The Five – An Astonishing And Heart-Wrenching Book

By , December 1, 2023 3:28 pm

Hallie Rubenhold possesses the best of the writer’s and historian’s skills. She gets it – and is able to communicate such in a beautiful and frank way – that history isn’t solely about the past: it’s about bettering the world of today by making the reader see complexity instead of simplicity. Late Victorian British social history carries so many parallels with today, especially the gap between rich and poor and the moralizing that goes on when one group looks at the other.

Imagine this: a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper with not a single detail about their deaths. Rubenhold has investigated every detail that can be found (or triangulated) about the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

The other day while waiting for the bus outside Dufferin Station, I saw a woman sitting on the ground, obviously not in the best of health. She had many bags, was coughing, and smoking something so horribly foul smelling. It’s easy to turn a blind (or crude) eye these days to people on the streets. But I caught myself: what is the difference between her and the five women? On that same day, on the bus, a man called a woman a “f-ing b_ _ _ _.” A woman chastised him, even challenging him to a fight. I felt the spirit of the women on that bus, not because they’d be quick to a fight but because they had to stand up for themselves every single day!

Rubenhold goes to great lengths to paint many-layered pictures of the five women’s lives. The common factor was struggle, both as women and as members of the working class. She is careful to say what is not known for sure (documents being lost, not all things being able to trace). But she also uses the conditional tense throughout to infer the potential feelings and conflicts of struggling women of that time and place. This is particularly true for their relationships with the men in their lives.

Rubenhold’s subjects are women who didn’t always have a place to stay at night. Gerunds abound: tramping, charring, prostituting themselves (in only one case for sure). Signing themselves in and out of work houses. Having children die in their arms. Coming from situations where multiple siblings died. Losing parents to disease at a young age. The tragedies went on and on.

There’s a lot of talk, not surprisingly but also sensitively, of alcohol and alcoholism. In the passage below discussing the fifth victim, Mary Jane Kelly, Rubenhold shows her gift of positing what might have run through the woman’s mind:

However, drink also offered a convenient escape from a miserable existence. It dulled the fear of unwanted pregnancy and disease, a very real possibility in every penetrative encounter. It obliterated and it quieted, even for a short time, feelings of self-loathing, guilt, and pain, and traumatic memories of violence.

Earlier in the book, Rubenhold tells the complicated story of Kate Eddowes, liver of an almost nomadic life, for a time, as a seller of chapter books and ballads. Travelling Britain with her ‘husband’ Thomas Conway, they often attended hangings in search of crowds to buy their tales. In one instance, the person being hung was a relative of Kate’s. Kate, being literate, would certainly have had a hand (if not sole authorship) in the writing though Thomas seemed to see himself as the author. Rubenhold quotes from the ballad which shows sensitivity to the plight of the condemned relative. Once again Rubenhold sees the humanity in Kate even at the most gruesome time:

Satan, Thou Demon strong,

Why didst thou on me bind?

O why did I allow thy chains

To enwrap my feeble mind?

Before my eyes she did appear

All others to excel

And it was through jealousy,

I poor Harriet Segar killed.

May my end a warning be

Unto all mankind,

Think on my unhappy fate

And bear me in your mind.

Whether you be rich or poor

Your friends and sweethearts love,

And God will crown your fleeting days,

With blessings from above.

At the end of the book, Rubenhold includes a list of the items found on four of the women. I find this a particularly effective, if chilling, way to end the book. Mostly the lists are filled with items of clothing, for layers were probably a survival tactic. Kate’s list is the most interesting to me. In addition to bonnet, jacket, and multiple skirts she had tin boxes of tea and sugar, soap, knife, teaspoon, cigarette case, pawn tickets, a partial pair of glasses. Finally, “twelve pieces white rag (some slightly bloodstained (menstrual rags).”

Hallie Rubenhold has brought hidden lives back into the light.

American Prometheus

By , October 18, 2023 8:55 am

Started Sept. 20. Finished Oct. 17. Nearly 600 pages (more for the notes and bibliography)!!!

I have not seen Oppenheimer (the movie) but now I want to! I really want to record my thoughts about the book first, however.

The first thing I want to say, without meaning to overblow anything, is that this is one of the best books I have ever read. And most of the books I have read in my life are in this genre: American history (though this is technically a biography).

I absolutely love the writing style of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. How two authors so seamlessly put together a book I do not know!?! Their research is meticulous. They are so matter of fact and relatively balanced in their interpretation of their very complex subject. Oppenheimer, if I am to believe these wonderful authors, was an incredibly layered person. I found him absolutely fascinating. That doesn’t mean that I love him; I take my cue from authors who clearly respect him but are honest and candid about his good and bad aspects. I will say, though, that I cried when he died, fittingly, at the end of the book. I was sitting in my chiropractor’s office waiting for him to come in. I think I was crying because the story was over.

My purpose here is not to review Oppenheimer’s life – read the book for that. It’s to talk about how to incorporate history into biography, successfully. The subject of a biography is usually both a reflection of their times and a shaper of their times. The best subject of a biography is also someone who grows and changes. Static subjects are boring.

Oppenheimer checks all the boxes. He came of age as a scientist near the dawn of quantum physics. He used his skills – especially of integrating other people’s work – to manage a large project (the creation of the first atomic bomb) driven by his desire to defeat the Nazis. But his true imprint lay in his attitude toward the burgeoning nuclear arms race after the war. And in his openness to new ideas across so many disciplines, not just science. So, yes, a kind of renaissance man.

What would his story have been without the context of the cold war? What would this book be without that background? It would be flat: A smart guy builds a world-changing tool and goes on to worldwide acclaim.

The full story is how Oppenheimer, a former leftist, or fellow traveller, got trapped in the cold war “purges” during the McCarthy-Hoover era. The genius of this book is how it builds to that climax so expertly, by charting how so many of his moves and those of his political enemies eventually led to the ‘trial’ that saw him lose his security clearance.

Though this book was published in 2006 – pre-Trump (almost a different world) – it is so resonant in today’s insanely polarized climate. Democracy and the civil society need to be protected. Nations need to work toward not just diplomacy, but openness and a shared purpose: protecting people. Oppenheimer wasn’t a perfect person; he made many mistakes, had difficult qualities, helped create a deadly weapon. In this book, however, he comes across as someone of purpose with a wider vision.

We can all use more of that quality, especially people serving in our governments.

#1 Need to Practice

By , September 12, 2023 8:09 am

Starting with my strength! In art as in music as in lesson planning, one must repeat, repeat, repeat.

When I first started teaching grade 11 world history back in 1999, I was literally a few pages ahead of the students in the class. I had not taken any world history since high school – and even that was very limited as the teacher had a rather narrow view of what should be taught (western, Christian civilizations).

Interestingly for me, many of my students were members of the classics club at the school and were very keen; though mostly they could recite things in Latin and/or Greek and knew a lot of trivial pursuit factoid types of things. That didn’t help me much.

I had no choice but to dive in. I started reading a lot and using the resources at hand. Our library had a great collection of world history books. Yes, actual books. I also watched a lot of history-related shows on PBS, especially relating to Greece and Rome.

Since I was also teaching Canadian history and grade 12 “modern western civilization” at the same time, my saving factor became lesson planning. Organization has always been one of my best teacher skills, not so much a skill I possess in my personal life. Odd.

Thankfully I inherited a small collection of materials from the previous “ancient” history teacher. After weeding through it for things I liked, I had a sense of what came before me – not that I wanted to copy it wholesale. That’s not my way. I usually do like reinventing the wheel.

I made myself a lesson planning template and started planning units, tests, and then individual lessons. For me, the skill that needs the MOST practice in teaching is lesson planning. I find that almost right out of the gate, new teachers stop planning their lessons. When I host student teachers (teacher candidates, more precisely), they sometimes seem surprised that I want to see detailed lesson plans from them on a daily basis.

Anticipating how things will go is a big plus! These days I cannot imagine how anyone could teach without planning. Lessons need to keep moving swiftly as kids lose interest very quickly, sometimes instantaneously if you can get their interest at all.

Even after 20+ years I still write some lesson plans. When I was going on a short medical leave last year I wrote lessons for all the grade 12 world history classes I’d miss which ended up being the whole course because of surgery postponement!!

One might ask if lesson planning is a facet of creativity at all? I believe it is. It is in the planning where a new or experienced teacher comes up with an idea to make a topic interesting. In history that could be a trial, a role-play, a simulation, a short activity, or as we say today, a minds on. I admit that some of my most creative activities come to me spontaneously in the classroom. However, I don’t think my creativity would be able to kick in if the cognitive load had not already been reduced by doing so much planning.

My Most Creative Plan

Looking back is hard for me because – ironically – I have a bad memory. That’s bad for a history teacher, but it doesn’t usually affect content. Just events, names, faces in my OWN life. That said, one activity I developed on the topic of Hammurabi’s Code really stands out. The students first analyzed the document (okay, not all 282 laws) looking for ways that specific laws affected different groups of people in society – farmers, merchants, women, the king! They were divided into different groups based on roles on society and each had to come up with either a law they wanted to keep – and the justification for that – or the law that they wanted to ‘amend’ and their proposed revisions. They would then present to the king and his advisors – roles played on a rotating basis by each group of students. The kids would always love in-role activities. Sometimes they got so into it they sent out spies to check on the other groups. I remember it even getting it slightly out of hand as they tried to maintain secrecy until the final reveal of their scripted encounter with the king. Then of course there was always the moment when the king decided if he wanted to punish them for their suggestions!

Did I plan this? Well, I didn’t plan for all the offshoots such as spies and secrecy. But I planned the activity to such a degree that the kids had the freedom to give it a life of their own.

I don’t do this activity anymore for a number of reasons but mostly I am more cautious with role-plays now as I am much more mindful of presentism and the need for students to asses how probable (or not) it would have been for people to think a certain way. On the whole I am much more of an inquiry-based teacher now. However, I still find room for some role-plays such as my Black Death simulation.

Hammurabi’s Code was the basis of a memorable lesson.

Art Parallel

Now, do I practice enough in art to help develop my skills? Because I don’t paint on a daily basis I would say no. This usually results in me overthinking what I should do next because I don’t have a plan. Ultimately, my potential creativity and skill development are hindered before they even got out of the gate.

Having a sketchbook where one can practice is akin to writing a lesson plan. I definitely use my sketchbook. However, I don’t always follow through with a “good” copy, so to speak.

For Teachers

Get yourself a lesson template. In world history, use it to plan the societies you will include in the course, either through direct instruction, group work, or student inquiries. It’s very important to make sure the course is diverse and ever changing.

I use a template such as this to make my plan for what I will teach in a given semester.

For Teachers of World History

By , September 5, 2023 7:18 am

Hello, I’m Risa Gluskin. You probably know that since you’ve found this website.

After 25 years of teaching, I am taking a year off to rest, relax, and share my experience. I get a lot of requests through this blog to share my materials. It seems natural to me to expand on that.

I will use this blog to link to future videos, blog posts, links, maybe podcasts, etc. designed to help you teach world history at the high school level. Each topic is driven by a parallel between learning to paint and teaching creatively.

For new content on Tuesdays click on the “For Teachers of World History” button at the right of the menu bar above or see the parallels below.

Watch this short intro.


  • need to practice (Sept. 12, 2023) – featuring Black Death simulation
  • need to step back and look at your work from a distance + video (Sept. 19, 2023) – featuring Code Noir lessons
  • avoid obsessing over every detail and go with ‘good enough’, not perfection
  • pick the right tool for the job (Oct. 17, 2023) – featuring Athens vs. Sparta, Indus Valley, best/worst Roman Emperor, CHW3M Culminating Activity
  • work within the constraints of time, budget (aka reality)
  • know your limits
  • be self-critical to a point + video (Oct. 3, 2023) – featuring Global Gathering (CHY4U Unit 1 Culminating Activity), women in the French Revolution, History of LGBTQ2+ Rights Around the World
  • educate yourself (Nov. 6, 2023) with video to follow
  • take risks, challenges and stretch yourself
  • love what you do

First Day of School!

By , September 4, 2023 8:25 pm

First day of school – it will be great (if overly hot)!

Have a wonderful year.

AGO Visit

By , September 1, 2023 9:34 pm

I haven’t been to the Art Gallery of Ontario for quite a while. It was a valuable return as I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition Cassatt-McNicoll: Impressionists Between Worlds.

Mary Cassatt, Summertime, and Helen Galloway McNicoll, Picking Flowers
Mary Cassatt, Summertime, 1894. Oil on canvas, 100.6 x 81.3 cm. Terra Foundation of American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. 1988.25. Photo Terra Foundation of American Art, Chicago. Right: Helen Galloway McNicoll, Picking Flowers, c. 1912. Oil on canvas, 94 x 78.8 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of R. Fraser Elliott, Toronto, in memory of Betty Ann Elliott, 1992. © Art Gallery of Ontario. 92/102.

I have seen Mary Cassatt’s work somewhere before – I can’t recall where. However, Helen McNicoll’s work is new to me. She was a Canadian artist, though she mostly lived in the UK. Like Cassatt (who was American but also primarily lived in Europe), she painted women’s lives.

The exhibition cleverly highlights the similarities and differences between their approaches. Both were very advanced, well trained, skilled, and relatively successful, Cassatt probably more so, or at least she was more well known in her time and after. Both came from well off backgrounds that allowed them the freedom to travel, learn, and paint professionally.

Doors were often closed to these women; however, they opened their own by developing unique styles. Cassatt is known for her mother and child portraits. So is McNicoll, apparently. My favourite of hers in this genre is the one where the mother (or caregiver) has her hand on the baby carriage but does not turn her gaze toward the child as she is reading!

Helen Galloway McNicoll, In the Shadow of the Tree
McNicoll, In the Shadow of the Tree

McNicoll painted a series portraying women on a chintz sofa in her studio, some of contemporary women (early 1900s) in modern dress. Two were of women in heavily Victorian garb. I am absolutely fascinated by these pictures. In reading the exhibit book I have learned that McNicoll seemed to be making a point about the outdated crinoline style in comparison with the sleeker contemporary style, in particular by those in favour of women’s suffrage. While the expectation at the time was generally still that women were to be limited to the domestic sphere, McNicoll highlighted the sofa as not only a part of her domicile, but of her work. That’s not to say she was a suffragette, apparently.

Vintage Anti-Suffragette Propaganda 'Mummy's a Suffragette', circa. 1905-1918, Reproduction 200gsm A3 Classic Vintage Suffragette Poster
This image came to mind. I use it in grade 12 World History.
Helen Galloway McNicoll, The Victorian Dress
McNicoll, The Victorian Dress

One very interesting feature of the exhibit was a soundless video of two deaf artists discussing Helen McNicoll’s work. She was deaf from the age of two. It’s nice to see the institution diversifying its perspectives.

Sadly, McNicoll died at a very young age from diabetes. I’m happy to have discovered her. As a person learning how to paint, I am totally enthralled by her technique. As a history teacher, I am interested in discovering more about her in the context of her times.

Feels Like Fall

By , September 1, 2023 8:55 pm

Our flowers would agree.

Slow Summer Reading

By , August 7, 2023 7:55 pm

Less TTC, less reading.

I finally got through Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017).

I would not say I loved this book due to the writing style – just not my style, nothing wrong with it; however, I found it interesting enough to keep at it. And I certainly learned a lot about the Osage people and their history. I also took on board lots of new information about the early years of the FBI, but that I was not so keen on. Maybe that’s why it took me about a month to get through this book.

Note: I didn’t choose it because of the upcoming movie, though that may have helped. I was actually browsing on my local book store’s website when it came up. There were a few times when I was reading when I pictured Leonardo DiCaprio in my head. Weird.

Simply put, the book tells the true, very sad, and angering tale of the mass murder of Osage in the 1920s, up until the 1930s. Its premise is that a very well-connected white guy lauds himself as a friend of the Osage. Quite a lot of white people make their way in, too. That’s because the Osage are earning tonnes of money from their underground reservation, oil, in Osage County, Oklahoma. It was an oil rush! However, given the underlying racism of the country at the time (and probably still so), the Osage are required to have non-Indigenous guardians to manage their headrights. That’s how the murders started – greed, manipulation, and an unjust system that made it possible. Though there were some good people who worked hard to find the killer (it was suspected that the multiple murders were all directed by one man), the US and state governments, the nascent FBI, and the open-to-corruption court system just didn’t put enough into the investigation. In fact, as Grann points out at the end of the book, more people were killed than originally suspected. That’s one thing I definitely appreciated about David Grann’s narrative approach was his delineation of his historical research methods: archives, interviews, other books, etc. Working with Osage and descendants of other victims allowed Grann to piece together unknown parts of the story, expanding the conspiracy.

At the start of the book Grann goes into the history of the Osage prior to arriving in Oklahoma – look it up; it’s maddening. Given what we now know of the Canadian government’s treatment of Indigenous people here, it’s not a surprise that whatever little was given was taken away. However, they lucked out, initially, in arriving in northeastern Oklahoma because of the oil. Obviously, the moral of the story is that money does not bring happiness, especially when that money comes with conditions that put the Osage in great jeopardy.

Will I see the movie? Not if it’s on Apple TV.

Worth reading.

Tom Thomson North Star at McMichael

By , August 3, 2023 9:33 am

My mom and I went to see the new exhibit at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg. Actually, it’s called the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, to be proper.

I know I have been there before but I only have a vague memory of the building. The building does not disappoint. In fact, my mom remembers going there with her parents when it was still the McMichaels’ home and they would sit and greet guests.

All photos are mine.

The way the collection is set up is very smart. All the exhibits and galleries lead into each other. So it’s not really practical just to see one exhibit. Since the building is not gigantic, like the Met Museum in New York, for example, the whole thing that can be seen easily. We enjoyed a small exhibit by Sandra Meigs, Sublime Rage, featuring very large paintings, almost like they were done on window blinds.

I am not qualified to speak on how diversified their collection is now. It is clear that they have made an attempt to feature many women artists and some Indigenous artists beyond their Norval Morrisseau collection and their Inuit sculpture and print collections.

The main reason we went was to see the North Star exhibit. I happen to have watched the curatorial video on You Tube. As a new painter, I am quite interested in the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. I often flip through the pages of my book on their paintings before I go to sleep (I am NOT saying they make me fall asleep!).

The show did not disappoint. It is so intriguing to see Thomson’s brushstrokes in his many small sketches. He was not a professionally trained painter – though he was friends with some very well trained and educated painters such as AY Jackson, JEH McDonald, and Lawren Harris. Considering he mostly learned (apparently) through talking with these fellow painters and experimentation and how he painted for such a short period, his work is incredible. Never mind that, his sense of colour and freedom of the brush are incredible. It is actually quite a pedagogical experience to be able to see the brushstrokes up close.

The exhibit highlights some of the few sketches he turned into canvases for future exhibits and sales. Here’s one example of the transition, one I really find exquisite because of the detail of the shadows. The exhibit book (which I bought, of course) explains that the influence for this type of shadow work was AY Jackson. The sketch is the bottom photo.

As I said, as a new painter I am trying to learn certain basic techniques pertaining to sky, clouds, water, flowers, and trees. Tom Thomson is a tree master!

I have only just started to read the book accompanying the exhibit. One that stood out already is an interesting piece on how Thomson has often been “Indigenized” in much of the writing about him – really mythologizing about him. At the same time, as has often happened in Canadian history, the actual Indigenous people have been written out of the story. I look forward to more insight on not only his painting but his place in Canadian history.

I wonder if I will be able to apply any of my learning in my art?

Summer Art So Far

By , July 18, 2023 3:45 pm

Lucky to be off work, I have started painting again. When you are as slow at is as I am, it is a very time-consuming hobby. All paintings are done according to Art Sherpa tutorials, except the last one which is from Will Kemp Art School.

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