Review of “Hmong Story Cloths: Preserving Historical and Cultural Treasures”

Hmong Story ClothsHmong Story Cloths: Preserving Historical and Cultural Treasures by Linda A. Gerdner, Ph.D, RN, FAAN (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing) 2015.

Reviewed by George J. Leonard, Ph.D.

An essential purchase for all school, university and public libraries with collections in Asian and/or Asian American culture and history; Ethnography; the Hmong; Art by Women; fabric arts and crafts; needlework. A recommended purchase for collections involving the Vietnamese War; and surprisingly, geriatrics. Though as lushly illustrated and as large as a coffee-table book, filled with giant photographs of representative and rare Hmong story cloths printed on fine, slick paper, the book is, nonetheless, a work of disciplined scholarship, surely the authoritative work on this important art form to date. Both Gerdner and Schiffer Publishing have made a tremendous investment of time in this book and they are to be congratulated.

One of the strangest stories of the Vietnamese War has led to one of the most unusual and moving art forms to come out of Asian America, most fully illustrated in Linda Gerdner’s new book. Since the Story Cloths are still unfamiliar to the general public, I will explain what they are at some length, and direct you to Gerdner’s book to see them in full and accurate color.

I stumbled across this art in 1988, the way many professors and students have. Twice a year my university holds a crafts fair across the main lawn. San Francisco’s would-be potters, candle dippers, tie-dye twisters, and T-shirt hawkers erect a jumble of ramshackle booths. There, among the shlock and “junque,” two Asian women sat quietly inside a booth festooned with small tapestries. The work was already respected in the small circle of American needleworkers, had acquired an impressive bibliography, and had even been, four years before I saw it, the subject of a museum show at University of California, Davis’s C.N. Gorham Museum.

The two women wordlessly began to turn over for me, like pages in a book, the pile of small cloths in front of them: abstract patterns, folkish floral motifs reminiscent of American quilts; tiny animals drinking from pools—a kind of “Noah’s Ark” or “Peaceable Kingdom” theme.

Then, to my amazement, across a blue background, marched small figures carrying machine guns through a tropical forest. A tiny stitched jet fired red rockets, and in convincing detail a small hand-sewn soldier knelt for balance, to discharge a heavy bazooka he held on his shoulder (see below). The needleworker had carefully stitched in the bazooka’s trigger guard and its unusual sight. She had sketched a scene she knew. On another part of the cloth, riflemen advanced. From the golden threads of the Kalishnikovs they carried, tiny black ammo clips curved accurately forward. I had never seen anything like this on a quilt. But I had seen something very like it worked in bronze on the Romanesque doors of San Zeno in Verona; and in the Byzantine mosaics of St. Mark’s, in Venice. Those were acknowledged masterpieces of world art. To encounter Real Art on an American college campus among over-aged hippies selling sand candles and black market tapes of the Grateful Dead!

Man with bazooka.
Photo by George Leonard.

Who in the world were these people? And how had they wound up at a Crafts Faire in California?

The answer was, necessarily, as unusual as the art. The two women—one of them, Pao Thao, the artist of the war scene—were members of a preliterate Asian hill tribe, the Hmong, who, until a few years before, had been living in their tribal village, high in the mountains of Laos. “Preliterate” means that, although they did not know how to read and write their own language, they were not illiterate; rather, the Hmong (long “o,” as in “roam”) had never invented a way to write or read their language. Instead, the tribe’s women sewed the tribe’s cultural lore onto cloth, at which work, over the centuries, they had become fabulously skillful.

The war scene was a “story cloth,” telling what will probably be the last Hmong story. The artist, Pao Thao, simply called it “the Leaving Story.” The delicate figures firing automatic weapons were enacting how the United States recruited the Hmong during the Vietnam War, and what happened to the Hmong after we went home, leaving them at the mercy of everyone we had been fighting. (All black and white images in this article are from Leonard, not the book under review. We don’t have the ability to add color images here.)

The Hmong are minzu the Chinese term for “ethnic minority.” So are the Mien and several other Asian minority tribes now in the United States. Paul and Elaine Lewis, in their definitive Peoples of the Golden Triangle (1983), based on 15 years of living with the tribes in Thailand, distinguish among the cultures of the Hmong, Mien (whom the other tribes call “Yao”), Karen, Lahu, Akha, and Lisu; but affirm that the tribes consider themselves related. What I say here of the Hmong will hold true, broadly, for the Mien too—the two principal hill tribes now in America. Gerdner devotes a chapter to this complex problem, “Neighboring Ethnic People.”

The tribes’ lack of written records plus China’s historic contempt make for contradictory history now. In one version, all the tribes are a nineteenth-century offshoot of the Miao “tribe” in China. There is indeed a tribe by that name. In another version, the Han Chinese ethnic majority simply dismissed them as Miao or Meo, “barbarians,” a word they resented. But my Chinese sources have never heard that the word Miao means “barbarian”; and “Meo,” I’ve learned, is simply the Thai version of the word Miao. “Hmong,” the Hmong themselves claim, means “free.”

Their origins in northern China, the more flattering version holds, can be traced back 2,000 years, to the time when the majority Han ethnicity, spreading classical Chinese civilization southward—and stamping out local cultures, banning ancient languages and religions—encountered them. Their American supporters enjoy comparing them to the Seminoles, who retreated from American culture, keeping their own by moving further and further back into the Everglades. So, over the centuries, the Hmong retreated south, fighting pitched battles with the Chinese; at last (this much is certain) migrating, about 1825, up into the inaccessible mountains of Laos. There they could guard their language, beliefs, and traditions. “The Mien people are still living in B.C. times,” a Hmong leader, Seng Lee, joked with a reporter in 1986. “We Hmong are just a little ahead of them. And maybe we are not.” (For this reason, we can’t call the hill tribes Lao or Laotians, since the Lao in the lowlands are another ethnicity altogether, which disdained the primitive hill tribes as the Han Chinese had.)

Their needlework, called Pan Dau (“flower cloth”), spelled many ways, pronounced “PON dow,” was their culture’s central art. You may see very strange spellings, indeed, since the missionaries transliterating Hmong sounds into our alphabet added silent letters to the words’ ends, to indicate what tone the word was spoken in. The silent “b” you might see on the end of Dau in some articles means only, “say Dau in the first tone.” For the record, if you say “Pon! Dau” you’ll come close.

The Hmong may once have referred to themselves as “M’peo,” the “embroidery people.” By the 1800s the Chinese had supposedly classified them into 70 (in other accounts, 55) clans and required them to wear certain costumes, to segregate them. If so, the Hmong bested the Chinese by turning the costumes into extravagant works of art—turbans, sashes, caps with extravagant red tassels. Gerdner includes a full section on them. The Hmong today still use the Chinese system of classification by costume: Blue Hmong, White Hmong, Striped Hmong. If these were only costumes that oppressors imposed, why would “the free people” do that? More likely the Chinese tried to classify these unmalleable people by the costumes they found them already wearing.

Subsistence farmers, the Hmong owned little but some handworked silver jewelry and the clothes on their back. The women enriched all those clothes with the needle. Courting couples exchanged squares of worked cloth, women made costumes for marriages, births, funerals; even costumes for medicine since primitive peoples often combat evil spirits with objects, ornaments, or magical designs. The Hmong-like the Chinese peasantry—sewed images of spiders, scorpions, snakes and other dangers onto baby quilts and toddler jackets to magically protect them. (It probably did. A good way to remind toddlers of what they’d better not play with, if they saw it, would be to sew it, with an angry looking face, right onto their sleeves.)

Toddler hat scorpion.
Photo by George Leonard.

Magical semi-abstract designs persist in American Hmong work to this day. Eight-pointed stars are lucky. A long spiral, called the snail shell, keeps bad spirits out, and symbolizes the family, extending out from the ancestors. Two spirals meeting symbolizes and brings luck to a marriage. Many story cloths have a chain of mountains as a border, keeping good in and evil out—mountains historically have meant safety to the Hmong. “In preparation for special ceremonial days,” Marsha MacDowell wrote in a Michigan State University museum exhibit on the Hmong, “a young girl might spend a whole year” creating a special piece of pa ndau for her costume. “Women began learning how to sew as early as five or six years of age and memorized literally hundreds of traditional basic designs.”

Different clans were known for different arts. In America, the Blue Hmong have continued making handwoven, hand-dyed batik cloth. The White Hmong women s costumes have an apron-like front panel. The Mien, whom the Chinese converted to Taoism in the thirteenth century (a form of Taoism only they still follow today) incorporate images of Taoist gods into religious clothing, and even some Chinese letters which they have learned. All the Hmong and Mien use embroidery, applique (building up of cloth layers), and reverse applique. Almost all the work is still done by hand, slowly, painstakingly. Maxine Hong Kingston wrote a poem to the Hmong cloth she owned:

We bought from Laotian refugees a cloth
That in war a woman sewed, appliqued
7,000 triangles-mountain ranges
changing colors with H’mong suns and seas.
Sometimes caught from across the room, twilighted,
the lace in the center smokes, and shadows move
over the red background, which should shine.
One refugee said, “This is old woman’s design.”
(selected from “Absorption of Rock’)

Yet the Hmong women have been unusually unsentimental about pan dau and have drawn freely on America’s resources. Although in Laos colors were obtained from natural dyes, here in America the Hmong are unabashedly impressed by the durability of synthetic fabrics. They’ve also proved willing to learn marketing. In the Thailand refugee camps, stripped of their occupations as farmers, poppy growers, soldiers, the Hmong men had few marketable skills. The women’s prodigious skill at needlework, however, looked promising. The relief agencies running the camps set up CAMA (Christian and Missionary Alliance), Marsha MacDowell reports, to help the women gain some money and “leadership” skills, as well as to help them preserve memories of Hmong culture. At first the women, provided with materials, produced traditional objects and abstract designs, but CAMA encouraged them to make non-traditional-but marketable-products, like wall hangings and pillow covers. (The Hmong had worn this art, not hung it on walls.) Later CAMA encouraged the women to stitch not only images of insects, say, to protect children, but images of village life back in the hills, or the animals and plants they’d known, or scenes from traditional legends. That would sell in the West. Here, Gerdner’s book is very strong. She devotes a long chapter to their “Traditional life in Laos” and “Hmong New Year,” “Hmong Folktales.” Couples collect banana leaves to wrap rice cakes, which women roll into balls. A Shaman performs a healing ceremony. People pound sticky rice with giant mallets. A whole village dyes hemp fabric. Farmers flee from hungry little bears invading a corn field; farmers attack rats in the rice. These are all memories, and even the rats fleeing the farmers have a nostalgic sheen to them.

Triceratops dinosaur at waterhole.
Photo by George J. Leonard.

The Hmong women embraced these ideas (Money! Respect! Independence!) even adding captions and explanations in their newly acquired English. When a story cloth panel carries the stitched caption, “THAT NIGHT THE TIGER ATE THE WIFE AND HE ATE ALL THE CHILDREN CRUNCH CRUNCH” the Hmong women have invaded the Western art world (even if the piece was created in Thailand by relatives according to California Hmong specifications).

In this hybrid American form melding their new life and their old skills, the Hmong women become recognizably Asian American. Story cloths are a new art, an Asian American art. These charming folk stories are done by people who have heard all about the prices an American quilt can fetch. Some of what they now produce is kitsch, like latter day Amish art. A Tia Lee “Peaceable Kingdom,” in which every kind of animal comes peacefully to the same waterhole together, contains a kangaroo—which Tia Lee never saw in Laos or California—and, for good measure, a baby-blue triceratops (above). But even their attempts at Bible themes have integrity, since their struggle to comprehend the novel ideas always all through Southeast Asia the Communist victors embarked on genocidal campaigns of “ethnic cleansing.” Here the Leaving Story cloths begin.

Woman with belongings on her back, fleeing, at river.
Photo by George J. Leonard.

“Thirty percent of the Hmong men had died in the war,” Pao Thao told me, explaining her cloth. “My brother-in-law worked for the United States as a signal pilot and was killed,” as were her uncle and cousins. Then the Americans left and the Pathet Lao took their revenge. On Pao Thao’s cloth, a jet, afterburner glowing, swoops down on a thatched roof village, all its guns firing (Fig. 59-4). A giant helicopter hovers above the jungle (Fig. 59-5), symbolized by a bamboo tree on the left and a banana tree on the right. Through the jungle comes a tank with the Communists’ red flag, accompanied by soldiers in open transports, running riflemen, and the kneeling man firing his bazooka. Gerdner’s second chapter addresses the genocidal massacres in unflinching detail. “Execution of two Hmong men by Communist soldiers.” “Violent death of two Hmong men by Communist soldiers.” It is terrible to see, like certain children’s pictures done at Auschwitz, these murders done by little needleworked figures. The men have been buried in dirt up to their shoulders and a Communist has raised a golden sledge hammer to beat them to death.

Then the Hmong Exodus begins. As Wang Leng Vang told Viviano in 1976, seven men from his village went into the jungle and cut a trail through it to the Mekong River. It took almost a year to make a trail that would be only seven days’ march long.

PaoThao’s cloth shows the men, women, and children hiking through jungle so dense they could not be spotted and napalmed by the Communist forces—whom she always identified as “Russians,” by the way. (I have never seen any other reference to Russian involvement but she was adamant, and an eyewitness. That was her village’s experience.) Many Hmong died on the march, she said. “There was no food that the children could eat.” On the cloth, a woman walks beneath—the bamboo with all her belongings strapped to her back, and a water jug, discarded, lies behind her. The figures have an expression, on this and some other story cloths that Gerdner shows, that Greek historians call “the archaic smile.” The artists, to indicate emotion, create smiles, no matter what the situation. On another cloth, by Va Lee, she has omitted the mouths, and the figures are not improved by it.

At the Mekong River, the figures stop.

The river, in the Hmong art I’ve seen, is represented by a pattern of white lines, much the way it is in Byzantine Art, and no accident. The thirteenth century artists at St. Mark’s, in Venice—artists of symbolism and pattern, not imitation or illusion—had represented rivers just that way, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, or St. Mark traveled by boat. The Romanesque artists at San Zeno, even earlier, chose that image too, for San Zeno fishing (Figs. 59-7). The Renaissance interest in a picture as a window opening out onto three-dimensional space is only one way to think of a picture. The artists at St. Mark’s and San Zeno thought of the picture plane as a two-dimensional surface filled with symbols. Such an art, Kenneth Clark once explained, will find its visual interest in the pattern one can make with the symbols, the combination of the colors and lines. “The less an artifact interests our eye as imitation,” Clark pointed out, in one of his most far-reaching inspirations, “the more it must delight our eye as pattern and an art of symbols always evolves a language of decoration.” Hmong art, until recently an art of abstract symbols in pleasing patterns, still works that way with images, seeing figures as a rhythm of flat black shapes appliqued against the nervous white lines which stand for the river. Hmong art is not a naive art or a “folk” art. While we once condescended to artists who came from technologically inferior countries, it never made any real sense, discussing their art. While we once labeled any form a man made with paint on canvas “art,” but called the same form “craft” if a woman made it in cloth, we do no longer. Politics aside, it made no sense aesthetically. Gerdner is very sensitive on this point.

At the Mekong, the figures sit down and blow up inner tubes. The final harrowing part of the journey consisted of the Hmong casting themselves into the Mekong, “swimming with bamboo sticks in our arms to make us float,” as Vang said, and trying to float down the river to Thailand where they would be accepted into refugee camps. Gerdner shows the same method. Pao Thao’s village put people into inner tubes. She reveals her commitment to the pattern of colors here. The tubes were certainly black, but so were the costumes of her Hmong villagers. She makes the inner tubes, therefore, every bright candy color: blue, red, green, yellow, orange. And these rings of color, like fruit flavored Lifesavers, she wraps around the small black figures.

Romanesque water St. Zeno fishing.
Photo by George J. Leonard.

Pao Thao may have made this bold change because the tubes were their salvation: in the river scenes, the small smiling figures seem for once believably happy, and the colors of the tubes underscore their relief at escape. The cheerful colors make you feel the Hmong’s happiness. It would be a great mistake to doubt the artist understood the effect such cheery colors would make; or to underestimate any of these women as artists. They had as much training in their tradition as any modern artist has ever had.

Pao Thao’s cloth story ends on the Mekong River. On a raft floating before the people in their Lifesaver-colored inner tubes, a little boy and girl sit comfortably, smiling, behind a man who has risen dangerously to his feet, in excitement, and is pointing forward, smiling, at something he can see and we can’t, beyond the picture frame. The Thai refugee camp? Safety? Survival itself? It’s a fine, dramatic ending. (Fig. 59-9, p. 603)

Refugees swearing allegiance to America.
Photo by George J. Leonard.

Other cloths, like Va Lee’s, continue the story. Va Lee shows the large communal housing of the refugee camps. An American official pulls up in a car with a light or a siren. The Hmong kneel before him and raise their hands to swear a loyalty oath (Fig. 59-8). Then they leave, in the back of an open truck, for the airplanes that will take them to the United States. A woman points forward, as in Pao Thao’s cloth, toward something she can see and we can’t. But the difference between Pao Thao’s artistry and Va Lee’s shows when we contrast the parallel final scenes. We notice, now, the natural ease of the figures in Pao Thao’s, the convincing way the children rest their arms on their knees, the way the girl’s skirt bunches beneath her, narrowing its lines, the way the man lunges forward, pointing with his left hand.

Some story cloths are as large as a quilt, filled with hundreds of figures. One tells the whole Leaving Story in terrifying detail, ending with a most American of happy endings. The small black figures board planes, fly to the United States, and in the last image, after enduring the battles, strafings, bombings, rockets, and forced marches stitched above, they sit happily, in the last panel, watching a giant television. It is not a sentimental art. You suddenly understand how good it must feel, sometimes, to just sit there, safely, and watch the TV. Gerdner includes a large Happy Ending cloth in which the rescued little figures flock to shop in a large white many-doored building prominently labeled K-MART.

The dramatic climax: safety in sight.
Photo by George J. Leonard.

We airlifted our old allies, the Hmong, out of the wretched disease-filled Thai camps to this country—then scattered them over two dozen states, to minimize the shock to any one state’s welfare and support systems. Someone must have thought it sounded practical. The Hmong, who had survived everything, almost didn’t survive our forced separation of their clans into nuclear families living thousands of miles apart. From tropical forests they were sent to Minnesota winters. Someone had blundered.

Once they’d collected their wits, and saved some cash, they began climbing onto Greyhound buses and bunching together in old cars like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath and heading for California’s Central Valley. There, since the early 1980s, they have regathered, living incongruously among the Steinbeckian landscapes of Fresno and Arvin. Pao Thao was from Modesto, herself. Imagine, plunked down next to Tom Joad and George and Lenny, a preliterate Asian hill tribe that does needlework. California frequently lives up to its reputation for surrealism.

The U.S. Census Bureau recorded 52,887 “Laotians” in the United States in 1980—even by then, many of them Hmong, Mien, and other hill tribes. By 1990 that figure had reached 256,727. One more wave came, in 2004-6, and that was that. Twenty years later, Gerdner reports that the 2010 American Census found little change from 1990: “260,073 Hmong-Americans.” Twenty years ago, at least 50,000 refugees sat in Thailand’s camps, waiting for “chain immigration” to bring them to their relatives, now American citizens. Where are they? The last Laotian camp closed in 1997, Gerdner writes, and the Hmong, “illegal immigrants,” were moved to a kind of settlement.

So it is not a happy ending, so far. As Frank Viviano reported back in 1986, the Hmong had come to California expecting a chance to farm in the Central Valley. Instead they found “90 percent unemployment; a baffling disease that has seen scores of Hmong men die in their sleep; violent assaults by other minorities who regard refugees as rivals for shrinking public assistance funds; high rates of depression and suicide.” Since Viviano’s piece, the downward pull of American underclass culture has exerted itself on the American-born. When fathers fall from heroes to bewildered welfare cases, boys turn to role models in gangs and the streets.

I never met Pao Thao again, but I took a picture of her. By the strangest coincidence, a scale model of the Vietnam Wall was touring American college campuses at that time. It had been erected on the lawn behind the crafts fair, and I took some pictures of Pao Thao against it, holding her story cloth—her own Vietnam War memorial. As Gerdner describes, the story cloths are a “dying art,” which require skills lost in the American generations.

In the summer of 1995, taking pictures in China to illustrate the Asian Pacific American Heritage: a Companion to Literature and Arts (NY: Routledge, 1997), I went down to Wanfuxing Street in Beijing, to the People’s Republic’s stores that sell crafts, and particularly the work of the “minzu,” minorities. The PRC sells minzu works much as the State of Arizona might sell Indian works. I was looking for Hmong or Mien needlework. Not story cloths, of course: those are Asian American, and the Leaving Story most American of all.

Disappointing. The hill tribes’ works are famous in China, but some bureaucrats had obviously pressured them to create pieces for tourists. I had never heard of the Hmong having any previous interest in stitching portraits of Chinese tourist attractions like the Great Wall.

My book, though, needed a photo of the Great Wall, and eventually I wound up out there. I chose the Mutianyu section, far out in the countryside. It is more authentic than the scenes you usually see, shot at the heavily reconstructed Badaling section. In the past few years even Mutianyu had acquired tourists, however, and on the path leading up from the parking lot there were booths set up, hawking souvenirs.

There, amidst the shlock and “junque”, I saw booths festooned with tapestries covered with small stitched shapes, staffed by women with faces unlike those of the Han Chinese majority. The tourists walked by them with their noses in the air, certain that anything offered for sale at a tourist attraction had to be bad. I spoke to one of the women, “Are you minz , a minority?” And she replied, in Chinese, “Sir, I am Mien.” Had her clan fled the ethnic cleansing of the 1970s and wandered back through China? There was possibly a settlement nearby, farming in the inhospitable mountains that the Wall sits on top of. I suppose the women went to the Wall to sell their needlework the way they went to the “Crafts Faire” in California.

I told the lady I knew the Mien, and I had seen them living in California. She asked about them. I told her they were alive and doing fine. The second part was not quite true, but some day it may be.

Further Reading

Lewis, Elaine, and Paul Lewis. Peoples of the Golden Triangle. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984.Thc original specific work on the hill tribes and their original crafts, researched in Thailand from 1968 to 1983. Copiously illustrated.

MacDowell, Marsha. “Hmong Textiles and Cultural Conservation.” 1986 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife Program Book.

MacDowell, Marshal. Michigan Hmong Art. C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha MacDowell, eds. Michigan State University, 1983.

Quilting Today: The International Quilt Magazin. Issue 8, Aug.—Sept. 1988. Contains material more fully treated in Michigan Hmong Arts and “Hmong Textiles and Cultural Conservation.”

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History Of Asian Americans. NewYork: Penguin, 1989.Takaki, a Japanese American with no particular expertise in this highly specialized subject augments Viviano (sce below) with his own research. Dated and not recommended.

Textiles, Silver, Wood of the Hmong-Americans; Art of the Highland Lao. Davis, CA: C.N. Gorman Museum, University of California, 1984. Included are valuable articles by L. Clair Christensen, Mary H. Fong, Pat Hickman, and others, plus an extensive bibliography of the Hmong’s first years in America.

Viviano, Frank. “Strangers in the Promised Land.” San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, “Image” section August 31, 1986. Viviano was a reporter but a highly professional interviewer. This 1986 article is the earliest serious investigation of the Hmong’s early 1980s journey into California history. It is extraordinary how many scholarly works, like Takaki’s, rely heavily on this single newspaper article. Dr. Gerdner’s book takes the scholarship to a new level.

Ruthless! the musical, 2015 production

Ruthless! the musical

Reviewed by George J. Leonard, San Francisco State University.


Ruthless! The Musical 2015 is a godsend for families visiting NYC this summer. Dread spending $500 for four tickets in the bleachers to Jersey Boys, only to have your kids roll their eyes at the old music? This energetic revival of the Broadway hit works for everyone. Grownups will enjoy Ruthless! as a hip parody of all those campy show biz dramas in which an actress claws her way to the top—but since this actress is an evil ten-year-old, sort of an evil Hannah Montana, the kids will enjoy her too. Tina Denmark (Tori Murray) is quite willing to whack somebody to star in the 4th grade class play. The acting is broad, good-natured parody, like our San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon, or the zany parodies on Community (or Zach Braff’s Scrubs, if you remember.) Just fun.

Happily, one no longer has to take a critic’s word for it. Since it’s a revival, you can check out sample scenes from previous productions on You Tube. Try Tina’s manic audition for her agent, “Born to Entertain,” or the funny scene where, cast in the humiliating role of Pippi Longstocking’s dog, “Puddles,” behind a no-talent chick whose parents donated lumber for the sets. Tina, steaming, has been given only one line, “Woof.” I love the way she battles to upstage her rival, until she decides it’s simpler to bump her off with her jump rope.

There’s no video posted yet of the current production’s Tori Murray as Tina, but the dean of NY theater critics, Rex Reed, calls her in The Observer, “a scene stealer named Tori Murray who looks like Shirley Temple and belts like Ethel Merman.” TheaterMania’s critic, Zachary Stewart, adds, “she has one of the most powerful sets of pipes currently exhibited off-Broadway (and all at the tender age of 10). The moment she enters for her introductory number, ‘Born to Entertain,’ the stage lights up. . . . Murray has a big future in showbiz.” (July 14, 2015.) With reviews like that, I suspect they’ll put some video of Miss Murray online soon.

Ruthless! is a popular high school production, but at the end you’ll find a couple of videos to other professional performances.

So Ruthless! The Musical 2015 is a good choice for anybody and a great choice for a family. If you’re buying four or five tickets, it matters that Ruthless! costs less than half of what you’d spend on a Broadway show, and I like the location, too. It’s only one block off Broadway, on 46th and 8th. A family can start the evening for free in the fun and neon of Times Square, then at curtain time walk west on 46th through the excited crowds jamming into the theaters, cross 8th Ave and you’re there. (It’s a safe walk too. Memo to Mayor Lee: when you leave one of our Market Street theaters at 9:30 pm, the theater must provide security guards all the way to the public lots. In NYC’s Theater District, no need of that at all.)

In sum: A+ for the whole experience. If you’re a San Franciscan doing the family college-visit trip or just taking them all to the Big Apple for the fun of it, and want to include a real New York musical the whole family will enjoy—without spending half-a-year’s college tuition on it—Ruthless! The Musical 2015 is the answer.

Review of Manfred Wolf’s Memoir, Survival in Paradise

Survival in ParadiseSurvival in Paradise: Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curaçao by Manfred Wolf. iUniverse, 2014. 286 pages. $17.00 ISBN: 9781491722640

Review by Vernon Miles Kerr

Part of the magic in a literary work can sometimes be infused from what is between the lines. Infusions, such as lemon or oranges in ice water are nice: the water picks up the subtle flavor of the fruit—the reader picks up the subtlety between the lines. This is true of the autobiographical book, Survival in Paradise, subtitled Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curaçao, by Manfred Wolf. The author, who in the beginning of the narrative is seven years old, sees his happy life in an affluent warm family in Germany turn into a horrific flight from internment and possible death.

Along the circuitous escape route from Germany to Holland to Southern France, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal and eventually South America, there are many close calls and experiences, even to the extent of watching fellow travelers caught and shipped out for Auschwitz—and desperate refugees reaching the end of their money or planned escape routes and doing away with themselves. The family finally makes it to a tropical place of safety in Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, where the author manages to focus on the colorful, carnival-like, engagingly chaotic cultural environment, putting the darkness behind him.

Later, as a seventeen year-old, thinking that he has surgically excised the mass of dark memories, the author goes on to Brandeis University in New England.

At Brandeis he is immersed into an environment of fellow-students and faculty who are mostly Jewish—but something is bottled up inside him. Compared with the easy-going, wisecracking American students, the author, although trying to put on a casual, happy face, remains a brooding, enigmatic presence. What has been walled off in a dark corner of his mind threatens to be released in a torrent of argument with a middle-aged Jewish woman at the author’s first Thanksgiving Dinner in America. This passage from the memoir expresses the author’s puzzlement, over America’s ignorance when it came to those relatively recent events in Europe.

After dessert, another guest, Libby, a blonde woman of about fifty who worked for Hadassah, asked about my war experiences. She posed questions intently, but did not always seem to hear the answer. Lighting a cigarette in a long green holder, she said expansively, “You know, I have friends who escaped Europe. I forget now if they left before or after the war.”
“That makes rather a lot of difference,” I answered laconically.
“Oh, really?” she sighed. “These friends lost everything. They owned gorgeous furniture, clothes, jewelry, everything; they lost everything.”
“But they got out; they survived,” I said.
“Well, yes.” She looked at me quizzically. I fought a surging tide of discontent. I wished this subject had not come up, but since it had, I wanted to make myself understood.
Frederic tried to speak, but he could only get a few words out. He was obviously embarrassed and smiled at me conspiratorially.
Clattering sounded in the kitchen. Ceil shouted, “Gentlemen, let’s not talk about the past. Let’s talk about your future, Manny. What are you going to study?”
“Psychology,” I half-shouted back.
“Psychology? How nice. I wish Stanley had studied psychology. Stanley I wish you had studied psychology.”
“No Ceil, psychology isn’t for me. I like something a little more exact.”
“Oh, Stanley. Exactness, always exactness. That’s not how the world turns.”
Libby returned to the subject of the war, though now wearing a reflective face. She stuck another cigarette in her holder. “World War Two was no picnic here either. We had shortages. Sometimes we couldn’t get soap or sugar or butter or even underwear, at least with elastic. For some reason we couldn’t get elastic. You know, a lot of material was put in parachutes. Silk or nylon.”
“I think nylon was invented right after the war, Libby,” said Stanley suavely.
“No, you’re wrong there, Stanley. Nylon was invented during the war or before…Ceil, Ceil – did we have nylon stockings during the war?” shrieked Libby.
I never heard the answer because I was enveloped in a thickening mist, conscious of a leaden feeling, which lessened my gladness about attending an American university, studying important ideas, and meeting friendly, book-loving girls. I thought of Carol and Jenny, with whom I had recently walked to the library. The room with all those smiling strangers felt stiflingly hot. I half rose from my chair, swallowing painfully, almost choking, but no one noticed, and I sat down again, my forehead sweaty and cold. I feared that if I spoke I might sob.”

Although the ostensible purpose of the author is to describe his own coming to terms with his family’s horrific near-unsuccessful escape from a hellish end, he seems to, almost inadvertently, chronicle a history of the entire range of varied reactions by many of the cohort of fleeing Jews to the danger and impending demise. As Wolf tells it, many of them apparently well knew the fate that awaited them if caught. One can imagine an effective European Jewish grapevine transmitting data back and forth across the continent.

And down below that adult data stream, is the author, looking up and being exposed to adult conversations, which were, due to their dire subject matter, sadly unfit for tender ears—but which his precocious mind was storing, and partially repressing.

Among the people in this odyssey is Max, Wolf’s father, formerly an affluent, dynamic factory owner, who is often seen during the family’s flight as, distracted, almost unbelieving of where he is finding himself, though—as the story relates—resourceful when it counted. There is Bertha, the mother, gregarious, assertive using her personality to directly engage the officials who hold the key to their ability to escape from Europe. There is the couple who, after failing several times to run the border between France and Spain, in their desperate reaction to the terror of impending arrest and imprisonment, throw themselves under a train. And there is the man who, losing his hope for escape at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, hangs himself.

The author’s turning point, a kind of epiphany, comes at Brandeis when one cold, New England night an unstable fellow-student dons a Nazi Army uniform, and stands at attention on a precipice, outside a dorm window, several stories above the campus, possibly poised to do away with his own life and perhaps the whole repository of dark memories along with it. The student eventually returns to his room and, in a beautifully rendered scene, the author shows how this affects his own thinking and feeling. The final sentence of this passage is the crux of that epiphany:

The crowd grew by the moment. It was so cold that we huddled together. I felt the ice seeping into my shoes. At a second-floor window stood a tall, pale young man in the grayish green uniform of a Nazi officer, his curls distinctly visible under his military cap. He stood stiffly, distantly as if not present in his body, and he did not gesture or speak. We watched for some time, none of us speaking, until he disappeared behind the curtains. The next day he was driven to New York, to recover from his “nervous breakdown.”
As if we had taken a vow of silence, my classmates and I never mentioned this scene to each other, and, incredibly neither did Carol and I at dinner that evening.
This ghostlike apparition haunted me. It spoke of pain not confronted and history not faced.

Wolf then commits himself to his own future, irrespective of the awful facts of his—and the world’s—undeniable history.

This book is recommended reading for several audiences. For youth, because it is a classic coming-of-age story, for adults because it provides understanding of the ripples of evil that can emanate from dark places in the human soul and spread throughout the world, and that should never be forgotten but acknowledged and used as a catalyst to somehow yield some improvement to all of our collective souls.

Film Reviews: Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, and Citizenfour.

This Time, This Place
The Long-Awaited List
Birdman, dir. Alejandro Inarritu
The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson
Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater
Citizenfour, dir. Laura Poitras
Film reviews by Manfred Wolf

Here’s my short list of the worst movies of last year. Birdman, directed by Alejandro Inarritu, is by the far the worst—pretentious, incoherent, always self-important, never persuasive, loud but strangely inaudible, episodic in the worst way possible, with no character doing anything revealing or even memorable. Supposedly about an actor seeking a comeback, it achieves dramatic action by someone yelling, or cursing, or breaking things < no one really speaks to anyone; they simply talk or scream past each other; sometimes sentimental things are intoned as if spoken to the wind, hackneyed cliches are reiterated with great pompousness (“You were never there for me”). A number of things give the film’s true lousiness away: whenever magic realism is brought in, watch out! It’s a sure sign the screenwriter has run out of ideas. Why not have a big bird, a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez, flying around the modern city? Wow: That Is So Cool. If the audience doesn’t get the symbolism, they’ll think it’s their fault.

I can think of two kinds of people who’d really love this film: people who think profundity can only be delivered in lurid, silly wrappings, and people who love to see a middle-aged man running around in underpants.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is so obviously the work of someone who has read a couple of books about Europe between the wars, Stefan Zweig, a bit of fiction, a bit of non-fiction, maybe a little Isherwood, and hell, he’s got it down. So he has no idea how people talked to each other at the time, which class rankings obtained and which had been overthrown by the first World War, what worried people and what didn’t, and in fact he hasn’t got much of an idea of anything other than the way some buildings might have looked and some of the clothes people wore. So the movie looks good, and Wes Anderson, the filmmaker, has a penchant for glossy still photographs anyway, so instead of delivering a film he delivers a whole set of postcards, one more lush than the next, but all adding up to absolutely nothing. This is the “poetic” style of moviemaking, which apparently delivers its creator from all sorts of naturalistic obligations.

I feel more hesitant about the third worst I’ve seen, because I walked out after an hour. Sure, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood took twelve years to film, but so what? Is that good? “Hamlet” was written in a few months. Is that bad? Do we see any profound development, any interesting changes, any contribution to our understanding of human behavior? I walked out because I was beginning to feel that it would take twelve years to watch that insufferably tedious little kid with the insufferably tedious parents. Meanwhile, the filming is lazy, and I had no reason to believe that anything of note would happen, that the adults would provide any emotionally fullness. (I will report that when I walked out, a woman in the row behind me glared at my cretinous behavior, on the order of “How could that old guy turn his back on something so glorious?”).

Some day I’ll be sure to see on Netflix what it is I might have missed, but I’m absolutely not holding my breath.

Finally, a documentary: Citizenfour by Laura Poitras takes an important, mysterious story, and tells it about as badly as possible. It manages to make Snowden even more inscrutable and wall-eyed than he appears on the news, and it reduces the story to a series of hotel rooms that the middle budget traveler might find himself in on a tiring trip abroad. Little silly interruptions are taken very seriously, and we are supposed to come away with something—though I defy you to tell me what you learned here that you couldn’t have from the SF Chronicle or on TV, say, on the The Newshour. One thing I rather liked, though the moviemaker did absolutely nothing with it: Snowden is the kind of guy who practically can’t talk without tapping on his computer. So for all I know Poitras tried to get something out of him but just couldn’t. Experienced though she is, her idea of a documentary seems to be just turning the camera on.

Those people who liked this movie simply like what Snowden has done, and confuse that with Poitras’ filmmaking.

Manfred Wolf promises not to accept any position as film critic.
Visit his website at

“Conversations with Stalin”

Conversations with Stalin, by Eleanor Antin. Green Integer, 2013. 210 pp. $10. ISBN: 9781557134202

A review by George J. Leonard


Since a book review should, above all, quickly tell the reader if a book is worth buying or reading, and what kind of book it is, I’ll start by saying that in manner, style and subject Eleanor Antin’s novel Conversations with Stalin is best appreciated by comparing it to Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist; and if you liked the Roth book, you’ll like the Antin.


Aloysius Nachreiner, First Baby Boomer

By George Leonard

My name is Aloysius Nachreiner.
America’s oldest Baby Boomer, though I wasn’t one.
I spent my whole life in snowy Buffalo, where,
Half-blinded by a snowball at 5, I made boxes in the box factory,
Like some character in that Edgar Lee Masters poem we were forced to read in the Fifties.
While you went to Woodstock I made boxes.
While you, nude, screwed Erica Jong’s readers on Black’s Beach in San Diego,
I made boxes.
While you others fought overseas, created the Internet,
Became the First Woman to do whatever–
But also while you had one child, and divorced,
I married a widow with seven children, had two of our own, raised them all,
Saw her through a crib death and her Alzheimers. Dozens of people call me “Grandfather” and a dozen, “Great-Grandfather.”
Why wasn’t I born at five before midnight, December 31st,
To honor me as the last of my kind?
Five minutes too late and I unwillingly became
The first American born a Baby Boomer
And the last to be named Aloysius.

Author’s Note: Aloysius Nachreiner, born January 1, 1946, 13 days my senior, has become famous as the first Baby Boomer born in America — that is, the first baby born in 1946. He seems a fine, responsible man, but, to judge by his life, hardly the first Baby Boomer — more like the last American born before the Baby Boom changed everything, a life straight out of the Spoon River Anthology. G. Leonard

Charles Calitri and his novel, Father

Mr. Ernesto L’Arab has asked me to introduce this novel to Italian readers, and to “contribute personal memories of Charles” which illuminate Father.

When Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Angela’s Ashes, died in 2009, it was no surprise that former President Bill Clinton attended his funeral, representing the American nation, as it were. McCourt, a novelist of the Irish American experience, had become a “Living National Treasure,” as the Japanese call their most eminent artists. Yet there is no doubt that the other guest of honor, had he lived, would have been Charles Calitri, a novelist of the Italian American experience. In his sequel to Angela’s Ashes, the memoir Tis, McCourt describes himself writing the first attempts at Angela’s Ashes for “Mr. Calitri,” as the aged McCourt still reverently calls him.


The Rienner Anthology of African Literature

The Rienner Anthology of African Literature
Edited by Anthonia C. Kalu. Lynne Rienner, Publishers Boulder, London 2007. pp. i-xiii,1-976 $125. ISBN: 9781588264916

Reviewed by Saul Steier, San Francisco State University.

You know a field has “arrived” when its rich content is such that it is no longer possible to represent it adequately with random selected individual works. The publishing sign of that moment of arrival is the “Anthology.”


Revolutionary Spirits, by Gary Kowalski

Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Revolutionary Fathers by Gary Kowalski. BlueBridge, 2008. 215 pages. $22.00. ISBN: 1 933346094

Reviewed by Harriet Rafter, San Francisco State University.

What were the religious beliefs of the men we consider this country’s Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison? Did they intend the country they helped to create to be Christian? Were they observant Christians themselves? Would their religious beliefs and practices pass muster with those self-styled “values voters” whom American politicians now feel and fear they must court? These are the questions that Gary Kowalski asks in this short and informative book. Formerly this topic would have been an academic exercise, of scholarly interest only. Now that we are reminded daily of the enormous role that religion plays in world politics and events, the faith of these men assumes weightier importance.


Reasonable Doubts, by Gianrico Carofiglio

Reasonable Doubts, by Gianrico CarofiglioReasonable Doubts, by Gianrico Carofiglio. Bitter Lemon Press, October 2007. 249 pp. $14.95 ISBN 1904738249

Reviewed by George J. Leonard, San Francisco State University.

Since the SFHR is usually appealed to when works of merit can’t find appropriate reviews, we were slightly mystified to be sent the new legal thriller by Gianrico Carofiglio, which comes adorned with blurbs from the New Yorker and the London Times. “Carofiglio writes crisp, ironical novels,” the New Yorker’s reviewer tells us, “that are as much love stories and philosophical treatises as they are legal thrillers.” Reasonable Doubts is his third novel featuring a Guido Guerrieri, a public defender.


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