Melanie Kirkpatrick is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. She is the author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, which World Magazine named “Book of the Year.” She has lived in Tokyo, Toronto, Hong Kong, Honolulu, and Manhattan, and currently resides in rural Connecticut with her husband, Jack David.
Award-winning author Melanie Kirkpatrick journeys through four centuries of history, giving us a vivid portrait of our nation’s best-loved holiday in her new book Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience (Encounter Books).
NewsBlaze columnist Dwight L. Schwab, Jr: Welcome Melanie. You have quite a diverse career in writing topics. Not only have you written this wonderful book we are here to talk about, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of America,” but you have ventured into more of my topic territory with “Escape from North Korea; The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” I want to read that book too.
Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of America”: Well thank you. I enjoyed writing that book for two reasons. It is an uplifting story of brave people who were able to send back information to those still in North Korea of the real situation they faced and also a story of survival. I also found it interesting to tell the story of the rescuers, many of them being Christians. It is a very inspiring book in some ways.
Schwab: How were you able to research such a book about the most isolated country on the planet?
Kirkpatrick: I had done a journal about the security aspects and human rights in North Korea. That interest started in the 1980’s when I lived in Hong Kong, and I was the op-ed editor of the Asian edition (Wall Street Journal). I published an article about what it was like to be one of those people, and a bunch of editorials. It was the reason I retired from The Journal. People had not written about it before, so I dedicated the next few years working and writing about the subject. I had a great deal of help from Japanese, South Koreans and Americans. I also got a great deal of the book from the people themselves. They enabled me to approach the North Koreans who had escaped and, more importantly, encourage them to tell the truth, which was difficult coming from the closed society they had endured. You know, you develop sources over the years.
Schwab: I assume you are familiar with Jason Riley of The Journal. I have interviewed him. He’s a sharp cookie.
Kirkpatrick: Oh yes, Jason and I are both from Buffalo. I helped hire Jason years ago.
Schwab: I could interview you just on that book, but that isn’t why we are here, right? (laughter) Your new book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” what prompted you to write that?
Kirkpatrick: Many years ago now, I was in downtown Manhattan on September 11th and witnessed the towers fall. I became interested in the American spirit and picked up William Bradford’s book, “Plymouth Plantation.” He was the longtime governor of Plymouth and he recounts the Pilgrims’ journey to the new world from England to Holland and then onto what would become America. November came around that year and I read his account of the first Thanksgiving and one other account. His description of the feasting, the gratitude; it all still applies today. To think Americans have been gathering like this for over 400 years is a very positive and healing story. It was especially meaningful that Thanksgiving, after September 11th. After this fractious election we have been through as Americans, it should be a time to discuss what unites us.
Schwab: Can I assume the message is let the free market work and don’t manipulate it?
Kirkpatrick: Well, that wasn’t the main thrust of the book, but in one of the book’s chapters, I spend a great deal of time on President Franklin Roosevelt’s underlying idea for changing the Thanksgiving holiday to a week earlier in the hope of getting more people to shop and spend money further from the Christmas holiday. I think it was a stupid idea. It was meant to boost the economy, but of course, it was the Great Depression and people didn’t have extra money to spend. It ended up half of Americans celebrated on the original date and the other on FDR’s new holiday timing. The Pilgrims had a kind of socialist system at the time. Nobody owned property; they would work the farms communally and share the bounty of their work. Individual families were then provided plots of land with property rights; people grew happier with pride of ownership.
Schwab: A small group of people made socialism work?
Kirkpatrick: Actually it didn’t work. They decided at some point to change the system and provide property rights and kept their rewards. It is noted in Bradford’s journals that this pleased the population and actually increased production.
Schwab: Thanksgiving has been a tradition for centuries. What should be the main theme of it for Americans in 2016?
Kirkpatrick: Gratitude is the operative word. No surprise there. This has changed little over the centuries. It is still the central feature of the day. There was a survey conducted a number of years ago that asked Americans if they said grace at the table during Thanksgiving dinner. Forty-dour percent said they did every day. Another 44 percent said they did occasionally. So I would like to think you put those two numbers together and 88 percent of Americans still practice grace before dinner at one time or another.
Schwab: I think of all the American women who get up in the middle of the night to get ready to shop on Black Friday. The men wake up and wonder why Detroit is always one of the games on Thanksgiving. (laughter) In other words, of the people I know in general, they don’t discuss gratitude as much as they express happiness they get four days off from work.
Kirkpatrick: I don’t agree with you. Eighty-eight percent sit down for Thanksgiving dinner. Saying grace is not the only way people can express gratitude. Ann Rynd, an Atheist, even said we should express thanks to whatever we thought was our higher power. You raised an interesting point. In the 19th century, when football became a part of Thanksgiving, there was a discussion of where it fit into the holiday. Sensible people found there was a time to pray and also play.
Schwab: “Giving Tuesday” is an event that has taken off in this country. It has raised tens of thousands of dollars and expresses the generosity of the American people.
Kirkpatrick: I had never heard of it. It’s very popular among young people. It’s not an organization; it’s a collaboration of people that encourage people and corporations to contribute money as a counter-balance to the previous Friday’s Black Friday event. It was started by the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which is a Jewish organization. It has a big secular organization open to everybody. It’s in the Jewish tradition to help your community. Individuals can join up to seek money for a good cause. It’s part of the younger network of people who spend their lives online. Back to Black Friday and football. There is a chapter on American generosity that has been known for many years. Canadians are second in their monetary giving. Americans have a tradition of helping the less fortunate. One of the saddest features of Thanksgiving is someone who has no place to go. It’s a time of fellowship. The lonely, the poor and the imprisoned are left out of the celebration of giving. Look at the number of people who volunteer at food banks, etc. In 1636 in Massachusetts, the richer were asked to take care of the less fortunate. I found that a very heartening story of our culture. I already knew it, I discovered how deeply ingrained it is in American culture.
Schwab: With Black Friday, the football, the millennials, where do you see the tradition of Thanksgiving going?
Kirkpatrick: The essential features of the holiday will not change. The religious aspect has changed, but the cranberries and turkey are here to stay. One of the chapters in the books deals with the early Indians and their attitude toward the celebration. They didn’t protest it then or now. It is a holiday that will not go the way of Columbus Day that has become a politically correct theme for the left. There are some groups of Native Americans who do not celebrate the holiday, but the overwhelming number do. I don’t think we’re in danger of it being “PCified.”
Schwab: For our readers, “Thanksgiving: The Heart of the American Experience,” where can they find your book?
Kirkpatrick: It’s available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Encounter Books, their website and my publisher. I assume it’s available in some independent book stores, but I know all the major chains have it. It’s a beautiful book with illustrations by Katherine Messenger. She was also the designer. It’s a beautiful keepsake book. I think people would enjoy it more as a book and not electronically.
Schwab: I’m at the age where I still like to turn the pages and may be the last conservative person subscribing to the San Francisco Chronicle, naturally for the sports section only. (laughter)
Kirkpatrick: You mention you cover foreign affairs. Sarah Josepha Hale established the modern Thanksgiving and, as a newspaper editor, she said Americans will celebrate the holiday anywhere in the world.
Schwab: What is your next book?
Kirkpatrick: I don’t know, Dwight.
Schwab: That’s a firm answer. It has been a pleasure talking with you.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you Dwight and Happy Thanksgiving.