At his year’s writers’ conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, I met an author I liked so much personally that I bought his prize-winning book 419 as soon as I returned home. Prize-winning? Will Ferguson has actually won a slew of prizes, so the Giller Prize for 419 was just one more cherry in the pie,

You’ve all seen it: emails soliciting money for the unfortunate niece of a friend stranded in Timbuktu or some other remote place. Ferguson’s book, 419 begins “Dear Sir, I am the son of an exiled Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help . . .” In western Canada, Laura’s father falls victim to the scam and dies as a result. Unwilling to accept the advice of the police to “just let it go,” Laura sets off for Africa to find the scammer. In Nigeria, she risks her life to right the wrong. Naturally, there’s a surprise ending.

The author takes readers behind the scenes of the world’s most insidious internet scam. However, scam or not, I will never think of Nigeria (or any other African oil-producing country) the same again. Not only was this an exciting read, but an education for me.

Ferguson was born in the fur trading post of Fort Vermilion, Alberta, 500 miles north of Edmonton, closer to the Arctic Circle than to the United States. He has traveled extensively which surely helped him bring the country of Nigeria to life. After experiencing his ability to “paint a scene” I feel like a fledgling in my attempts at writing. He is also a master of metaphor. Take a look at his other books at https://www.willferguson.ca,


Naomi’s Journey

During a severe drought in Judea, Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, decided to leave Bethlehem in search of pasturage for their flocks. A large percentage of their food came from milk products, so saving their flock was of utmost importance. Across the Salt Sea (Which we now know as the Dead Sea), the grass was green and plenteous. Their destination was Moab, land of their enemies. On their way to Moab, after herding their sheep northward through the Judean Hills, Naomi and Elimelech turned east, crossed a small strip of desert, then forded the Jordan River. A few miles east of the Jordan River, they turned south onto The King’s Highway. The King’s Highway was an important trade route connecting Africa with Mesopotamia. It ran from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula to Aqaba, then northward to Damascus and the Euphrates River. After traveling for three days along this highway, Naomi and her family and servants climbed into the mountains west of the highway to arrive at the valley they would inhabit during their stay in Moab.

On the return journey, Naomi, with Ruth, again traveled the King’s Highway. This time, after fording the Jordan, she and Ruth crossed over the Judean Hills into Canaan. Here, they followed the Way by the Sea. Also known as Via Maris, the Way by the Sea was an ancient trade route dating from the early Bronze Age. This route linked Egypt with Syria, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. At some point along the Way by the Sea, Naomi and Ruth turned east to follow a path that took them to Bethlehem.

(Larger map below)

(Map done by Nat Jones.)

This Month in Ancient Israel


During October, the Former Rains came, wetting the ground and making plowing possible. The porous limestone beneath the top soil, collected moisture, making the ground suitable for planting. Excess water ran into the wadies, bringing them to life after a season of dry beds. It was the failure of both the Former Rains and the Latter Rains that led to the drought in the Book of Ruth.

October was also the month of the olive harvest. One olive tree could supply a family for a year with olives, oil for cooking, and oil for their lamps. Pickers usually beat the olives from trees with long poles, loaded them into baskets, and then (probably) trod them in the same vats they’d trod the grapes. Olives were very important to the Israelites as both food and a source of oil for their lamps.

A Christmas Eve Pilgrimage to Bethlehem

When I tell people I hiked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, many envision a fantastical expedition through the Judean desert. Like some Biblical scene of old. In reality, it is nothing like that.

Despite its history, Christmastime in the Holy City was relatively uneventful. We had always heard Bethlehem was the place to be on Jesus’s birthday, which of course makes sense considering it’s said to be his birthplace. We were told there was something elaborate going on in the main square, even the President of Palestine would be there.



So we made off. With eggnog in hand, a small group of friends and I departed downtown Jerusalem two and half hours before the clock struck midnight. It only took twenty or so minutes to reach the end of Jerusalem’s city center, the sprawl looking not too different from American suburbs. The main variations being the sand color of the buildings and their distinct cube-like architecture. Cars honked as they drove by. We walked by the malls and through the green parks. Even in the night, the color looked vibrant against the tan and beige that filled the landscape.

Soon we exited the city, reaching a stretched road leading to the West Bank. We walked along a highway. Aside from old and ruined hovels, fewer and fewer manmade structures occupied the view. On this small tract, after maybe only a mile of walking, we found a space much more akin to our imaginations. A hilled scenery, white rocks and sparse shrubbery. Brown and hard dirt that felt too dry for any type of plant to grow in, but nonetheless they did. Olive trees with twisted trunks and chipping bark sprouted occasionally between rock and ruin. Sometimes the trees sheltered a little patch of grass under their limbs, offering solace on a hot day. Bethlehem was pockets of light in the near distance.

But this atmosphere quickly changed as they often do in Israel. A white painter’s van slowed down next to us, and a Palestinian man in the passenger seat stuck his head out the window. In Arabic, he yelled to us, asking if we were okay and if we needed a ride. A not uncommon occurrence. We thanked him but told him we were walking because we wanted to. He laughed and insisted, but finally waved goodbye after we assured him all was fine.

After two hours of walking, we approached the border checkpoint, a concrete hulk built in a tall grey wall. Guard towers stood at each corner. For a lot of people, the wall is the physical symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, but on this night it gave off a strangely different aura. Spread over the snaking concrete were bright and colorful Christmas decorations. Santa and his reindeer, a waving snowman, strands of lights, and all the clichéd rest. We entered the checkpoint and were greeted with an empty room and flickering fluorescent lights. Gates and offices, barren. Through the door at the other end, we could see two Israeli guards holding rifles, they waved us through. We walked past the usually stringent security and came into the city.

Aside from a running cat or an old man smoking outside his home, the streets were empty. But there was a music in the distance, so we walked towards it. Part of the night sky was illuminated with manmade brightness.

After five minutes, we neared the life of the city. Crowds were moving to the square. Security was posted at each roundabout, directing traffic with whistles and flailing arms with no clear method to their instruction. A motorcade parted the cars and drove up a hill towards the Church of the Nativity. Young men blasted music out of their windows and the streets were bright with yellow hued streetlamps and passing headlights. We hiked up a hill on cracking sidewalk, dust between the fissures and off the curb, one or two restaurant owners asking us where we were from as we walked by.

At the top of the hill, thick streams of visitors and locals funneled into alleys leading to the famous church. We walked up one more small incline to the final plateau of the square. Thousands of people were walking and smoking and yelling, all of them jubilant just after the clock struck twelve. Vendors with small carts sold candies and extra sugary tea with many mint leaves. At the base of the church was a Christmas Tree, the biggest one I’d ever seen, covered in red and green decorations, the star lit up in a soft red, and next to it, the Church of the Nativity’s stone bell tower. We ran into our other friends in the square and as we looked around, the world seemed happy. Maybe they’d forgotten all the other things that had been happening and will continue to happen in their lives and the lives that come after them in this old, old land. But of course, though this patch of ground is most famous for turbulence, it is also famous for life.

The castle-like structure below is the border checkpoint and is one of the ways through the enormous wall the Israeli military has constructed between Israel and the West Bank.

Jonathan Pezzi, (my grandson) is a recent graduate of Washington and Lee University. He has traveled extensively both for fun and for his studies, including a semester of study in Israel. His pictures of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East can be seen at https://www.instagram.com/finding_corners/

A Well-deserved Honor!

Once in a while, when someone receives an honor, I’m thrilled that such a deserving person has been noticed and commended. At the graduation ceremonies for Washington and Lee University last week, an honorary doctorate was awarded to Theodore Carter DeLaney Jr.  I’ve never paid much attention to honorary doctorates, but in this case, I did, as did, I believe, the entire audience.

Born and raised in the segregated South, Delaney lived in Lexington, VA during the Jim Crow era and endured the many indignities of that time. He attended Lexington’s all-black public school. After high school he studied for a year in a Franciscan monastery. He then got a job at Washington and Lee as a custodian. Professors in the Biology Department quickly recognized his potential and hired him as their lab technician. For the next two decades he was an integral member of the campus community, indispensable to faculty and staff and admired by students.

Encouraged by members of the faculty, he took advantage of the university’s benefit that permitted him to take a free class each term and began working on a bachelor’s degree. Eventually, he quit his job to become a full-time student at the age of forty. In 1985, he graduated cum laude with a major in history.

DeLaney taught at the Asheville School for several years, before earning his Ph.D. in American history from the College of William and Mary. In 1955, he returned to Washington and Lee as an assistant professor of history where he taught for 24 years, devoting countless hours to counseling, advising, and encouraging students. He introduced new courses in the histories of the disadvantaged, disenfranchised and oppressed. His courses ranged from ones that traced the route of the Freedom Riders to a course on gay and lesbian history. He co-founded the Africana Studies Program, served as head of the History Department, and held the Redenbaugh Term Professorship. His research into John Chavis, the first African American known to receive a college education in the United States was instrumental in bringing this remarkable story to the fore at Washington and Lee.

I say, a well-deserved honorary doctorate!


How to Start a Fire in Ancient Israel

While researching a novel about Naomi from the Book of Ruth, I’m coming across all sorts of interesting facts. Last week, I needed to know how they started a fire. I couldn’t imagine there’d actually be any research on the topic, but I looked anyway. Just in case. I was wrong. (Imagine that!) What I discovered was an article written by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers entitled The Earliest Matches.

An earlier archeological discovery in Israel’s Ramat Bet Shemesh showed how the Israelites made fire without matches or a lighter. Archeologists, led by Anna Eirkh-Rose, excavated a limestone slab that seems to have been used in ancient fire-making. The slab is punctured with two sockets. A groove connects the sockets. To start a fire, a flammable material would have been placed in one of the sockets and probably in the groove. Then a cylinder would have been rotated in the other hole.

The archaeologists at Hebrew University of Jerusalem discovered the “matches” which they claim are the world’s oldest known fire starters: clay and stone cylinders from the sixth millennium B.C. These cylinders would have been used with the fireboards described above. Scratches on the boards suggest that the cylinders were quickly spun using a bow. This business of fire-making in ancient Israel was similar to the wooden drills, fireboards, and bows used by other ancient civilizations (An advanced method of rubbing two sticks together!).

Pictures of the cylinders and fireboards can be found in the article, The Earliest Matches, here: https://www.academia.edu/6161126/The_earliest_matches

Call Me Mara

If you wish to receive a notification when my novel about Ruth and Naomi is published, go here: www.judyhigginsbooks.com/call-me-mara/

Two Characters Need to Die, but I Can’t Do it!

They needed to be dead a week ago so I could go on writing. I’m referring to two characters that have to die. But  after living with them for so many weeks while I worked on the first part of my novel-in-progress, I’m finding it hard to say “good-by.” Every day last week, when I should have been doing my job and issuing their death warrant, I found an excuse not to. On Monday, I had a headache. I never have headaches, but I managed to get one on Monday, so I laid around in bed and didn’t write. Tuesday, I had nothing in the house for breakfast, so I went out, and my going-out took up all my writing time. Wednesday, . . . . I forget what my excuse was on Wednesday, but I’m sure it was a good one. Thursday, I didn’t feel so great because the evening before my book group met, and we always eat and drink a lot and stay up late and gossip and tell naughty stories, so how could I kill two characters after that? Friday, I decided it would be more beneficial to do some editing on the first part of the book, so I postponed the two deaths. Tomorrow is Monday. These two characters are going to die for sure, otherwise I’ll never get this book written.

My Reading List from Bouchercon

I came back from my first Bouchercon, the conference for mystery lovers, with several books to add to my already lengthy “wanna read” list. Here are the books and the reasons they’ve made the list.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne. Because the book won a prize at the conference.

Under my Skin, by Lisa Unger. The novel is about a woman murdering her husband, or maybe she just wants to murder him. I can’t remember. My writing group talked about doing a book in which ten or twelve women write stories on how to murder your husband, so I’m viewing this as research.

She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This book was shortlisted for several prizes and won one. Also, Jordan Harper was on one of the panels and the author seated next to him said to the audience, “If you buy only one book at this conference, let it be this one.”

Murder in the Marais, by Cara Black. Her books are set in Paris and sound intriguing.

Any book by Nick Herron. I don’t remember why this wound up on my list, but it was in my notes.

Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter. I listened to her on two panels and she was hilarious. Also, her book made my list because she’s from my home state of Georgia.

Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk. This isn’t a mystery, but I’ve been planning to read it for a long time so when someone at the conference mentioned it, it moved up several notches on my “wanna read” list.




What They Didn’t Teach us in English Class

                 In front of Robert Burn’s cottage in Ayrshire

I sometimes need a dictionary to decipher it, but I love Robert Burn’s poetry which runs the gamut from lyrical love poems to acerbic blasts against injustice. As only a Scotsman can, he derides and lambasts with humor, holding nothing back in his blunt political and civil commentary. He was a liberal, a feminist, and a socialist. I learned all of this in high school from a very good-looking English teacher. (Note: the English teacher in The Lady was so closely modeled after him that my classmates recognized him immediately.) What we didn’t learn was that Burns was an inveterate womanizer. English class was like Sunday School in that they left out all the good stuff.

Burns fathered twelve children from several different mothers – his wife Jean, his mother’s servant, a woman from church, a friend. His first child was born to a servant about the same time he got his future wife pregnant with twins. At last count he had six hundred descendants from these various women. Which leads me to a question. Were some of those lovely love poems he wrote a peace offering to his wife? Did he, instead of bringing home a bouquet of roses, present her with My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose or Ae Fond Kiss? Oh my, English class could have been so much more fun had we discussed questions like this.

Giving Grace: This 8th-grader Knows How

Gracie Di Nardo collected more than 400 new and slightly worn dresses and 150 pairs of shoes so girls in her town could have a nice outfit for graduation. Last week, girls in the 5th, 8th, and 12th grades descended on the community center which allowed her to display the clothes. Most of the outfits had been tagged with handwritten notes such as “You are loved,” “You are strong,” and “You are beautiful.”

Gracie’s project started in May when she and her mother were talking about how fortunate Gracie was to have a new dress for a dance and one for graduation. She knew that many of her schoolmates were not so fortunate, and so she decided to do the dress drive so that other students could feel special on their graduation day. She called her project “Giving Grace.”

Gracie approached the director of a local middle school’s local services center and the family resource directors at two different elementary schools. The center directors spread the word, inviting girls to the shopping event and asking people to donate. Soon high schools were joining in. Social media posts helped bring in dresses. Gracie’s volleyball teammates also helped.

In addition to dresses and shoes, girls could also shop for accessories. One family donated some of their late mother’s jewelry collection. Next year, Gracie plans to enlarge her project to include prom dresses.