Tag Archives: local interest

A Week in a Life Forever Changed

CBR_Logo2The Reason for Time
A Novel
by Mary Burns

The summer of 1919 was a dramatic one, even by Chicago standards: a dirigible, the Wingfoot Express, crashed in the Loop; riots broke out after a racial incident at the 29th Street beach; six-year-old Janet Wilkinson went missing; strikes and lockouts broke out across the city; and the Spanish Influenza continued to claim victims here, across the country, and around the world.

burns reason for timeGary Krist told the tale of these “12 days of disaster” in his highly acclaimed 2011 book, City of Scoundrels. Author Mary Burns tackles this remarkable stretch in her latest novel, The Reason for Time.

Set over the course of a matter of days in the summer of 1919—July 21 to July 30—The Reason for Time is told by one Maeve Curragh, an Irish immigrant living with her sister Margaret in a shabby boarding house for women. The novel opens as Maeve witnesses a blimp fall out of the sky and crash into flames, right into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, killing thirteen people. Maeve, walking nearby on Jackson Boulevard among the throngs leaving work for the evening, suffers a cut on her neck from some sort of debris, leaving her with a story of her own on that notable day.

A news junkie, Maeve scours late and morning editions for news of the crash—as she does for the rest of the week, which has no shortage of alarming headlines: the blimp, the riots, the strikes, the Wilkinson story. As it turns out, the week is a momentous one for Maeve as well.

Where Krist reported the events of the time, Burns takes a different tack, imagining how the week unfolded during the life of one individual. It’s a compelling angle. That week in July was much more than just the story of the thirteen who lost their lives when the blimp crashed into the bank, much more than the story of the transit strikers who risked their jobs, much more than the story of the hundreds of rioters who tore through the streets of Chicago, even more than poor Janet Wilkinson’s story. Indeed, millions of Chicagoans had their own stories of that week.

Maeve drives this story, recounting the strange days that would forever change her life. From her goings-on while working at the Chicago Magic Company to her involvement with the charming streetcar conductor Desmond Malloy, Maeve lives her own life—a life at once ordinary and remarkable—while the city reels in tumult.

Burns blends fact and fiction in The Reason for Time, a day-by-day account of these strange days colored by attention-grabbing headlines that heighten the tension. Maeve is drawn to these loud headlines, shouted breathlessly by newsboys hawking their wares. At the same time, she looks inward, contemplating the events that are shaping—and have shaped—her own world. As such, the story is both fevered and thoughtful as the days unfold, a well-paced work that ebbs and flows with just the right amount of tension.

Packed with detail, The Reason for Time is told in Maeve’s Irish dialect, full of contemporary idioms. Maeve’s voice has a distinct rhythm all its own, which can be difficult to decipher at first, but in the end lends the story a rich authenticity. Maeve herself feels real as well, a complex character full of hope and savvy, flawed but not too flawed, doing whatever it takes to survive the immigrant life in a tough, dirty, bustling big city. A spirited, spunky young woman, Maeve is not perfect. But she is likable, and her story is compelling… Compelling, if not a wee bit predictable. One might say predictable with a twist. It’s not too difficult to see where Maeve’s story will end, although Burns somehow manages to make the ending still feel surprising. Even if some readers might be a step ahead of the plot, The Reason for Time is still satisfying.

Full of history, local color, compelling characters, and a complex storyline, The Reason for Time is a quick read, but one that lingers and makes one wonder about the many other stories that could be told of that tumultuous summer of 1919.

Four-Star Review

April 2016, Allium Press of Chicago
$16.99, paperback, 216 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9967558-1-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen



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Where the Wild Things Are

CBR_Logo2City Creatures
Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness
by Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian (Eds.)

Parakeets in Hyde Park, skunks on the Northwest side, alewives in Lake Michigan, bison in Batavia, frogs in Wheaton … city slickers and suburbanites might not often think about the various flora and fauna that call the country’s third-largest metropolitan area home. But home the area is, to myriad species large and small, common and uncommon.

city creatures 9780226192895In more than a hundred essays, poems, photographs, illustrations, and stories, editors Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian have amassed a thoughtful collection of musings on the wilderness that is Chicagoland. From Evanston to Oak Park to Wheaton, from the Calumet River to Lake Michigan to Bubbly Creek, the vastness of the natural beauty in and around Chicago is described lovingly and at times reverentially. From the quotidian—squirrels, sparrows, wasps—to the unusual—coyote, wolves, rattlesnakes—the many contributors to this collection share stories and experiences that mark the Chicago area as one rich in wildlife for those who take the time to notice it.

In these pages, readers will learn about strange experiences with opossum, odd coincidences with dogs, and almost-mystical encounters with hawks. They’ll learn about taxidermy and frog monitoring and urban insect collecting. Throughout these pages, readers are afforded an opportunity to look at Chicago in a different way, to look beyond the concrete, glass, and steel, to look up from their smartphones, cast their gaze beyond mobile devices, and see the wild world that exists around them, from the tiniest mite to migrating birds to stealthy mammals who sneak around city streets in the middle of the night.

The pieces in this collection ask us to pause for a moment and consider our relationship in, among, and to the natural world that surrounds us. As Nora Moore Lloyd writes in her essay “Visits From a Messenger,” we, every day, have the chance to consider our connection with the creatures around us as a gift:
“… especially those brought by animals and other beings in the natural world—[such gifts] often also offer a lesson, and can arrive unexpectedly. Moreover, the recipient of a gift also has a responsibility to try to understand the message or lesson that it brings.”

We can, for instance, treat the sighting of a coyote walking down the driveway as a potential menace, a nuisance that threatens our domesticated pets. Or we can consider such a sighting as a gift of wonder, of a fortunate connection to the mystery that is nature, as many onlookers recently did with the sighting of a coyote who had taken up residence in an empty lot in Streeterville.

Each piece in this collection is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Some essays are more lyrical than others, some more academic than others, but all of them are honest, and it’s clear that the contributors have crafted their entries with care and love. Poems, photographs, and illustrations break up the essays, some of which are rather long. As with any collection, the pieces come together in a mixed bag—some pieces will be loved by readers, some not. Not every entry will be of interest to every reader (reading about bison—cool! about mites—not so much. But maybe that’s just me.). Either way, as a whole City Creatures is a feast for the senses. It is an unusual, unexpected tour through Chicagoland, proffered by docents clearly in love with the natural world that surrounds us. It provides a view of the city and suburbs that is all too often easily overlooked, and, as such, it is a gift in and of itself.

Three-Star Review

October 2015, University of Chicago Press
Local Interest/Science & Nature
$30, hardcover, 377 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-19289-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Green Monsters

CBR_Logo2Blood Runs Green:
The Murder That Transfixed
Gilded-Age Chicago

by Gillian O’Brien

“The story had everything an editor could want: conspiracy, theft, dynamite, betrayal, and murder.”

So writes Gillian O’Brien in Blood Runs Green, a history of the 1889 murder of one Dr. P. H. Cronin, a man who at the time was a respected physician and cunning politician but whose notoriety over the past century has faded like long-forgotten copy on crinkled, yellowed pages of so many defunct newspapers.

Add to “conspiracy, theft, dynamite, betrayal, and murder” some politics, corruption, patriotism, nationalism, and religion, and you paint an even fuller picture of the murder and melodrama that marked Cronin’s misfortune. Toss in some sensationalism courtesy of Chicago’s numerous newspapers of the day, and you have a blood runs green 9780226248950story as captivating today as it was more than a century ago.

Cronin, an Irishman who emigrated from Ireland to North America in the mid-1800s, rose through the ranks of Chicago society and politics as a respected doctor, aspiring political leader, and compelling figure among the members of Clan na Gael, a secret society of Irish Americans who fought for Ireland’s independence from Britain, often through violence. Cronin soon finds himself pitted against one Andrew Sullivan, a power-hungry man of dubious character, as they jockey for position amongst the cream of Chicago’s Irish community. The distaste the two men feel for each other is no secret, so when Cronin disappears and later turns up dead—found naked and disfigured in a sewer in Lakeview—Sullivan and his cronies become suspects in a murder that would long capture the attention of Chicago and even the world.

An important figure in Chicago and in the Irish-American community, Cronin’s disappearance and murder fascinated the public, stumped the police, inspired journalists, and troubled politicians. O’Brien notes that the story “transfixed” curious onlookers in Chicago, Dublin, and London as they spent hours every day speculating about what might have happened to Cronin, who was involved, why he was murdered, and what would happen to those responsible for his death. Leaders in the Irish community feared what might happen to their secret societies if the investigation into Cronin’s death revealed the inner workings of their clubs. Reporters mixed fact and fiction to sell evermore newspapers to voracious readers who couldn’t get enough of the intrigue surrounding the case. And politicians on either side of the pond wondered what Cronin’s death—and Sullivan’s implication—would mean for the Irish independence movement.

Much is going on in these pages, and O’Brien does a fine job of unraveling a tangled web of nationalism, patriotism, politics, corruption, power, and murder. She takes readers behind the scenes to see inside Clan na Gael and the Irish National League of America. She details the unsavory rush to publish scoops that led journalists to fabricate stories and report half-truths. And she brings readers into the courtroom as the fantastic trial played out in front of thousands of spellbound onlookers.

O’Brien paints a vivid picture of Irish Chicago in the mid to late 1800s, a powerful community that in many ways shaped the city. The political jockeying, backroom power struggles, and secret deal-making of the day are clearly evident in these pages. With its numerous players and their various shenanigans, the discussion of the political complexities that colored the case at times feels a little tangled and dense, but O’Brien does a fine job of laying a foundation here, spelling out for the reader how this intricate tapestry of power and politics blanketed every aspect of the case, from the conspiracy that led to Cronin’s murder to the newspaper coverage of it to the bungled investigation to the sensational trial and beyond.

Blood Runs Green is at its best when O’Brien shares the details of the discovery of Cronin’s disfigured corpse and the speculation, innuendo, and investigation that followed. Her portrayal of the courtroom drama that eventually took place also is riveting. Fans of true crime will find these portions of the book to be page-turning must-reads.

Although O’Brien notes that the Cronin murder remained in the headlines for decades, chances are that most of today’s readers will be unfamiliar with the story. In retelling a tale that for years captured the attention of Chicagoans as well as international readers, O’Brien has shared a slice of history that had long-lasting and far-reaching implications. Thoroughly researched and well told, Blood Runs Green is a timeless story that deftly captures the feel of an era.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, University of Chicago Press
History/True Crime
$25, hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-24895-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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