The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

If I’d not already written my Best Of 2016 list, I would have included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad near the top.  I started reading it December 27 and deliberately held off on finishing it until it was January 1 so that it would be the first book I finish this year.  It will undoubtedly be in my top ten for 2017.28250841

You’ve heard a lot about this book, probably.  Oprah picked it for her book club, even moving the publication date up to do so.  It won the 2016 National Book Award.  It was Amazon’s editors’ pick for #1 book of the year.  You’ve seen it on just about every critical book list.  And sometimes all that acclaim can make a person weary of a book before they’ve even picked it up.  Too much hype.  I know, I have done this myself, avoided a book because too many people love it.  I’ve also avoided books that I feared might be too difficult for me to handle emotionally, which is what I suspected about this one.  Well, I’m here to say that I was wrong.

Is this book sad?  Yes, of course; it’s about slavery, one of the worst, most degrading and cruel periods of human history.  But is it an unrelenting misery-fest?  No.  It’s one of the most suspenseful works of literary fiction I’ve ever read.  I started it late at night; before I knew it I was fifty pages in, and I had to make myself put it down and go to sleep.

I was immediately taken with Cora, the young slave at the center of the book.  She is a marvelous character, an eleven year-old orphan on the Randall plantation in Georgia when her mother, Mabel, runs away.  She is sent to the slave shack with the women who are “not right” in some way, either through accidents of birth or traumatic injury.  She keeps her grandmother Ajarry’s small garden plot at all costs, as it represents the only sense of agency and freedom she has in the little time she has to herself.  She hates her mother for leaving her in the night without saying goodbye.  A violent incident one night at a plantation slave gathering, in front of the plantation’s cruel new owner, leads Cora to accept an offer made to her by another slave, Caesar, to run away with him. Throughout the course of the novel she exhibits an indomitable will to survive, and through her eyes we see some of the worst ways humans mistreated one another in the past 175 years.  All the while she is being pursued by the relentless slave catcher, Ridgeway.

The mosquitoes and blackflies persecuted them.  In the daylight they were a mess, splashed up to their necks in mud, covered in burrs and tendrils.  It did not bother Cora.  This was the farthest she’d ever been from home.  Even if she were dragged away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.

You’ve no doubt heard that the Underground Railroad in the book is not just a metaphor for the network of people and structures that sheltered and shepherded runaway slaves, but an actual railway system built underneath the land of the southern states.  Whitehead has created a dazzingly original work, playing not only with historical fact but also speeding up and slowing down time in the places that Cora eventually ends up.  It’s difficult to talk about the plot very much without giving away page-turning twists and turns that reference some of the 20th century’s great injustices to African Americans as well.  I’ll just say that where this book went surprised me.

I’m profoundly glad to have read this, and want to encourage others who may be reluctant to pick it up.  It’s simultaneously a masterful work of imagination and a harrowing portrait of the real horrors of slavery.  But it’s also just a really good story, engaging and captivating, with a fierce, very human heroine at its center.  I rooted for Cora, I hurt for Cora, I didn’t want to leave Cora.  What a marvelous way to begin my 2017 reading.

Have you read this?  Do you plan to?  I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

 

 

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Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.  (How often do you get to say that?)  It’s a middle-grade novel, published in 2000, and it won the Pura Belpré award, which is the award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. (From the ALA website: The award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.)  I chose this because I was prompted by Naz’s excellent Latinx Heritage Month posts at Read Diverse Books.  This engaging, warm-hearted novel not only made me feel, it made me think, opening my eyes to a chapter of American history I’d regretfully never been aware of.

esperanza_rising_coverEsperanza, a young girl about to turn twelve in 1930, is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher.  She has only ever known a life of privilege, with dresses and dolls and servants to help her bathe and dress.  She is only vaguely aware of the “bandits” who roam the outskirts of the ranch, robbing and killing wealthy landowners.  Esperanza’s mother tells her that even though her father is kind and has given his workers land, many people are still upset about the slow pace of change after the Mexican Revolution ten year before. Esperanza thinks that her father will be saved by his kindness.  But very early on in the book, her father is indeed killed by bandits, and that sets in motion the events of the story.

She and her mother, along with their most trusted servants, end up having to escape one of her father’s evil relatives to a life in a farm camp in California.  It is a dramatically different existence than the one she grew up in.  She has to not only adjust to small and spare living quarters but also an entirely new mindset to survive. Esperanza doesn’t know how to do basic chores, like sweep, wash clothes, or change the diaper of a baby that shares their living space, much less work in fields picking grapes and peaches.  She has to learn not only how to work hard but to adjust her mentality to not condescend to the people she is now among.

Ryan portrays Esperanza not as a spoiled brat but as a sympathetic young woman who is overwhelmed by but trying to understand the difficult changes in her life.  Esperanza meets a girl in a nearby camp named Marta, who is allied with a group of workers who are threatening a labor strike to get better living conditions.  Through Marta the reader learns that the Filipinos, Japanese, and Okies (people from Oklahoma) all live in different camps.

“They don’t want us banding together for higher wages or better housing,” said Marta.  The owners think if Mexicans have no hot water, that we won’t mind as long as we think no one has any.  They don’t want us talking to the Okies from Oklahoma or anyone else because we might discover that they have hot water.  See?”       

This brings me to the most surprising thing I learned from this book.  I can’t recall ever reading or hearing about this in any of my history classes in high school or college.  As Ryan wrote in her author’s note at the end,

The Mexican Repatriation was very real and an often overlooked part of our history.  In March of 1929, the federal government passed the Deportation Act that gave counties the power to send great numbers of Mexicans back to Mexico.  government officials though this would solve the unemployment associated with the Great Depression (it didn’t.)  County officials in Los Angels, California organized “deportation trains” and the Immigration Bureau made sweeps in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles, arresting anyone who looked Mexican, regardless of whether or not they were citizens or in the United States legally.  Many of those sent to Mexico were native-born United States citizens and had never been to Mexico.  … It  was the largest involuntary migration in the United States up to that time.  Between 1929 and 1935 at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent back to Mexico.  Some historians think that numbers were closer to a million.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that this happened.  We see local officials in the novel make these deportation sweeps, and some characters are in the thick of the chaos.  After I finished reading this, I googled “Mexican Repatriation” and found an interesting NPR interview with Francisco Balderrama,  the co-author of  Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s.  It illuminates more of the history of this dark chapter of America’s past.  Another link I found is from Yes! magazine, and it appears that a fifth-grade class in Los Angeles conducted a letter-writing campaign that resulted in a bill passed to make teaching of the Mexican Repatriation part of California curriculum.

I am grateful to this novel for enlightening me on a shameful part of our nation’s past, and I also happened to enjoy the reading experience tremendously.  Despite the challenges Esperanza and her family and friends face, this book is not despairing.  It has a lyrical, hopeful quality, with Ryan structuring the chapters by the fruits and vegetables that the farm workers are picking and the seasons’ natural rhythms.  Based on Ryan’s own grandmother’s true story, this is an excellent, fast-paced historical novel for children and adults alike, and a terrific jumping off point for further discussion and education.

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Historical Settings in Books

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, was either about the past or the future – historical settings you enjoy or futuristic settings you’d like to visit.  As future settings tend to be bleak and depressing, I’ll go back in time… when things were still rather bleak and depressing!  Ha ha!  I guess human nature is such that there will always be problems, no matter what era you’re living in.  I don’t seek out historical fiction as a genre, like I do mysteries, but I enjoy it when the time period is in service to a compelling and well-written story.

  1. Great Depression.  There is some awesome juvenile fiction set in the Depression era, like Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy and Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago.  Both of these are really funny books, in spite of the hard times of the setting.  Another novel I adored that’s set in this time period is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  Beautiful writing.
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  2. Post American Civil War/Westward Expansion.  Again, I’m basing this on two of my favorite juvenile fiction novels: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and the Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I’m fascinated by the pioneer time period.  It was a very physically demanding time in which to live, but it also offered a great deal of connection to the natural world that we have lost.  Also, all that solitude, all those wide open spaces – so different from anything I’ve ever known!
  3. Post WWII England.  BARBARA PYM.  Need I say more?
  4. 18th century England  Jane Austen.  An Appetite For Violets by Martine Bailey.  Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier.
  5. England Between The Wars (a.k.a. the Downton Abbey period.)  Okay, so it’s obvious that I’m an Anglophile!  I haven’t read much set in this time period – yet – besides Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.  But there are many on my Goodreads TBR, and I’m a HUGE fan of the show.  I’m very attracted to that time and place.

That’s all I could come up with.  This was a Top Ten that was challenging for me.  I feel like I’ve just begun exploring historical fiction as a genre.  It’s rather exciting to know that there are so many good books out there waiting for me to discover them.  Have you got any particular time periods you love to immerse yourself in?  Any titles I need to check out in the time periods I’ve selected?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

An Appetite For Violets by Martine Bailey

For my final library book before the TBR Triple Dog Dare Challenge begins, I managed to finish An Appetite For Violets at approximately 12:40 AM on New year’s Day.  (Do I know how to party or what?)  That was way past my bedtime, but I simply didn’t want to put it down.  It was a page-turning, smartly written historical mystery, with intrigue, romance, and 18th-century recipes galore!IMG_2958

Our heroine is Obedience (“Biddy”) Leigh, an under-cook at a small British  country manor.  She has a genuine talent for cooking and quick mind, but she plans to marry another servant, the not-so-impressive but attractive Jem, and open a tavern with him.  Instead, her life is turned upside down when the often-absent master of the estate marries the young, brash Lady Carinna.  The Lady suddenly decides to travel to Italy for mysterious reasons, taking Biddy and a few other servants with her.  Biddy takes along an old cookbook, called The Cook’s Jewel, and the narrative is her observations of the journey.

This was one of those pleasant surprises, taken from the library shelf based on book jacket alone.  Lady Carinna has dark secrets, the other servants on the journey have their own agendas, and Biddy realizes her true passion for exploring the wide culinary world as she travels through France and Italy.  It was a fun, sensual, slightly gothic read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Martine Bailey has another novel coming out soon, called A Taste for Nightshade.  As soon as my TBR Challenge is over in April, I’ll be picking that one up!