Friday, October 23, 2020
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Review of “Wicked Northern Virginia” by Michael Lee Pope

The photos and political cartoons in the cover's collage and interspersed throughout the book's 131 pages in Wicked Northern Virginia caught my attention. I was intrigued and spooked by some of the photo subjects: portraits, paintings, grave-markers, and "wicked" places of time gone-by, such as a bordello houseboat, a tobacco barn, and turn of the 20th century barrooms. In one photo, five men sit or stand on the steps of a house porch under a banner bearing slogans of the American Nazi Party; the house that once served as headquarters was on a street near where I live now. In another, a row of low-slung buildings and telegraph poles line a dirt road in a place I didn't recognize called "Hells Bottom."

Thus primed, I started chapter one, and found the book hard to put down. Morbidly engrossed in the death scene of a stoic George Washington, I felt the horror of modern hindsight as I read of the extent of bloodletting used by the doctors at Mount Vernon in their well-meaning attempts to save him. Only one of the three doctors knew enough of the latest medical practices to even question repeating the treatment.

Pope begins his book with a promise to divulge events buried in Northern Virginia's history, events that are wicked because they involve "murder, mayhem, sex, violence and politics." Each chapter details a different episode, and the first chapter turned out to be one of my favorites, even though I thought it marginally wicked, compared with the activities of other chapters. Each chapter also has a unique voice conveying a flavor of the language of the times. I imagine this could be a natural outcome of the research for the book, which references court proceedings, quotes Colonial Council minutes, and includes excerpts from the accounts of old newspapers and gazettes. The Bibliography includes collections of stories, historic narrative accounts, and an 1894 volume by Teddy Roosevelt, The Winning of the West. All of these sources would be written in the vernacular of the time. In fact, on an Acknowledgements page, Pope thanks Julie Downie for "helping me translate Victorian euphemisms." Even with these hints of unfamiliar, old-fashioned turns of phrase, the narrative flows, helped along by Pope's use of dialog. My favorite chapters are based on my personal interests and preferences for topics and patterns of speech.

The book can be read straight through or by skipping, aided by informative chapter titles. I sometimes privately bemoan the currently common practice of entitling books with the "Title: After-Colon-Insert-Elevator-Speech" formulation, for want of the opportunity to treat a title like a morsel of poetry. But these chapter headings gave me my desired morsel, while also telling me the locale and form of wickedness, and hinting at the time period when I recognized a historic name.  

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