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Book Report: Look at history this week: American and Spanish

Here's a book to take to the lake.

When clouds hover and it begins to rain pitter patter on your cottage roof, you can while away the time trying to figure out what's going to happen and you can learn a bit of history if you bring along a copy of "The Jefferson Key," by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books, $26).

Berry, whose several historical novels like "The Charlemagne Pursuit" and "The Romanov Prophecy," have been translated into 40 languages, lives in Florida and has founded a non-profit organization called History Matters, dedicated to preserving our heritage.

In his new outing we find ourselves in Manhattan where U.S. President Danny Daniels has just survived an assassination attempt, thanks to the intervention of our hero, Cotton Malone, a former Justice Department operative.

Despite his heroism, Malone finds himself at odds with an outfit called The Commonwealth, an ancient group of the descendants of pirates.

Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy have all been killed, presumably for different reasons. But Malone wonders if perhaps the Commonwealth might have had something to do with all these murders.

Accompanied by his attractive girlfriend with the unlikely name of Cassiopeia Vitt, Malone races across the U.S. uncovering a secret code possessed by Jefferson, unravel a mystery concocted by Andrew Jackson.

Finally, they find a document written by the Founding Fathers to make the murderous Commonwealth group hard to stop.


No doubt that the Spanish Civil War influenced Ernest Hemingway's writing of "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

A recent book, published by the University of Iowa Press, confirms that fact and then some. "Hemingway's Second War: Bearing Witness to the Spanish Civil War" (no price, paperback), by Alex Vernon, is sprinkled with unforgettable characters from that tumultuous time that set the stage for World War II. There's Francisco Franco on one side and "La Pasionara," the fiery spokeswoman for the Republic.

There's the great photographer Robert Capa, whose took the unforgettable photo of the Spanish soldier being shot at the top of a hill.

There's the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American leftists who risked their lives and jobs back home to fight on the side of the Republic. (As late as 1955, the U.S. Army asked every recruit if they had any connections to the group. If so, it didn't want the recruit. A kid next to me at the Minneapolis draft depot asked what the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was and a gruff sergeant just said, "Shut up and answer the question.")

The book is enhanced by several black and white photographs from Spain during the war.

Some of this is old stuff, but I was fascinated with Hemingway's participation in a film I've overlooked. The film was called "The Spanish Earth," an hour long documentary that was pro-Republic and supported by Hollywood movie stars.


On the regional front, we have a fine little book written by nonagenarian Olaf F. Larson, "When Horses Pulled the Plow: Life of a Wisconsin Farm Boy, 1910-1929" (University of Wisconsin Press, $17.95 paper).

Larson grew up on a tobacco farm near Edgerton and went on to become a professor of rural sociology at Cornell University. Now in his 90s, he lives in Florida and recalls the days when you put hay in a barn rather than leaving it out in the field in huge bales, when kids went to rural schools, eight grades to a room, when cows were locked up by wooden stanchions.

Larson was born in 1910, the same year as my father. But by the time the next generation, mine, rolled around some things hadn't changed much.

Larson describes his one-day class trip to Madison: "The first stop was at the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane. The visit there made a lasting impression...."

I never got to Madison, but every year in my hometown we made a class trip. First stop: The Trempealeau County Hospital, normally called "The Asylum." And it also made a lasting impression.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.