Election season is in the air. For Claudia Sternbach, the constant vitriol and opposition she sees online, in the news and even in warring Santa Cruz County yard signs is disturbing. Worried about our current divisions, she headed to her local bookstore and bought two new novels on the Civil War — “Booth” by well-known Santa Cruz author Karen Joy Fowler and “Horse” by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. Both, she writes, speak to us today as we edge toward Nov. 8.
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For months now I have heard grumblings. Over cocktails, on long beach walks, in my own mind when I sit in quiet contemplation.
Is the country so divided that a war will be waged to settle our differences?
I have friends in Ohio, a state considered to be red, who would not be surprised. They, too, hear that before “things get better” things are going to get worse.
I listen to our disgraced former president as he threatens violence in the streets should he not get his way. I read newspaper articles where, even here in California, there are towns where this lying, obnoxious former president has the full support of the majority of the citizens.
As the Nov. 8 midterms approach, I am fairly confident that here in Santa Cruz County, the left-leaning voters, who are in the majority, will support left-leaning candidates and vote them into office.
But am I sure that the entire state will follow? In times past I would have said yes. A resounding yes.
Now, however, I’m not so sure.
I mean, did you notice the battle of the yard signs during our June local election, particularly around Measure D? Signs put up, signs defaced. Signs stolen, signs replaced. And that was over a rail-trail question.
To say nothing of the flags flown. “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Let’s Go Brandon” and so on.
Even Hawaiian shirts have been co-opted by right-wing devotees, which can be very confusing when you live in a beach town such as Santa Cruz.
In the city of Santa Cruz this November, two of our hot-button issues are Measure O, which asks voters to decide on the future of the Downtown Library and Affordable Housing Project, and Measure N, which would tax homeowners $6,000 a year if they spend less than 120 days a year in their home. Both sides have support. Both sides believe they are right.
And as far as state initiatives, the rivaling Prop 26 and Prop 27, the gambling initiatives, are causing angry debates all over California.
Again, the divide can be felt. Emotions are high.
And as each election becomes more divisive, more combative, uglier, more personal, who will even want to throw their hat into the ring? I worry about the caliber, maturity and training of our future local leaders.
In trying to understand where we stand right now, I have been reading about the last time a civil war was on the horizon, when neighbors turned against neighbors. I am not saying that is where we are. I am not saying it would be a war like the one fought in the 1860s.
I’m exploring our past only to see if our present situation in any way resembles that horrific time.
A few weeks ago, I popped into the wonderful bookstore Two Birds Books at the lower end of 41st Avenue. Owners Gary Butler and Denise Silva have done an amazing job when it comes to stocking their gem of a shop with both new and used books. Each and every time I stop by, I am thrilled they always have what I am looking for. And if they don’t, they are happy to order it. As an added bonus, shoppers may bring books in for resale when their own shelves at home begin to overflow.
I first checked out the small stand of books outside, then popped inside to see if they had two novels in particular: ”Booth,” by award-winning Santa Cruz writer Karen Joy Fowler, which came out in March, and “Horse,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, which came out in June. Both were on the shelves as if waiting for me.
I don’t know about you, but when I acquire two new, fairly lengthy books, I get as excited as a hound chasing a squirrel. My tail wags.
First up was “Booth.” As I climbed into bed (my favorite place to read), and then into the story of the whole Booth clan, I quickly became indebted to Fowler for her research and her ability to bring the remarkable story of this acting family to life.
Seriously, this should be a Netflix series. I have only met Ms. Fowler once, and it was years ago, when we were both invited to read at the old Capitola Book Cafe (R.I.P.), but still, I’m tempted to give her a call and suggest she let all the streaming services know that “Booth” could be the next Emmy winner.
I have spent years hanging out in New York City. Sometimes for months at a time. One of my favorite things to do is to visit Gramercy Park. Right in the middle of this lush, green oasis stands a statue of Edwin Booth. Across the street is The Players club Booth founded in 1888.
One summer, my daughter was performing in a play there and, sitting in the audience, I could feel the ghosts of the past, especially Mr. Booth and his pal Mark Twain. But I didn’t know the full story of the Booth family. It is so much more than John Wilkes and his despicable act that night in Ford’s Theater.
“Booth” is a deep dive into the entire theatrical family. Shakespearean actors led by their father, the Booth boys traveled the world. And like all families, they had their ups and downs. Big ones.
The more I read, the more I wanted to know.
Set against the backdrop of a changing country, this is a story of a family beginning to fracture due to political beliefs. I could get a sense of what some families in the country today might be going through. The Booth family was ripped apart by the political divide, culminating in the fateful night Abraham Lincoln decided to see a play.
By the time I reached the conclusion of the book, I had a much better understanding of what it must have been like to live during that time, and there were more than enough similarities to where we are now politically.
I read some of my friends’ Facebook posts and have a difficult time understanding how we can be so far apart on issues and still be friends. I dip into Fox News to see what’s up and am astounded by what is being broadcast. And astounded that there are millions of conservative viewers who believe what is being said. We are living in two different worlds.
At least as the country headed toward the Civil War, there was a clear line drawn. North versus South. Where we stand today there are no clear dividing lines.
I mean, when is an Hawaiian shirt just a Hawaiian shirt and when is it a political message?
Then I went on to “Horse.”
I cannot recommend this book enough.
It jumps back and forth in time from present day to Civil War days and is about the love and devotion a young enslaved man feels for a horse which will become one of the fastest, most famous runners not only in the South but the North as well. The story, like “Booth,” takes the reader into the darkest days of the war. The terror felt by both sides. The ugly, divisive behavior experienced by all.
And as I read, once again I could relate to the enormity of a country divided. The hate that seems to drive so many. The rights of individuals being stamped on. The vitriol.
Both books infiltrated my dreams.
Yes, these were works of fiction, but the war wasn’t. The bloodshed wasn’t.
How I hope I will live long enough to see how this all turns out. But I completely understand that to live that long I might have to live through some times so dark I never could have imagined. Would you or I ever have predicted January 6? We need to learn from the past or we are doomed to repeat it. Isn’t that what we have always been told?
Is there a solution on the horizon that has escaped my imagination?
I wonder what will be written in the future about our country today, hanging together by a thread. And will someone, tucked into their bed in the year 2060 be reading a book written by a talented author and wonder, why did it all happen?
Why didn’t we learn?
Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press), which also includes stories about her sisters. Her previous piece for Lookout, “I spent years watching my mother suffer from Alzheimer’s; we need a cure,” appeared Sept. 13.