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Bookworm Sez: ‘Dallas 1963’ immerses readers in story about JFK

“Dallas 1963” by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

c.2013, Twelve $28.00 / $31.00 Canada 373 pages

Let’s say you want to stir up a little something.

Start with three cups of quiet collaboration. Add in a dash of rumor; a teaspoon each of anti-Semitism, segregation, and Red Scare; and a tablespoon of divisive politics. Stir in money – lots of it – and bake in a ten-gallon hat for three-and-a-half years.

Yields: heated arguments and mouthfuls of hate.

And as you’ll see in the new book “ Dallas 1963” by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, that’s a recipe for changing history.

When the holiday cards arrived at the homes of Dallas ’s “most influential residents,” there was confusion – and consternation.

Signed “Best – Jack,” the cards featured then-Senator John Kennedy and his family on the front. The subtle, assumed message was that Kennedy would run for president, which concerned Dallas ’s powerbrokers – including the world’s richest man, a minister, and a newspaperman.

It was January 1960. Dallas had been steadfastly ignoring Brown v. Board and other unpopular Washington edicts; a liberal Democrat in office was unthinkable. No, the city’s powerful firmly supported Nixon for the upcoming election.

But best-laid plans can be changed by the smallest events. When a Texas politician gathered protestors for a Dallas appearance by Lyndon Johnson just before the election, violence erupted and national cameras captured normally-genteel women spitting at the VP-candidate and his frightened wife. Horrified on-the-fence voters nationwide cast their ballots accordingly.

But “hatred” for Kennedy wasn’t limited to Dallas .

Southerners widely detested his stance on race relations. Conservatives feared his Catholicism would make him “more devoted to the Pope than to the American Constitution.” Many thought he was weak, since he seemed reluctant to utilize nuclear weapons against Russia .

Those and other issues plagued Kennedy’s time in the White House, but he was determined to run again for office. He and the Democrats knew, however, that winning Texas in the 1964 election had to start in Dallas so they sent Adlai Stevenson there in October 1963, to pave the way. But after witnessing riots and being spat upon, Stevenson “privately” questioned Kennedy’s plans to visit Dallas .

He “was very concerned about Kennedy’s safety in the city…”

In light of recent events in Washington , I found “ Dallas 1963” to be doubly interesting: deep political divisiveness; dicey overseas relations; and a president who wants social change, causing accusations of lack of concern for the country’s well-being.

Sound familiar?

But why was JFK assassinated in Dallas, of all places? Authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis answer that question, as they take a look at the emotions, beliefs, and social mores of the times. This narrative starts in 1960 and ends with a bullet - and even though we know what happened, getting to that last point is squirmy: my heart pounded. I wanted to yell, “WATCH OUT!”

When you can immerse yourself like that in a book, it’s always a good sign – which is why I recommend this one. For fans of politics, history, or anyone desiring to somehow mark this inauspicious anniversary, “ Dallas 1963” has the ingredients for a very absorbing read.

And, of course, this isn’t the only book to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. You might also look for “End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy” by James Swanson; or “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House” by Robert Dallek.

“The Ghost Prison” by Joseph Delaney, illustrated by Scott M. Fischer

c.2013, Sourcebooks $12.99 / $14.99 Canada 112 pages

A job well-done can be surprisingly satisfying.

You know that’s true even when you hate the chore. You can scream about dishwashing but when it’s done, the kitchen looks great. You might hate yard work but when you’re finished, you can see your awesome progress. You grumble about homework, but when it’s over – ahhhhhhhh.

Then again, some jobs stink from the start and never get any better. And in the new book “The Ghost Prison” by Joseph Delaney illustrated by Scott M. Fischer, young Billy Calder’s job went from bad to worse… to dangerous.

He needed the money.

It wouldn’t be long before Billy Calder got too old to stay at the Home for Unfortunate Boys. Orphans like him were sent away at age sixteen and when that happened, if he could keep this new job, he’d have enough to rent a small room of his own.

But not if he continued to be tardy.

He hadn’t asked for the late shift at the prison. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the old castle at night, but that was where he’d been assigned and his topsy-turvy sleep schedule was hard to get used to. Billy expected to be scolded when he got to work late, but he didn’t expect to be paired one night with Adam Colne.

He’d heard plenty about Colne, a “mountain of a man” with a nasty reputation. Despite his fierce appearance, though, Colne was actually a nice bloke. He explained that Billy was assigned to the night shift because Long-Neck Netty had specifically asked for him.

Netty, Colne explained, was a ghost.

Then, before a shocked Billy Calder could ask any more questions, Colne rushed off and Billy had to hurry to catch up. That was when Colne stopped to tell Billy two important things: never leave your keys in a lock, and never… ever step foot into The Witch Well. Feeding the prisoner there was the most dangerous task of all, and Colne was the only man to do it.

That suited Billy just fine. He never wanted danger. He only wanted enough money to rent his own place and, for a few weeks, he was content with the night shift.

And then Adam Colne took sick, and the only one left to do his job was Billy Calder…

I was impressed with “The Ghost Prison.” It’s properly scary, with the prerequisite creepy castle, barbaric-looking jailer, malevolent spirit who may be hovering nearby, and an innocent young lad who encounters all of the above.

Did I say it’s scary? Yep, author Joseph Delaney sends shivers up the spines of his readers practically from page two, and the chills only get chillier as we learn what Billy Calder faces. Add in the horrifying illustrations by Scott M. Fischer, and you’ve got a story that’ll keep the nightmares coming.

One warning: this book gets pretty intense in places and may be too much for the easily-frightened. For younger teens who can handle fear, though, “The Ghost Prison” is a nicely satisfying tale.

(The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.)

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