Saturday, May 28, 2011


Waiting for me when I returned from Washington last week was a UPS package  containing a copy of a brand-new picture book—Summer Jackson: Grown Up by Teresa E. Harris. Twenty years ago, when D and I were living in New Orleans, we drove to Disney World to meet up with his family—including his sister and her two little girls, Tania and Teresa. When Teresa discovered I was a writer, she told me she was going to be a writer too when she grew up. And so she is. When D and I reunited recently after 14 years apart, I found out that his niece was eagerly awaiting the publication of her first book. Of course I couldn’t wait to read it, and it’s a stunner.

Seven-year-old Summer Jackson (love the name) is tired of being a child and doing childish things. So she dons a blazer and heels, writes to-do lists, and generally behaves like an up-and-coming young professional. But when she starts collecting cash payments from her fellow students for her consulting work, her parents feel the need to step in. They gently try to dissuade her, but Summer stands firm. Only when Mom and Dad demonstrate the pleasures of childhood by swinging, sliding, and dancing in the backyard does Summer relent—a bit.

Some of the story’s charm lies in what it doesn’t say. No husbands and babies in Summer’s vision of adulthood. This girl want a career!  And I love the sly poke the story takes at today’s busy, two-career parents. Letting out one’s inner child, it suggests, provides a good tonic for hard-working professionals of any age and is lots more fun when the whole family joins in.

Summer Jackson: Grown Up by Teresa E. Harris. Illustrated by AG Ford. A Katherine Tegen Book. HarperCollins, 2011.

Friday, May 13, 2011


I’m heading to Washington, DC, next week for the International Biographers Conference. It’s on May 21, the same day as the Rapture. In some cities this could be dangerous. Traffic accidents, for example, as the elect, the saved, the true Christians are suddenly wafted into the blue. But near Congress? I’ll probably be pretty safe. I’ll keep you posted.

A big name for such a little girl. Note the baby pug. 
I’ve written several biographies for young people, and now I’m working on a proposal for one about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, tentatively titled A Girl Named Vincent.

Why did such a sweet little girl get a boy's name?

Millay’s mother had an adventurous young brother named Charles Buzzell, who was making his way around the world. On January 31, 1892, he got himself accidentally locked into the hold of a cotton freighter in New Orleans. Ten days later, when the ship arrived in New York, Charles was discovered, nearly dead from lack of food and water, and rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where doctors managed to pull him through.

St. Vincent’s in 1900. The hospital closed in 2010.
According to Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty, Charles later admitted he’d been drunk, fallen asleep on some hay bales, and hadn’t heard the hatches close and lock. Accounts of his ordeal appeared in newspapers all over the country, but his nine-months-pregnant sister, who lived in Rockland, Maine, didn’t hear about the near tragedy and its happy outcome until February 15. A week later she went into labor, and, on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, to the sound of pealing bells, gave birth to the baby girl she named for the hospital that saved her brother’s life.

Charles quickly made hay of his mishap among the hay bales, appearing at the Bowery’s Globe Museum in New York to relate his “Awful Experiences.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Forty-something years ago I was visiting my mother with my kids. My 20-year-old brother came home from Queens College with a copy of a new Beatles album under his arm—Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He was thrilled, ecstatic. I was puzzled. I listened to the lyrics. Of course, I’d heard the Beatles before. But these lyrics, they didn’t make sense. They were like poetry. I knew poetry. I was an English major after all. But poetry didn’t belong in popular songs. Popular music was “Maybelline” and “She’ll have fun, fun, fun till her Daddy takes her T-bird away.” You loved it, danced to it in high school, but once you graduated, you moved on to classical music or jazz or Broadway show tunes. Didn’t my kid brother know that? Was he stupid? No. He was a boomer.

Genuine hippie boomer

Monday, May 9, 2011

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Today's my youngest daughter's birthday. Tomorrow is Mother's Day. Hence this poem.

Triolet for Four Daughters

since that rough passage past my bones

awash in pain  swathed delight

dearest daughters known/misknown

since that rough passage past my bones

rivers surging over stones

whose darkest patches flash with light

since that rough passage past my bones

washed from pain  subdued delight

                                      Joan Kane Nichols

For you poetry buffs out there, a triolet is a one-stanza poem of eight lines, rhyming abaaabab. The fourth and seventh lines are the same as the first, and the eighth line is the same as the second. As you can see, I've taken some liberties with the form.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Growing up, I had little pride in the Irish-Catholic culture I was born into. In my harsh adolescent judgment, Irish-Catholics were bigoted stick-in-the-muds. Many of my friends were red-diaper babies or at least came from radical, rabble-rousing, union-loving families. Now that was something to be proud of! 

Last week my cousin, Pat, who’s been doing a terrific amount of research into the Kane family background, sent me a newspaper clipping from the Brooklyn Eagle of July 25, 1867.  Under the headline THE LABOR MOVEMENT, the subhead reads: 
Meeting of Plasterers—Reports from the National Convention--The Eight Hour System, Strikes, etc.

It seems the 120 members of the Operative Plasterer’s Society of Brooklyn held a special meeting at 22 Court Street that evening to hear from the delegates they’d sent to the union’s National Convention. The delegate chosen to report was my great-grandfather, Andrew Kane.

Plastering is an ancient trade and plasterers’ unions have a long history, as far back as medieval Irish craft unions. Local unions formed in the United States as early as the 1830s. By the time of the Civil War, these locals were eager to join forces and form an organization that could standardize rules and regulations—including wages and working conditions. Hence the national convention. 

Delegates from 14 eastern cities (Brooklyn was a separate city in those days)—from Portland to Chicago to Washington, DC—traveled to Baltimore to attend. They represented 2077 journeyman plasterers, who earned from $3.50 to $4.50 for a six-day workweek. The various locals had staged numerous strikes the previous year, some more successful than others. Great Grandpa was able to report that the Convention had praised the Brooklyn local for being the only one that managed to obtain an eight-hour workday for all six days, not just Saturdays. He was also able to report that during the election of the convention’s officers, Andrew Kane was elected Treasurer. Way to go, Great-Grandpa!

Additional tidbits from that day’s Brooklyn Eagle:
Under “Miscellaneous Items”
A lady in Hungerford, England, was frightened to death by a cow.

From “Man as an Article of Food”
It was formerly supposed that the relish with which certain savage tribes ate their enemies arose from the gratification of the passion of revenge. Within the last few years, however, it has been clearly shown that some of the barbarian man-eaters are really fond of human flesh for its own sake. . . .  your Fejee Islander, now, thinks the greatest praise he can bestow upon any edible is to say “that it is as tender as a man.” The Feejeans have plenty of provisions, but they consider “long pig”—their pleasant name for human flesh—much finer than pork, beef, or mutton.
Who knew?

Note on my Edgar predictions of last week. Once again a perfect score: 0