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Our Not So Perfect World

With COVID news part of every conversation and political extremists telling us to vote twice in the upcoming election - not legal in North Dakota - my original plan was to write this week about something more politically correct. After several tries, a frequent September topic (school long ago) was also put aside. The start of school during a pandemic can be traumatic for teachers, parents, and students. None of those groups want suggestions or stories about projects they hope would be new and exciting when they present them for their students. Absolutely no one wants to read about how lonely and frustrating isolation can be for older people who have been told by all that they will not live out this particular epidemic—even if we have survived months of masks, social distancing and trying not to complain. So, I fell back on the procedure for previous similar dilemmas: had a good night’s sleep, a good breakfast and dressed in the brightest clothes in the closet before setting out to write another chapter in the long list of books enjoyed sometimes over and over again.

Before we get to that topic, there is one comment recalled from that long ago year when my brother was hoping to begin school. Rodney was the long anticipated first child in our family, so our young mother had prepared for his birth by making him a nice little wardrobe of boy type clothes, a blue blanket, and choosing his name. He even had a cute little sheepskin puppy to play with and a family teddy bear had a new romper made just like one made for the new baby. But when the time came for his birth, the new baby was a girl! It was not an era when baby girls were on the top of a farm family’s list. They decided to keep me anyway, and little Rodney arrived 18 months later. I had started school the day I was six and heard a lot from both Rodney and other relatives about the fact that he should start with me since he was so much more intelligent than I was. Some of our cousins had begun school at a younger age. School officials did not agree. Rodney had to wait until he was six (in February), and school was not slated to start until September. And then catastrophe struck. The weekend before school started Langdon had a devastating hailstorm which destroyed windows and skylights, gardens and roofs all over the town. School could not start until the end of September because several of the classrooms no longer had panes in their windows. My memory of that storm is of my brother placed in a safe corner of the dining room (away from shattered windows) saying over and over - “Are we ever going to be happy again?” Hopefully 2020’s new students who might have been anxious over the pandemic are finding their first school days will be good memories.

No matter how discouraging the world in general is presented by the international and national media, just the fact that school has started is good news. Farmers are in the fields harvesting; there are tomatoes and apples to pick and enjoy eating. The threatened winds have so far missed us; the volleyball and football teams are winning---in one game by inches. And for those of us spending more and more days in isolation, sometimes there are pleasant surprises.

On Thursday morning my nephew called while on his way to work. While his parents were living, I heard from them occasionally, but they are now gone, so a call from Andy is always special. With the world seeming unsettled, even to the younger generation, he just wanted to ask if I was okay and to keep in touch. The virus has encouraged quite a few people to reach out to relatives and old friends. One bit of news was that he had been watching the weather and knew there were typhoons in Japan, approaching signs of winter in Siberia and Kamchatka, and his weather map showed all of this as moving into North Dakota by the weekend. His family had visited North Dakota in the 1970s and encountered 20 inches of snow. He was suggesting I stay indoors for the next several days.

In case we were isolated by weather rather than the virus, I stopped at the library to find something to read. If you are even thinking about being stranded it is best to be prepared to do something relaxing. A friend was restocking her reading material when I noticed a familiar name on one of the books on her pile. The book looked new, and I was surprised to see a new title since the author had died years ago. How had I missed that one? The next step was to mention I would like to read the book when she finished. Being generous, she handed it to me with a comment that it was an author she had heard about but never read. Of course, I checked out the book which happened to be “Black Coffee” by Agatha Christie.

Regular readers of Dame Agatha’s many published works know she chooses titles like “Death in the Library,” “Death in Mesopotamia,” “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” “The Cat Among the Pigeons,” “Mousetrap,” or an all-time favorite like “Murder on the Orient Express,” or “By the Pricking of My Thumbs.” The blurb on the front cover says the book was written about a formula for splitting the atom which would help England battle the fast-rising Nazi regime. Possibly the writer of that blurb was too young to realize the original manuscript pre-dated Hitler’s time in power. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it was originally written as a stage play before Hitler was well-known even in Germany. Neither Adolph Hitler nor Nazi Germany are mentioned in the book.

Agatha Miller was born in Devonshire, England, in 1890 and married her first husband, Archie Christie, a captain in the Royal Flying Corps, in 1914. A daughter was born after the war, but the husband is not mentioned after she began writing. Her first book was to answer a challenge from her sister. Agatha felt she could write a good detective novel that would be as popular as the Sherlock Holmes stories and in 1920 set out to prove it was possible. Her first book featured a 5’4” Belgian detective with an egg-shaped head named Hercule Poirot. First published in the U.S., it came out in England a year later and was the first of at least 80 novels and collections of short stories that she wrote. Another book, which came out in 1926, was chosen for adaptation as a stage play and later a movie. She disliked the way the stage play changed her original story, but that experience brought actor Charles Laughton to prominence playing roles in several of her later works. As a result, she began writing stage plays in the 1920s, and some of the best are apparently still playing in London, New York, and from time to time around the world. “Black Coffee” began as a stage play in the late 1920s.

In 1930 Agatha married again, this time to an archeologist, and traveled extensively with him, working their travels into enough novels, plays and short stories to make her the most famous female author in the world—a point at which she received the honor of becoming Dame Agatha Christie, similar to being knighted by the king or queen in power at the time. Her books reached the level of outselling all other books except for the Bible and Shakespeare. All the novels did not include Hercule Poirot. In 1930 she added Miss Marple, who was featured in many stories set in England. Miss Marple took her knitting with her everywhere except maybe church on Sundays. Marple belonged to the Church of England and vicars figured prominently in her lifestyle as did many cups of tea. The first Agatha Christie stories I encountered were her short stories which generally had some unique form of poisoning included in the story line. While the characters differed from book to book, she tried various writing styles and a variety of characters solving the crimes. Most of her characters travelled by train so reading her books gives you a passenger’s view of many of England’s scenic counties. Agatha Christie died in 1976.

However, “Black Coffee” in novel form, still staring Hercule Poirot in the leading role, was not written until 1998. The Christie descendants and her biographer combined their talents to change the stage play into a novel and to retain the speaking parts of the original play while attempting to create a 1930s atmosphere around the dialogue. The characters kept their original names, one of the characters died by poisoning (we are told that Christie novels did not normally deal in guns, duels or other gruesome details), Poirot exercised his “little gray cells” to solve the mystery, and the atom splitting formula which was well before its time did not fall into enemy hands. The book was still fun to read with much of the century-ago dialogue intact. Unlike many novels with a mystery to solve, Agatha Christie books did not tend to end with the butler as the villain. If you have not read any of her novels, you might want to start with some of her clever short stories.

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