Saturday, June 30, 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

I first experienced this book as an audiobook back in 2005. Here's what I wrote about it at the time:

The latest audiobook and a decent one, but one whose enjoyment was really enhanced by seeing the movie first. I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if I had read the book first, because I think this might be one of those rare instances where the movie is actually better than the book. The book has a little more explanation in it that helps connect some of the dots that seem unconnected in the movie, but it doesn’t really explain it all, which in the end leaves me preferring the more mystical approach offered by the movie.

I know from the movie, for example, that the monolith helps some hominids on the evolutionary path towards humanity, and that it effects the same kind of change a few million years later, moving humans onto an equally dramatic evolutionary plateau. In the book, more explanation is offered, including a brief profile of the beings that created the monoliths and their reasons for tampering with the development of certain species.

That’s fun to listen to and speculate about, but I think I like the movie version better, in which all those details are left out and we’re left wondering how and why the monoliths are doing what they do. 
It may be my own personal bias, but the black monoliths of the movie are a lot more like Melville’s white whale, symbols of that unknowable and unconquerable force that exists apart from humanity and operates according to principles we can’t understand. Except here, the whale is not ignoring the tempest of our little lives; here the whale is actually controlling our destiny. Not just Ahab’s, but all of ours. And we are equally helpless to understand or influence it. The movie works very powerfully on that level and the book does not.

That's a good summary of my thoughts after flipping through the actual pages a few years later.

But there is one additional thing that jumped out at me reading it that I didn't pick up on listening to it. In the beginning, when the lead hominid, Moon-Watcher, who has been changed by the monolith, kills One-Ear with the head of the leopard impaled on a branch like a club, Clarke writes:

For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his new victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again. Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

And at the very end, when David Bowman returns to earth as the star-child, crossing both space and time with the powers given to him by the same aliens that built Moon-Watcher's monolith, and destroys the orbiting nuclear missiles of earth's protective sheild with his very thoughts, Clarke writes:

Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

It's a good way to bring the novel full circle, to connect the evolutionary leap taken by homo sapiens with the same leap just taken by the star-child, to make us think of his power over humans in the same way we think of our power over the animal kingdom. But the phrase "he would think of something" sends yet another message--that the power, once acquired, is entirely at the disposal of the bearer. The aliens of Clarke's novel may have helped humans take these two quantum leaps, but what humans decide to do with that opportunity is their's and their's alone. To extend into metaphor, there is an intelligent designer, but he only sets us in motion. He does not control our destiny.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Trust and Association Nextpeditions

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I recently read a piece about American Express's travel service, Nextpedition. On a Nextpedition, you don't get an itinerary or a confirmation. Based on your "travel sign," AmEx creates a customized experience that is revealed to you day by day.

It reminded me of an experience I had at an association meeting. It wasn't something I had a hand in planning. I was a an attendee at this meeting, and for the closing reception, they meeting organizers packed us all on to a series of shuttle buses and drove us 45 minutes out into the Texas scrub desert.

At the time I didn't think anything about it. And neither did anyone else on any of the buses. The association had told us nothing about our destination. All that had been publicized was that it was about 45 minutes away, and that it would be fabulous when we got there.

And it was. Maybe not surprisingly, it was a working ranch. There was hayrides, a rodeo, archaeology tours, a fantastic buffet, campfires, sing-alongs--the whole nine yards. It was unbelievably fun. And what was most remarkable was that we knew it would be. We expected the association to exceed our expectations, and it did.

Can you imagine the members of your association doing this? Willingly riding off into the desert without knowing where they were going and what was waiting for them at the end? For some associations I'm familiar with, the very notion is laughable. Instead there would be endless questions. Where are we going? How long does it take to get there? What kind of food are you serving? How do I get back if I want to leave early?

But the association I'm speaking of--and evidently American Express--has something many organizations don't. They have the trust of their members, and it isn't a trust that's blindly given. It's a trust that's been built up slowly over time, by consistently and reliably exceeding people's expectations for fun and delight.

And ultimately, I think that's the good news. Not every association has this kind of trust, but there's nothing truly magical about it. Every association can have it. It just takes attention and time, and the process of building it begins in the smallest of all possible ways.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Issues with Member Engagement

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I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

Since I'll be out all this week at my association's strategic board retreat, I thought it would be a good time to post some of the notes I've been taking during the Circle's on-going series of conference calls. These notes are from our first call a few months back, when we were just trying to identify some of the questions and challenges we'd like to tackle as part of this effort.

Here are some of the issues that were on our mind, some big and some small:

1. What are the benefits of using multiple choice vs. open-ended questions when collecting feedback from members through a survey or online community? In the experience of the participants, response rates were generally better with multiple choice questions. If seeking detailed suggestions regarding actions to be taken, however, open-ended questions often provide more diversity of response, and may provide introductions to new members who can get engaged in design and implementation of the actions.

2. How do you get committees to design and take action within the overall strategy determined by the board? Lots of good suggestions here, especially with regard to providing committees with clear messages not just about the objectives to be achieved, but also the metrics by which success will be measured. Also make sure they understand and have appropriate control over the resources at their disposal.

3. How do you use social media to engage members? More challenges than solutions here. Some are struggling to find the right combination of social media outposts (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) to engage with their members. Others have taken to helping their members learn how to use social media in their professional lives, allowing the association to be the "practice zone" for new ways of interacting and learning.

4. How do you encourage the sharing of ideas in development? Some struggle with culture change issues around sharing half-formed ideas and engaging a broader cross-section of members throughout the program development cycle. The outside world moves so fast the association world sometimes has a hard time keeping up, and the concern about launching programs before they're "ready" often puts us out of touch with the evolving needs of our members.

5. How do you encouraging greater risk taking among board and committee members? How do you encourage "out-of-the-box" thinking without jeopardizing the natural allegiance and protectionism that dedicated volunteers have to their associations? No one want to destroy the organization, but a willingness to experiment and take greater risks is needed to meet future challenges.

Of these five issues, #4 really resonates with me. Which, if any, are on the top of your list? I think it's safe to say that given the generational, technological and economic changes that are actively reshaping our environment, the question of keeping members engaged in building productive leadership capacity for our organizations is one of the central challenges most of us are facing.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section. If you're interested in participating in our on-going discussion, we'd welcome you to join the Circle.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Spartacus by Howard Fast

And Spartacus taught me that all the bad things men do, they do because they are afraid.

This line comes very near the end of Howard Fast’s novel, but I think it sums up a lot of the reasons he wrote the book. Better, perhaps than the dedication he includes at the very beginning:

This book is for my daughter, Rachel, and for my son, Jonathan. It is a story of brave men and women who lived long ago, and whose names have never been forgotten. The heroes of this story cherished freedom and human dignity, and lived nobly and well. I wrote it so that those who read it, my children and others, may take strength for our own troubled future and that they may struggle against oppression and wrong—so that the dream of Spartacus may come to be in our own time.

Fast wrote that dedication in 1951, and I learned from Wikipedia that the “troubled future” he was referring to arose partly out of the communism scare of the 1950s. Fast was one of the oppressed in that struggle, actually imprisoned at one point due to his involvement in the Communist Party USA. In some ways, therefore, I think it makes sense for Fast to see a direct parallel between the oppressions of ancient Rome and the oppressions of 1950s America.

Without knowing that backdrop ahead of time, however, there were two things that really surprised me about the novel. The first was how little Spartacus actually appears in it. The only thing I knew about Spartacus before picking up the book was what I had learned from watching Kubrick’s film, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that he was kind of a minor player in the book on which that film was based. The story is really told from the perspective of several Roman citizens, only one of whom actually new Spartacus, and their perceptions of him are clouded by the very corruption and opulence that Spartacus was rebelling against. In retrospect, given Fast’s motivation for writing the book, I think it is an effective technique. Our narrators are corrupted by the injustices of their society—injustices that they sit atop and that give them their power. As one of them self-referentially observes during a conversation about the use of slaves:

There was a disease in them, but the disease did not appear to weaken them. Here they sat, having eaten their fine food, sipping their mellow wine, and those who contested their power were crucified for miles and miles along the Appian Way. Spartacus was meat; simply meat; like the meat on the cutting table at the butcher shop; not even enough of him to crucify. But no one would ever crucify Antonius Caius, sitting so calmly and surely at the head of the table, speaking of horses, making the extremely logical point that it was better to harness to slaves to a plow than one horse, since there never was a horse which could stand the half-human treatment of slaves.

And the second thing that surprised me was how many parallels I saw between the injustices of Fast’s portrait of ancient Rome and those of America in the 2010s. I’m not looking to put a ton of stock in the comparison, nor do I wish to place any kind of political or value judgment on it, but time and again I found myself stumbling across a sentence, or a paragraph, or a section talking about the levers which turn Roman society and realizing, with only the change of one or two words, they could equally describe the drivers of our current environment.

Here, for example, is a description of the men paid to oversee the slaves at the gold mines of Nubia, and in it   I see some parallels with the millions of middle management, ladder-climbing drones in our modern, corporate world.

They are men of Alexandria, bitter, hard men, and they are here because the pay is high, and because they get a percentage of all the gold the mines produce. They are here with their own dreams of wealth and leisure, and with the promise of Roman citizenship when they have served five years in the interest of the corporation. They live for the future, when they will rent an apartment in one of the tenements in Rome, when they will each of them buy three or four or five slave girls to sleep with and to serve them, and when they will spend each day at the games or at the baths, and when they will be drunk each night. They believe that in coming to this hell, they heighten their future earthly heaven; but the truth of the matter is that they, like all prison guards, require the petty lordship of the damned more than perfume and wine and women.

And for those who continue to climb that ladder of opulence and comfort? They see what Batiatus, the man who trained Spartacus to be a gladiator, saw:

Whenever he encountered a millionaire—not merely a man who had millions but one who could spend millions—he was overwhelmed by his own sense of being so small a frog in so small a puddle. When he was a gang leader of the streets of the urbs, his own dream was to accumulate the 400,000 sesterces which would entitle him to admittance into the order of knighthood. When he became a knight, however, he first began to realize what wealth meant, and for all he had climbed—by his own shrewdness too—there was an endless vista of ladder ahead of him.

This is a society in which the ultra-wealthy hold the reins of power. Some of the most compelling comparisons to our world come near the end of the book, when the philosopher Cicero argues the politics of slavery and Roman culture with a senator named Gracchus. Their conversation really pierces through the façade of their own society and, in doing so, I believe Fast is attempting to help the reader pierce beneath the façade of our own. At one point in that lengthy dialogue, Cicero accuses Gracchus of being too frank about his function as a politician. Gracchus responds that frankness is…

“My one virtue, and an extremely valuable one. In a politician, people confuse it with honesty. You see, we live in a republic. That means that there are a great many people who have nothing and a handful who have a great deal. And those who have a great deal must be defended and protected by those who have nothing. Not only that, but those who have a great deal must guard their property, and therefore those who have nothing must be willing to die for the property of people like you and me and our good host Antonius. Also, people like ourselves have many slaves. These slaves do not like us. We should not fall for the illusion that slaves like their masters. They don’t, and therefore the slaves will not protect us against the slaves. So the many, many people who have no slaves at all must be willing to die in order for us to have our slaves. Rome keeps a quarter of a million men under arms. These soldiers must be willing to go to foreign lands, to march their feet off, to live in filth and squalor, to wallow in blood—so that we may be safe and live in comfort and increase our personal fortunes. When these troops went to fight Spartacus, they had less to defend than the slaves. Yet they died by the thousands fighting the slaves. One could go further. The peasants who died fighting the slaves were in the army in the first place because they have been driven off their land by the latifundia. The slave plantation turns them into landless paupers; and then they die to keep the plantation intact. Whereupon one is tempted to say reductio ad absurdum. For consider, my dear Cicero, what does the brave Roman soldier stand to lose if the slaves conquer? Indeed, they would need him desperately, for there are not enough slaves to till the land properly. There would be land enough for all, and our legionary would have what he dreams of most, his plot of land and his little house. Yet he marches off to destroy his own dreams, that sixteen slaves may carry a fat old hog like me in a padded litter. Do you deny the truth of what I say?”

It’s a cynic’s view, perhaps, but I’ve heard these same sentiments expressed in our modern times relative to America’s foreign wars. The people doing the fighting have almost nothing at stake in the outcome, but those with political and financial power have a great deal to lose and to protect, and so the cycle of war and destruction must continue.

Cicero, I think, has a telling response for Gracchus:

“I think that if what you said were to be said by an ordinary man aloud in the Forum, we would crucify him.”

In other words, it is the truth and, more importantly, a truth that must not be spoken. But Cicero does disagree with Gracchus in one important particular—his underlying premise.

As you state it. You simply omit the key question—is one man like another or unlike another? There is the fallacy in your little speech. You take it for granted that men are as alike as peas in a pod. I don’t. There is an elite—a group of superior men. Whether the gods made them that way or circumstances made them that way is not something to argue. But they are men fit to rule, and because they are fit to rule, they do rule. And because the rest are like cattle, they behave like cattle. You see, you present a thesis; the difficulty is to explain it. You present a picture of society, but if the truth were as illogical as your picture, the whole structure would collapse in a day. All you fail to do is to explain what holds this illogical puzzle together.”

But Gracchus doesn’t shrink from this challenge. Quite the reverse. He embraces it and, in doing so, he paints an equally cynical but strangely compelling picture of modern democratic politics.

“I do,” Gracchus nodded. “I hold it together.”

“You? Just by yourself?”

“Cicero, do you really think I’m an idiot? I’ve lived a long and dangerous life, and I’m still on top. You asked me before what a politician is? The politician is the cement in this crazy house. The patrician can’t do it himself. In the first place, he thinks the way you do, and Roman citizens don’t like to be told that they are cattle. They aren’t—which you will learn some day. In the second place, he knows nothing about the citizen. If it were left to him, the structure would collapse in a day. So he comes to people like myself. He couldn’t live without us. We rationalize the irrational. We convince the people that the greatest fulfillment in life is to die for the rich. We convince the rich that they just part with some of their riches to keep the rest. We are magicians. We cast an illusion, and the illusion is foolproof. We say to the people—you are the power. Your vote is the source of Rome’s strength and glory. You are the only free people in the world. There is nothing more precious than your freedom, nothing more admirable than your civilization. And you control it; you are the power. And then they vote for our candidates. They weep at our defeats. They laugh with joy at our victories. And they feel proud and superior because they are not slaves. No matter how low they sink, if they sleep in the gutter, if they sit in the public seats at the races and the arena all day, if they strangle their infants at birth, if they live on the public dole and never lift a hand to do a day’s work from birth to death, nevertheless they are not slaves. They are dirt, but every time they see a slave, their ego rises and they feel full of pride and power. Then they know that they are Roman citizens and all the world envies them. And this is my peculiar art, Cicero. Never belittle politics.”

Never belittle politics, indeed. Few of us, then or now, really understand it or can wield it with any expertise. Also like today, most people are inured to the role it plays in their lives and the decisions they make. It’s a thick coat of propaganda that is focused less on distracting them from some horrible truth and focused more on defining the framework by which truth is understood.

Most of the Roman citizens in Fast’s work live wholly within this framework. As an example, near the end of the novel, Crassus, the general most responsible for defeating the slave uprising, has purchased Spartacus’ wife, Varinia, and is determined to get her to see the futility of Spartacus’ rebellion.

Crassus said, more gently, “You have been living in Rome now, Varinia. I have taken you through the city in my litter. You have seen the power of Rome, the endless, limitless power of Rome. The Roman roads stretch across the whole world. The Roman legions stands on the edge of civilization and hold back the forces of darkness. Nations tremble at the sight of the legate’s wand, and wherever there is water, the Roman navy rules the seas. You saw the slaves smash some of our legions, but here in the city there is not even a ripple for that. In all reason, is it conceivable to you that a few rebellious slaves could have overthrown the mightiest power the world ever knew—a power which all the empires of antiquity could not match? Don’t you understand? Rome is eternal. The Roman way is the best way mankind ever devised, and it will endure forever. This is what I want you to understand. Don’t weep for Spartacus. History dealt with Spartacus. You have you own life to live.”

Rome itself, of course, is gone. But many of the ideas that created it are not. As Crassus says, that Rome is eternal.

+ + +

Finally, here are some additional sound bites from that long dialogue between Cicero and Gracchus that just seemed too good to let go unrecorded.

Long ago, Cicero had discovered the profound difference between justice and morality. Justice was the tool of the strong, to be used as the strong desired; morality, like the gods, was the illusion of the weak. Slavery was just; only fools—according to Cicero—argued that it was moral.

+ + +

Politics, as he occasionally said, required three unchanging talents and no virtues. More politicians, he claimed, had been destroyed by virtue than by any other cause; and the talents he enumerated in this fashion. The first talent was the ability to choose the winning side. Failing that, the second talent was the ability to extricate oneself from the losing side. And the third talent was never to make an enemy.

+ + +

Gracchus laughed. “Who knows! Julia, politics is a lie. History is the recording of a lie. If you go down to the road tomorrow and look at the crosses, you will see the only truth about Spartacus. Death. Nothing else. Everything else is sheer fabrication. I know.”

+ + +

Only one or two of the chairs were empty. Gracchus, remembering that session, decided that at such moments—moments of crisis and bitter knowledge—the Senate was at its best. The eyes of the old men, who sat so silent in their togas, were full of consequence and without troubled fear, and the faces of the younger men were hard and angry. But all of them were acutely conscious of the dignity of the Roman Senate, and within that context Gracchus could relinquish his cynicism. He knew these men; he knew by what cheap and perverted means they purchased their seats and what a dirty game of politics they played. He knew each and every particular well of filth each and every one of these men kept in his own backyard; and still he felt the thrill and pride of a place among their ranks.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A False Sense of Closure

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I'm prepping for my association's annual strategic Board meeting this week, so my mind has been occupied with how to facilitate a conversation that (A) begins with the association's existing foundation of activity and accomplishment over the past year, (B) engages the forward-thinking part of everyone's brain, and (C) results in a vision and action plan that is either within the association's current reach, or includes the appropriate mechanisms to develop the necessary resources to go after the big prize.

It's a challenging balancing act. To be honest, (A) makes (B) difficult, and (B) makes (C) difficult. If you successfully orient your Board members with your track record of activity over the past year, how do you keep them from digging into those weeds, and if you successfully keep them focused on the horizon, how do you temper their ideas with the honest limitations of the checkbook and staff hours?

So it was an interesting week for me to stumble across this post by Anna Caraveli at The Demand Perspective blog. In it, reflecting on work done by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, she dissects the good and the bad of traditional strategic planning processes. For me, the big takeaway comes near the very end:

Do not expect your organization's direction to emerge from a formal process all at once. Instead, develop capabilities for systems-wide innovation, reinvention, reconfiguration, openness and flexibility through which your association will be constantly renewed and re-aligned with the market.

Her caution is well noted. Expecting my association's direction to clearly emerge from our day-and-a-half strategy session was exactly what I was doing (unconsciously, I think). And this desire--to come to closure and have a plan set firmly in place--is really the only thing that makes the dreaded transitions from (A) to (B) to (C) necessary. Viewing the retreat as a singular event--a place where decisions are made--forces the conversations we will have there into certain channels--channels that are more focused on their own need for completion than the reality of the market in which the association operates.

But looking at the retreat as part of an on-going process, the need for closure dissolves harmlessly away. Yes, let's take a look at where the association has been and what we've been able to accomplish (or not) over the past year. And yes, let's talk about the changes in the marketplace that are affecting our industry and all of our businesses. And then let's try to put both discussions into the same box and decide how they're connected (or not) to each other. It'll be messy, but at least we'll be dealing with the reality of our environment.

Then, rather than forcing ourselves to make decisions about what to do next or differently, lets take a look at how adept our system is at capturing and acting on this kind of intelligence. How often do we have that conversation? Seriously, have we ever had that conversation? For many associations, the unfortunate reality is that there usually isn't time. Rather than create a process that engages leadership at a level it can be most effective, they struggle to wordsmith a set of goals and objectives so everyone can leave the meeting feeling like they accomplished something.

It's closure, but it's a false sense of one. You may have your direction, but you've left the organization no better able to adapt to the next shift in your environment. Hopefully, when that shift occurs, it will coincide with the timing of next year's retreat.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Association Concept Cars

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Jamie Notter recently turned me on to metacool, the blog of IDEO partner Diego Rodriguez, and I'm finding all kinds of useful nuggets in it as I read back through some of the old posts.

Case in point is Concept Car at Your Peril, where Rodriguez uses the debut and fan reaction of the Jeep Mighty FC to argue that the auto industry shouldn't produce concept cars unless they're serious about putting them into production. The whole post is worth reading, but here's the most salient point he makes:

But perhaps the biggest reason not to show concept cars you don't ever intend to produce is that you disappoint your biggest fans, those net promoters who would do anything for, and tell anyone anything positive about, your brand. These are the folks who write blog posts like "I Am So Excited About The Jeep Mighty FC Concept I Think I Might Die," or who spend hours photoshopping your PR photos to show the rest of us what a four-door or full-van version might look like, or who write headlines in national newspapers asking "Has jeep created the most interesting concept of 2012?" Do you really want to excite these folks, only to disappoint them over the longer term? My gut says no. Product brands aren't like perennially losing baseball teams whose fans have no alternative to their hometown monopolistic losers. Instead, it's pretty easy to switch when you stop meeting my expectations. Better to surprise and delight me with a real product I never anticipated, than to tease me with vaporware that we both know you'll never ship.

Now, I'll happily admit that I don't know much about "Pure Macho Gnarlyness," but when I look at this from an association perspective, I have to say I disagree. Associations should absolutely produce concept cars, if by that we mean proposals for radical new programs or services that have the potential to excite their membership bases and wildly exceed their expectations. Even if the association has no ability or intention to deliver these programs, just by proposing them it demonstrates a commitment to innovation and a willingness to swing for the fences.

Remember that for every Mighty FC that seduces its fan base with its potential, there are dozens of other concept cars that are soundly rejected by the same enthusiasts. The auto industry doesn't make concept cars to see what models belong in production. It makes concept cars to better understand what the cutting edge looks like, what features and styles create passion and loyalty, so that it can incorporate pieces of those elements into next year's models, the ones with the established production and distribution chains supporting them.

Association concept cars can play the same role for our industry. Just like the guy who photoshopped his own 4-door version of the Mighty FC, your members can take your wild ideas and show you how to improve them, to make them better suited for their own unique needs. And once you know that, you suddenly have a better understanding of how to improve all of your existing programs. Just like the auto industry, you can't produce a custom-designed concept car for every enthusiast. But you can use concept cars to inspire your members to action, to engage more actively with you in a discussion about what possible really looks like, and to which ends you should be directing your resources.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

When This Cruel War Is Over by Thomas Fleming

This is a work of historical fiction that I think is trying to pass itself off as something more historical than fiction. The afterword makes mention of the novel’s characters as real people whose stories can only now be told because of the release of their personal papers, but I think that’s a con, because none of the people, texts, or foundations referenced stand up to Google scrutiny. But that’s okay. I can enjoy some misdirection with the best of them.

All in all, it’s an engaging story about people in Indiana and Kentucky near the end of the American Civil War who are conspiring to create a “Western Confederacy” to secede from the Union and the Confederacy and force an end to the war. Fleming is first a historian, so he does a good job grounding his characters and his story in the real issues of customs of the day. Unfortunately, he is second an author, and many of the online reviews I found of the book criticize him for being too heavy-handed with his prose. That’s okay, too. I can enjoy some heavy-handedness with the best of them. It wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the modern best-selling works I’ve read.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about (the historical context, not the heavy-handedness). Janet Todd is the female protagonist of the story, a white woman from Kentucky who was raised with a personal slave named Lucy. At one pivotal point in the story Janet discovers that Lucy has been spying on her, and revealing her role in the creation of the Western Confederacy to the local Union authorities.

For a moment Janet saw the life into which she had been born as an unjust sentence handed down by some malevolent invisible persecutor. She had never asked for this black presence in her life. Any more than her mother and father had asked for this plantation on which a hundred black women and
children were eating them into debt while their able-bodied kin worked at half-speed because they knew they could join the Union Army any time they chose and there was nothing Colonel Todd could do to retrieve them. The Todds, Kentucky, the whole South were sinking into ruin because no one knew what to do with these people. To free them risked anarchy, to keep them in bondage produced betrayals like this one—and worse.

It’s a peek into a world in which slavery is a fact of life. It’s wrong, of course it is. I’m not trying to argue it isn’t. But in 1864 it was a fact of life, and a tremendous and life consuming war was being fought over it, and Janet’s frustration with not being able to live with or without it is both perfectly natural from a human perspective and perfectly foreign from a modern one.

Another great tidbit comes from the following:

Henry Gentry gulped his bourbon. He wished he could pray to someone for forgiveness. But he had no hope or faith in such a possibility. Since Harvard, he had never been a believer in much of anything beyond Ralph Waldo Emerson’s careless God, Brahma, the blind slayer of the evil and the

I haven’t read much Emerson, so I had to hunt this one down. It’s from one of his most famous poems, Brahma, which begins:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Like a lot of poetry I had to read that a few times to get the gist of it, and the line from Fleming’s novel certainly helped. It is well known that leaders on both sides in the American Civil War thought that they were acting in accordance with God’s will—at least early on. More and more of them came to believe by the end that God, if he meddled at all in the affairs of men, had a different purpose in mind that neither side could claim but which both sides together were fulfilling. That purpose is usually seen as the noble one—the eradication of slavery and the long-delayed punishment for those who had perpetrated it. Fleming here raises the possibility that his purpose may not have been so noble. It may, in fact, have been inscrutable—a notion that certainly appeals to my sensibilities.