One Brick at a Time: The Greatest Book on Earth

I don’t usually post on Tuesdays. But today is a special day, because five years ago, on May 9, 2012, I posted for the first time in this space as the Practical Historian. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about back then. I mean, I had a vague notion that since I write historical fiction, I should probably blog about history, but that was all I knew.

bloggiversary cupcake
Five years of blogging means I deserve a cupcake, right?

I was also a little scared, because I never liked history all that much. That is, until I started to research it as a storyteller. When I did that, I began to discover all of these weird and wonderful moments that make up the story of this world full of weird and wonderful people.

But right away I had a problem. You see, I’m not a historian. And I certainly never wanted to claim to be one, so I decided to take a very lighthearted approach to the subject, and to do my best along the way not to claim any authority I had no right to claim. I started to slowly build up the blog one brick at a time until it took on a distinctive, if somewhat unusual, shape.

What I ended up with was a blog that was a little bit history and a little bit me, one that was kind of funny, and sort of smart, and occasionally silly. And then all you readers started to show up, and you turned out to be funny and smart and occasionally silly, too.

Week after week, I found myself laying down bricks, and more and more of you followed along to see what I was up to, winding through history with me, with really no rhyme or reason at all to the path, and usually ending up somewhere surprising.

It’s like what the fine citizens of New York found themselves doing one sunny afternoon when a few of them noticed a poorly dressed gentleman laying bricks. When I say he was laying bricks, I don’t mean he was a mason busy with a construction project. Instead, this man was laying a brick here and then moving down the walkway to lay another one there, lined up just so. Whatever he was doing, he did it with precision, and in complete silence. The crowd that soon gathered found him fascinating, and as the man walked on, placing his bricks, they followed.

They followed him around the block and straight into Barnum’s American Museum where many of them purchased a ticket and continued their pursuit through the unusual displays they found there. As the crowd became distracted by the wonders and oddities in P.T. Barnum’s museum, the curious man and his bricks slipped out the back to continue on the path, where he picked up and replaced each precisely set brick as he came to it.

P. T. Barnum, the publicist I would hire, if only I could. By unattributed – Harvard Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in the day, the man had asked Barnum for a handout and what the great showman and even greater salesman offered instead was a job. Directed by Barnum, the man’s nonsensical bricklaying drew a crowd so large that after a few days, the police forced him to stop because traffic couldn’t get through. And many of the people who flocked to observe the brick man, paid to follow him into the museum. That’s some clever marketing by a man who called his own circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and got us all to go along with it.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last month or so, you may have seen that as I approached this big blogiversary, the way I decided to celebrate was to publish a collection of some of my favorite posts from the past five years. If you’ve enjoyed the blog, I think you’ll enjoy the book (which features much better editing and a lovely cover). And if not, then maybe you know someone who would.

Available today from Amazon and anyone else who sells books. I think there are still a few others.

So, I want to ask you for a favor. If you have appreciated the blog at any point over the last five years, would you be willing to share this post, or tell someone about the book, or mention it on Facebook, or give it a shout out on your blog, or send out a Tweet, or pin it, or Snapchat it to your grandma, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days?

Because as much as I love to write and as proud as I am of the blog and the book, I’m no P.T. Barnum and promotion scares me silly. I’ll do my best, but I’m pretty sure I will never be bold enough to call this the Greatest Book on Earth (if you feel so compelled, please feel free). And I sure would be grateful if you could lay down a few bricks along your path.

Thank you so much for five years. You are, without doubt, the Greatest Blog Readers on Earth.


If you’re into Twitter, here are a couple of ready-to-place bricks you can use:

Tweet: A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep

Tweet: History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep

A Paper Book Smack Dab in the Middle of Nowhere

The intersection of State Route 206 and Morton Hill Road in Sullivan County, New York, could legitimately be considered the middle of nowhere. It’s a few miles north of Roscoe, New York, which sports a population of around 550 people, excellent fly fishing opportunities, and an allegedly haunted castle. But it’s Roscoe’s northerly neighbor, at that intersection in the middle of nowhere that might be the most interesting thing about the area.

Because that’s where, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the town of Agloe, New York was imagined into existence by Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. On their map of New York State, Lindberg and Alpers chose to set a trap for potential copyright infringers; and so right there in the middle of nowhere, where no one would ever have a reason to go, the mapmakers placed a dot they decided to label Agloe.

Agloe is an anagram of the initials of Lindberg and Alpers, a good name, I think, for a dot in the middle of nowhere. By OpenStreetMap contributors (OpenStreetMap) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright infringement was a big problem in the mapmaking industry at the time (before GPS and the worldwide fleet of mapmaking Google cameras mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles, and camels), and “paper towns” (because they exist only on paper) weren’t uncommon. And you can bet Lindberg and Alpers were glad they’d included Agloe when Rand McNally produced a New York State map a few years later that included the name of their made up town.

The problem was that Rand McNally’s lawyers had a pretty tight defense, because at some point along the way, a New York State couple saw the name Agloe on a map and decided to honor the little vanished town by naming their business in that approximate location the Agloe General Store.  Rand McNally claimed that their cartographers had visited the site, discovered the business, and concluded that this was one tiny New York hamlet that most certainly existed.

Still, the “town” and the business were in the middle of nowhere at the intersection of lightly traveled roads and, not surprisingly, the Agloe General Store didn’t last too long. Today, you can still visit Agloe, though you’ll have to plan your route to the intersection rather than the town since Google Maps removed the name in 2014. Once there you’ll find a nice sign welcoming visitors to the former site of the Agloe General Store and the made-up town it legitimized. You won’t find much else.

Paper towns
Author John Green thought the concept of paper towns was pretty cool, too, and Agloe features prominently in his novel.

I find the concept of paper towns fascinating, and as a writer, I particularly love the story of Agloe, which is an example of something invented on paper and imagined into actual existence.

That’s what writers do, or at least that’s what we try to do. We think and imagine and plan (and copyright), and eventually we produce a book, our imagination on paper, and we hope that someone will read it and will find that it has meaning in the real world.

In some ways, I’ve found blogging to be that way, too. Every week (and much more often than that for some), we write our posts and float our dots out there into the blogosphere, a place that can sometimes feel like the middle of nowhere. But then, if we keep at it, along come readers, many of whom are floating their own dots out into the virtual world and we begin to find meaning in one another’s work.

But writing in the middle of nowhere in the blogosphere doesn’t always feel tangible. I’ve been at this for a while now, and have been fortunate to have interacted with many gifted writers and amazing people in this space. On May 9 I will have been blogging as the Practical Historian for five years, and I continue to love doing it. To celebrate this milestone, I am releasing a tangible collection, (on paper, but also in e-formats) of some of my favorite posts and essays on history, life, and nonsense.

A whole box full of highly meaningful paper books that really do exist.

If you’re interested, the book is available to preorder pretty much wherever you like to order books (and yes, on Amazon, too) and I promise that even though you can’t actually hold this paper (or electronic) book in your hands quite yet, I just received a shipment of honest to goodness copies. I’m not convinced you’ll find any great meaning in it, but it’s a fun book that really does exist. And it’s waiting for you just up ahead at that intersection in the middle of nowhere, not far from the haunted castle.

A Spring Break Disappearing Act

This week my children have been on Spring Break, a time of staying up late, sleeping in, and generally making their mother panic about how to fill the many hours of a rapidly approaching summer break. At this point in their academic careers, it’s also a time for them to set aside school projects in favor of more leisurely passions.

A top hat, a cape, and a rabbit. What more does a young magician need?

For my first born son, a bright 11-year-old, that means magic. I’m not actually sure when this latest obsession began to take root, but for months he’s been studying library books full of sleight of hand techniques and grand illusions. My basement is filled with discarded attempts at fashioning a cardboard vanishing cabinet. He has even worked hard to design schemes that can convince an audience of his psychic abilities.

This last one is pretty easy to unravel as he always recruits his little brother to be his less-than-subtle audience plant. Still, I’m reasonably confident that if he sticks with it, he will eventually figure out how to pull off some convincing illusions.

In fact, he’s already managed a few fairly impressive card tricks that I have a hard time figuring out. It’s these he’s worked on the most, mastering some classics and tweaking a few to make them his own. Now I’m thinking the book he might really need to read is what has become known as the “Card Sharp Bible,” The Expert at the Card Table: The Classic Treatise on Card Manipulation by S. W. Erdnase.

Originally published by James McKinney and Co in Chicago in 1902, this little book has been in continuous print for over one hundred years and is widely considered the most influential book on card manipulation ever written.

Erdnase’s work includes sixteen techniques of blind shuffles and card cutting, with illustrations. Bottom dealing, deck stacking, and second dealing are all thoroughly explained. There are discussions of card palming, sleight of hand illusions, and plain old card tricks.

Pick a card, any card.


But the most impressive trick tackled by Erdnase is the author’s own disappearing act, because, even after more than a hundred years, and numerous exhaustive searches, no one is quite sure of the author’s true identity. We know only that S. W. Erdnase is a pseudonym (understandable given the potentially illegal applications of the subject matter in his book) and that the author sold his rights to the book a year after it was originally published.

There’s been A LOT of speculation about who he might have been. From an interview conducted forty years later with the original illustrator, we have a vague description of a short , well-spoken, and pleasant man, who may have mentioned a familial connection to political cartoonist Louis Dalrymple.

It’s not a lot to go on, but clever investigators quickly latched onto the fact that S. W. Erdnase is the backwards spelling of E. S. Andrews. This has led to a number of potential candidates and dead ends, including a notorious Chicago conman by that name and a Herbert Andrews whose business was located a few blocks from the book’s publisher and whose wife was Emma Shaw Andrews.

Not the most elegant magical prop, but give him time.


Other clever investigators have put forward the suggestion of successful mining engineer W. E. Sanders, whose name anagrams nicely into S. W. Erdnase. Still others have proposed Peruvian magician L’Homme Masque whose prowess in the magic community at the time might at least recommend him as a contributor, or Harry S. Thompson, a salesman who was both a short, well-spoken man and a friend to Harry Houdini.

The debate rages on, but it seems unlikely that the true Expert at the Card Table will ever reappear. The real question, it seems, is how he managed to so completely vanish in the first place. Personally, I’m betting it had something to do with a vanishing cabinet, made of cardboard, in his mother’s basement.

No Historical Figures were Harmed in the Writing of this Book: A Review of The Magician’s Lie

On the night of January 19, 1897, illusionist and recent widow Adelaide Herrmann stood before a firing squad at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In front of a large crowd of people that I imagine were sitting on the edges of their seats, the squad opened fire. When the guns were silent, Herrmann still stood, revealing to the audience that she had successfully caught six bullets and was completely unharmed.

Famous performers of the simultaneous bullet catch, in which neither has yet died. But they’re not revealing how they do it. photo credit: Penn & Teller via photopin (license)

Not every magician who has performed a version of the bullet catch illusion has been so fortunate. The earliest performance that I could find reference to occurred around 1580, and was accomplished by a French magician who lived long enough afterward to be killed by a disgruntled assistant more than thirty years later. But there have been a fair number (both verifiable and not) of magicians injured and possibly more than a dozen killed in the course of performing the catch.

How exactly the illusion is accomplished I couldn’t tell you (though plenty of people have offered explanations on the Internet) and even Penn and Teller aren’t revealing this one. What is clear to me is that it’s both dangerous and enduring (and quite possibly stupid), as iconic to the illusion performance industry as sawing a woman in half.

Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic, levitating, which is not nearly as dangerous as catching a bullet. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What makes Adelaide Herrmann’s performance notable is that this marked her debut as a headlining magician, taking the place of her deceased husband, illusionist Alexander Herrmann who’d been scheduled to perform it. Adelaide never included the illusion in her act again (an indication that she was not stupid), but she went on to become a highly successful illusionist in her own right, performing in Vaudeville circuits until finally retiring in 1928 at the age of seventy-four.

Her long and successful career as the Queen of Magic, highly respected by fellow illusionists, including Harry Houdini (a man who once announced that he would perform the bullet catch and later cancelled the performance citing concerns over the danger), in a field that was (and still is) male dominated, makes her a truly fascinating person in my book. But until recently I’d never heard of her.

And that is why I love to read historical fiction, because sometime I encounter truly interesting people with great stories. I was introduced to the Queen of Magic by the novel The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister. The story follows a fictional young female dancer turned illusionist named Arden at the turn of the century, who possesses a bit of true magical ability as well as a fascination with illusion and a love for the stage.

Seems like a good week to take a break from the news and read a good book.


In the novel, Arden is mentored by Herrmann and eventually takes over her circuit, adding her own flare to the show, including an act in which she (a woman) has the audacity to saw a man in half. When one performance ends in the discovery of a murdered man stuffed inside her equipment, Arden attempts to convince a small town police officer (with plenty of issues of his own) to hear out her story before deciding her fate.

The novel does play with history a little (like by shortening the career span of Adelaide Herrmann) but I don’t think any historical figures were particularly harmed by those choices. All in all, this was a beautiful story, ultimately about the illusions we can create for ourselves, the lies we must believe in order to misunderstand our own predicament, and the very real danger of playing with magic and sometimes catching a bullet.

Baltimore through Stanley’s Eyes

In 1964, Stanley Lambchop had a tragic accident. Just that day his father had given him a new bulletin board to hang on the wall of his room and as he slept, the bulletin board fell, squashing him. Luckily young Stanley survived the near tragedy, but it left him changed. Poor Stanley had become flat. The Lambchop family had enough spunk to transform Stanley’s new disability into an opportunity and soon he found himself posing as a painting on the wall of the local art gallery where he assisted the police in catching a burglar.

By User:Miwillans (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By User:Miwillans (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is the plot of children author Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley. The character would go on to have five more crazy adventures during the author’s lifetime, and since Brown’s death in 2003, has been guided by other authors through at least a dozen more. But Stanley’s biggest adventure was orchestrated in 1995 by third grade teacher Dale Hubert of Ontario.

Hubert assigned his students to design a Flat Stanley and send him through the mail in order to both practice writing letters, and to learn about the various places Stanley visited. Recipients of Stanley were asked to report back on his adventures and include pictures of Stanley in various locations along the way.

The assignment was a great success and earned Hubert the 2001 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Soon the Flat Stanley Project spread and now teachers all over the world participate in it with their students. My youngest son’s class is working on a Flat Stanley Project right now and a week or so ago, he received his first pictures.

I want to share a few of them with you because his Stanley traveled to visit a friend of mine in the Baltimore area. I know in the past few days we’ve all seen a lot of images of Baltimore, of protest demonstrations, of violence against police, and of buildings engulfed in flames. So, I thought maybe it would do us all some good to see the place in a different light, as a beautiful city full of a rich heritage and deep-rooted history.

Fort McHenry. Famed for its role in the War of 1812, and site of inspiration for Francis Scott Key's poem
Fort McHenry. Famed for its role in the War of 1812, and site of inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” which would become “The Star Spangled Banner,” a song that can be well sung by maybe 1% of the US population, but is nonetheless loved by all.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Completed in 1992, this is the first of the new old (or retro) baseball stadiums that have since swept the nation. Yesterday it became the place where the Baltimore Orioles offered imaginary autographs to absent fans and defeated the White Sox with no one there to watch.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Completed in 1992, this is the first of the new old (or retro) baseball stadiums that have since swept the nation. Yesterday it became the place where the Baltimore Orioles offered imaginary autographs to absent fans and defeated the White Sox with no one there to watch.
Washington Monument. Designed by Robert Mills, also the designer of the monument in DC, the Washington Monument in Baltimore was the first to be planned in honor of the first US president, making this one of the oldest giant stone phalli in the nation.
Washington Monument. Designed by Robert Mills, also the designer of the monument in DC, the Washington Monument in Baltimore was the first to be planned in honor of the first US president, making this one of the oldest giant stone phalli in the nation.
Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.It was in this house, built around 1830, where Edgar Allan Poe lived for a time with his aunt Maria Clemm and his ten year old cousin, who he would one day marry, but not until she reached the ripe of age of 13.
Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.It was in this house, built around 1830, where Edgar Allan Poe lived for a time with his aunt Maria Clemm and his ten year old cousin, who he would one day marry, but not until she reached the ripe old age of 13.

A Writer’s Tour on Wyatt Earp’s Birthday

Mr. Earp will just have to wait for his feature post. Maybe next birthday.
Mr. Earp will just have to wait for his feature post. Maybe next birthday. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

On March 19th, 1848 in the little town of Monmouth, Illinois, the gunslinger who would one day become the central figure in the famous shootout at the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp came screaming into the world.

But I’m not going to write about Earp this week. In fact, I’m not going to write about any historical figure at all, because a while back, a fellow blogger was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to participate in a writer’s tour.

So, first, I want to thank Camille Gatza of Wine and History Visited for including me on the tour. I have been enjoying Camille’s blog almost since I started out blogging myself.  Her posts often detail her travels through the US including wonderful background on historic sites and national and state parks. Along the way she always seems to discover unique restaurants and wineries and over the years, she has taught me pretty much everything I pretend to know about wine.

So here are the questions put forward on the tour:

What are you currently working on?

I’m always researching for both my blog and my fiction projects. The blog jumps through time and space from week to week, through the stories that I find interesting at any given time, with really very little rhyme or reason. I find that kind of research, which is admittedly not always very thorough, to be kind of a refreshing break from the research I do for my fiction projects. That is thorough and time consuming and while interesting, doesn’t always yield the kind of lighter stories I like to share in this space.

Okay, okay. Next week. I promise.   photo credit: 79109 Colby City Showdown via photopin (license)
Okay, okay. Next week. I promise. photo credit: 79109 Colby City Showdown via photopin (license)

Currently as a blogger, I am looking into the story behind LEGOS because this weekend my family and I will be attending the traveling LEGO Festival as it visits St. Louis. In my other “writerly” role, I am working through a first full draft of a novel that will hopefully serve as a companion to my first that was recently accepted for publication (!). As part of that process I am reading everything I can get my hands on about the Pennsylvania canal system in 1833, which, while interesting, and will supply wonderful historical details for the novel, is not exactly good material for this particular blog.

How does your work differ from others in your genre?

A lot of history blogs I read (and I do read a lot of them) are very information dense. Often they cite references and speak with a good deal of authority within a fairly narrow scope. I love that. And those kinds of blogs are exactly what history blogs should be.

But this isn’t that kind of blog. In fact I hesitate sometimes to even call it a history blog, because in some ways that’s not what it is. I do share stories from history, and I do spend a good amount of time (or at least some) researching my chosen topic in an attempt to provide readers with tidbits worthy of sharing at cocktail parties. But there’s also a lot of me on the pages of this blog. There’s a lot about my life and the things I find funny, or interesting, or just worthwhile. I try not to claim a great deal of authority in this space, because, frankly, I have none to claim.

But I do hope the posts are fun to read. I have a great time writing them.

Why do you write what you do?

When I was younger, history always seemed either dull or tragic to me. I’ve never been very good at memorizing dates and it seemed all I ever learned about in history class was how one group of people exploited another group of people to become the dominant people. And, really, human history can be boiled down to that if you let it be. But as I grew older and studied more literature, I began to see history through a different lens. When fleshed out with the little details that make up the experiences of individuals, suddenly each moment in history becomes many moments with many perspectives and far-reaching implications. In other words, it becomes a story. And a story, our story, is worth telling.

That realization led me to writing historical fiction, a genre that I fell in love with very quickly as a reader as well as a writer. And this blog is an extension of that. As this wonderful article in The Onion so eloquently points out, there are more stories within the history of human experience than I can possibly tell, or that any of us can possibly tell or ever know. But with this blog, each week, I get to take a stab at illuminating a little bit more.

How does your writing process work?

photo credit: Tapping a Pencil via photopin (license)
Some weeks are just like that. photo credit: Tapping a Pencil via photopin (license)

For the most part, I write what’s on my mind. If I have experienced or will be experiencing a particular event, I may use that as a jump-off for some historical research, and often the structure of the post itself will reveal that. Some weeks, something I come across in the news sends me down a trail I think might be worth sharing. And, of course, like anyone else, I have weeks when I struggle to find something to say.

Typically I start out with a very general idea of what I want to write and just start typing because I never know exactly what I’m going to want to write until I’ve already written it. After that I polish it up, trim the word count, insert what I hope are a few clever lines, throw in a few pictures, and post. Then I just sit back and wait for millions of thoughtful comments to come rolling in.

Well, okay, so that last part doesn’t really happen, but I realize that this blog is a little hard to categorize and it is sure to appeal to a fairly specific kind of reader. I am delighted that so many of you quirky, creative, thoughtful people have found it. Thank you!

And now on with the tour!

For the next stops on the tour, I’ve chosen two writers whose blogs I appreciate very much. They also both happen to be writers of historical fiction, but they each approach blogging differently than I do. I doubt they’ll be writing about Wyatt Earp this week either (although you never know). Still, I hope you’ll visit their sites, and maybe read their books as well, because it will be well worth the effort.


Samuel Hall grew up in the American Heartland.
He lives with his wife near Salem, Oregon. Their three adult children continue to teach him about family relationships and authenticity, core subjects of his novel.

Visit his website at

Sign up for the newsletter at to hear the latest about Sam’s book, Daughter of the Cimarron.

blogtourphotoAdrienne Morris lives in the country, milks goats, chases chickens and sometimes keeps the dogs off the table while writing books about the Weldon and Crenshaw families of Gilded Age Englewood, New Jersey. Her first novel, The House on Tenafly Road was selected as an Editors’ Choice Book and Notable Indie of the Year by The Historical Novel Society.


As You Wish: A Book Giveaway of True Love and High Adventure

This little history blog tends to skip around a lot through time. From week to week, I am as likely to share a story from the middle of the 20th century as I am to relate a tale of ancient man. And still, you the readers are kind enough to follow me down the rabbit hole. So this week, I am hoping you’ll allow me to push the already very wide historical boundaries I have informally set for myself. I’m going to hop into the way back and arrive many many years ago, at the height of 1980s America.

Specifically, I’m turning my attention to October 9, 1987. I had recently turned ten and the greatest movie I would ever see was released into theaters. But I didn’t see it. In fact, like most people, I didn’t see it for another year or two, when my older brother brought it home from the video store one day.

Even though The Princess Bride has since been included in the list of 100 Greatest Love Stories by the American Film Institute, the list of 100 Funniest Movies by Bravo, and the list of top 100 screenplays ever produced by The Writers Guild of America, it initially fell kind of flat.

Even after 27 years, we're all suckers for a good story well told.
Even after 27 years, we’re all suckers for a good story well told.

Because as a “classic tale of true love and high adventure” the film is difficult to categorize, it also proved difficult to market. And so, until people began to watch it in their homes on so-and-so’s recommendation, the film that would eventually appeal to almost everyone, was seen by almost no one. Leading man Cary Elwes recently commented that for years it was “mostly dead.”

He’s making reference, of course, to that wonderful scene in which Miracle Max, determines that Westley is only mostly dead, which is important, because “with all dead, there’s usually only one thing you can do…go through his clothes and look for loose change.”

On the off chance that you’ve not seen the film (and if you haven’t, you really should), I’ll quickly set the scene. In the course of mounting a rescue, the hero Westley has been murdered by the prince who wishes to wed Westley’s true love. The body is recovered by two of his enemies-turned-friends who are seeking his help in exacting revenge against one of the prince’s evil agents for another past murder.

Elwes has referred to this project as a love letter to the fans of the movie. And it really does have a lot of heart.
Elwes has referred to this project as a love letter to the fans of the movie. And it really does have a lot of heart.

The two men take Westley’s body to Miracle Max, played brilliantly by Billy Crystal, made up to look approximately 900 years old, and in one of the funniest movie scenes ever, Max, with the assistance of his wife Valerie (played equally brilliantly by Carol Kane), decides to make a miracle pill, coated in chocolate, to revive Westley. The hero unsurprisingly turns out to be a quick healer and has little trouble then defeating the prince and saving the girl.

I’ve written about this film once before, in a more historical context. A couple years ago much of the cast reunited at the New York Film Festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release. It’s my all-time favorite movie, filled with quirky characters, witty dialogue, thrilling adventure, and just plain fun. So the 25th anniversary brought back to mind the experience of falling in love with it. Of course I couldn’t attend the celebration screening and Q & A, but I felt I had to write about it to express my love in a practical history sort of way.

Elwes, a natural storyteller complete with spot-on impressions, gets comfortable with the large crowd of enthusiastic fans.
Elwes, a natural storyteller complete with spot-on impressions, gets comfortable with the large crowd of enthusiastic fans.

It turns out my reaction was similar to that of Cary Elwes (Westley). After the Film Festival and flood of memories, he decided to write a memoir about the making of the film that was both his first big Hollywood break and the one that will in some ways forever define his career. The result was As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

If you’re a fan of the movie (and there’s a pretty good chance you are), you’ll find the book delightful. It will have you watching the film again, searching for hints of the behind-the-scenes stories. You’ll learn that Westley’s hurried skipping along the ravine floor leading into the fire swamp is the least awkward way Elwes could run after breaking the snot out of his toe not long before the take.

You’ll discover what gave Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant such a terrible case of giggles on top of the castle wall. And you’ll find remembrances from many members of the talented cast and crew that brought to life the story and characters we have all come to love.

Why yes, that is ticket number 1. It's nice to know people who understand and accept your crazy. ast people who know people.
Why yes, that is ticket number 1. It’s nice to know people who understand and accept your crazy.

Now, two years ago it was inconceivable that I would go to New York to celebrate the film’s anniversary, but a month or so ago, my friend Michelle let me know that a friend of hers is an events coordinator for Anderson’s Bookshop, a large independent bookstore in Naperville, IL (southwest of Chicago), and that she had just booked Cary Elwes for a signing on Valentine’s Day. I told her I was in.

With traffic, Naperville is probably a little over a five-hour drive from where I live near St. Louis. I met Michelle on the way for a crazy-fun, if slightly ridiculous road trip and I met the man in black himself, who, I have to say, seems a decent fellow.

Of course the book has been out since October, long before the planned road trip and so I already owned a copy. But with such a large name coming in, the bookstore had to make this a ticketed event, and, as is customary, the ticket was the price of a reserved book. That means I now have an extra copy of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, signed by the author.

You can't tell this from the picture, but 12-year-old me just fainted.
You can’t tell this from the picture, but 12-year-old me just fainted.

So here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to give it away to one of you. If you are a fan of the movie and think you would enjoy the book, simply like my author page on Facebook or follow me on Twitter (which you can do from the sidebar of this page) and share this post. If you’ve already connected with me on one of those platforms and would like a chance to win, just share and drop me a comment to let me know you want in. Make sure you enter by noon (12:00 pm, US Central Time) on Wednesday, February 25.

I’ll announce the randomly selected winner on my regular Thursday blog post, which I promise will contain much (or slightly) more practical history, from way back in the years before 1987.