him, but the patterns are no longer making sense. It will be interesting to see how he handles this conflict. As a writer, I see three choices in Michael Hirst’s narrative for this character. He can succumb to despair and madness, he can forsake one group in order to identify solely with the other, or he can forge his own path outside of the direct influence of both religions and cultures.

Whatever the tiny Viking must endure this season, I hope Michael Hirst eventually allows Athelstan to find his own Newport.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Siena door knockers

We were in Italy a few weeks ago and I had to photograph these doorknockers in Siena:

Lion heads were the most popular door knocker

Man/man-like creature faces were also fairly common

Fist holding rope/wreath

Pixie? Fairy?

Another man face knocker

I love the detail in this hand - you can see the
knuckles and the finger nails.

This one is not a door knocker, but a hook
for tethering your horse. These are everywhere
in Siena because of the horse racing that takes
place in the Campo several times a year.

This also is obviously not a door knocker, but I had to
include it because it was so interesting. The wolf symbol
is everywhere in Italy, symbolizing the founding
of Rome by the twins Remus and Romulus, who were
taken from their mother and left to die by their evil uncle,
but then saved by a she-wolf, who suckled them until
they were adopted by a peasant couple.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise in Angers, France, January 27, 8:55am
If you've had the opportunity to live in a region different from the one in which you grew up, you'll perhaps have noticed how the sun does not rise and set at the same time around the world. Yes, you knew this because why else would we have to have time zones? But the changes are more far-reaching than time zones.

When I first began teaching religion in Mississippi, many of my students had a hard time understanding why early religions made such a big deal out of solstices, equinoxes, and midpoints between them. Why, for example, was February 2 an important holiday in so many faiths?

Most of my students had not  lived anywhere but the South. They had never experienced a winter in which the sun doesn't rise until after you've left for school and sets as you are returning home. The shortest amount of daylight in Mississippi in the winter is ten hours and the longest amount of daylight in the summer is fourteen hours. That four-hour difference is divided into two-hour increments between June and December and December and June. You might hardly notice a two-hour change over the course of six months. Because of their close proximity to the equator, Mississippians live in the daylight.

I grew up in New England, so I understand darkness. The difference in daylight in Boston is six hours of the course of the year. In the winter, we rode to school in the dark and we rode home in the dark. In the summer, we stayed outside playing until close to 9:00 pm.

Here in France, the difference is daylight from winter to summer is 7.5 hours. Winter days begin close to 9:00 am and end at 5:00 pm. By contrast, summer allows just enough darkness for sleep with the sun setting at 10:00 pm and rising just after 6:00 am. The further north you go, the more drastic the change. In Kiruna, Sweden, the sun does not set in June and it does not rise in December. In the southern hemisphere the seasons are opposite as is the amount of daylight. In Punta Arenas, Chile (about as south as you can go before hitting Antarctica), the daylight in June mirrors the daylight in France in December.

For early humans living in tribes, sunlight was survival. They mourned its dying in autumn and celebrated its rebirth in the spring. Surviving halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, around February 2, was worth celebrating. Daylight was returning, the children conceived in springtime and born at the onset of winter were growing stronger, hope became certainty.

Here in France the amount of daylight is growing, almost a minute on either end of each day.  It is still cold and often rainy, but every extra moment of sunlight is worth celebrating. So, on February 2, whether you celebrate Candlemas, the feast of St. Blaise, the feast of St. Bridgid, Groundhog Day, the beginning of Lent, the feast of the goddess of the sea, or Imbolig, take note of the daylight and give thanks, for winter is half way over and spring is coming.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Thank you, Euthaliareads!

Last night I discovered this incredible review of Hope of Israel on the blog of a young reviewer from the UK named Charlotte. You can read her blog here. She's a prolific reader and an interesting person who has dealt with some tough personal issues.

My Review
I actually found this to be a very engaging and well written novel that reflected the contrast of religions in a well lit sort of way. I think that we tend to forget that there are countless different religions out there, all of which have there similarities and there differences. But back in the olden days, where times were completely different, religions were not as openly accepted as they are now. Back then people were shunned if they believed in the wrong thing, or practiced in secret there true being. This book paints that time so perfectly in representing the difficulties of two very different people with different backgrounds and yet the same goal. The piece is a wonderful novel that flows from beginning to end and it really had me captivated within its page. I felt that the story was identified in a manner that meant you could somehow relate to the characters. It was well written and nicely presented.

Occasionally the book became a little confusing but I feel that this was perhaps a thought of my knowledge and not knowing just how bad the times were for others. I felt then that this book had its own thought provoking elegance to it that leaves you asking many different questions. Jews seemed to have had the hardest lifestyle of all, having been rejected from each and every country at some point or another. The book really identified that to me and it made me sad to think that people are rejected merely because of there religion. But what I really liked was the captivating love story that was within the words. it seemed to show that nothing should ever stop us from holding the hearts hand of the one we want to spend our life with, we should do everything that we can to be with them.

The trail and tribulations of love was truly well written here and it did have a very sort of romeo and juliette feel to it. But instead of it being two families against one another, it was religion that was tearing them apart. the piece just seemed to really open my eyes to what love is all about, that love is matter of seeing the person for what they are and who they are, not what they believe or know. It showed and represented to me that the world is a very judgemental place and despite the fact that I have finished the novel, I am still pondering over it and have so many questions that are on my mind. its a wonderful write and its so worth the read if you get the chance. just remember to keep the eyes open and the mind open as well.

My rating:  5 stars
You might also like:
After the Death of Alice Bennett by Rowland Molony
Between , by Jessica Warman
City of Glass , by Cassandra Clare

Posted by EuthaliaWings at Monday, January 07, 2013

Friday, January 3, 2014

Chateau de Chenonceau

The chateau of Chenonceau, outside of Tours and sitting across the Cher River, is likely at its best in the spring, when its extensive gardens are blooming and the River Cher is high from spring rains. However, the staff at this historic landmark did a terrific job decorating the chateau for the Christmas season. Three large Christmas trees adorned the salons and the main hall over the river, crackling fires drove away the chill air, and mantles and tables were decorated with festive floral arrangements. We visited on New Year's Day, and while plenty of people had the same plans, the chateau was not so overrun with tourists that it was impossible to get photos without faces or body parts in them.

The chateau's website is very well done, with loads of information, an extensive photo gallery and panoramic tour with an accompanying guide to each room.

Northeast view of the chateau.

West view of the chateau

Catherine de Medici's garden

The Marques Tower

Chapel windows

Ceiling in the first floor bed chamber.
All the ceilings in the chateau are works of art.

Bench in the first floor gallery

Alcove in the first floor gallery

Collection of copper pots in the pantry

Smaller staff dining room

Prep area 
Larger dining room for the chateau staff

The kitchen

Stove and ovens in the kitchen

View of Catherine de Medici's garden from a gallery window

Even the staircase ceiling is magnificent


Stained glass above the main door lintel

Rain spout gargoyle

The well on the courtyard outside the Marques Tower

View of some of the outbuildings, some of which serve as a wax museum,
along the long drive from the street to the chateau