Monday, September 5, 2016

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colson Whitehead is one of the novelists whose books I have been meaning to read, but I couldn't quite pin down his genre. Besides being a Pulitzer Prize finalist, he also has a book about zombies. So when The Underground Railroad appeared (even before Oprah put her badge on it), I decided this was the time for me to read this book.

But did I ever have a "Wayminute" moment. By the time I got into the book I realized this was not the Underground Railroad I learned about during "Negro History Week" in seventh grade from a teacher who ignored the official curriculum and taught us about the way runaways were transported through cellars and hidden in attics to escape to the "free states." What we learned about was the "virtual" railroad. Whitehead's railroad is a physical railroad with a real train and conductors.

The story centers around Cora, an orphaned child whose mother had escaped the Randall plantation in Georgia, never to be seen again. When Cora is older she escapes to South Carolina, where she is given a new name, a job as a housekeeper, and lodging in a dormitory with other young women. This is all through a project financed by the US Government. And I thought zombies were far out.

Cora's nemesis is a relentless slave-catcher named Ridgeway. When she thinks she has gotten away, there he is again, ready to return her to Georgia.

There are some fascinating twist and turns throughout the story, some giving real hope for Cora.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Homegoing

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, but because I had to return it to the public library, I had to copy the family tree at the beginning of the book to help me remember all of the people.

The story takes us from 18th century Ghana, back and forth across the Atlantic to follow the lives of the descendants of two half-sisters, children of "Big Man," the Chief of the Asante. The chapters go back and forth from one side of the family tree to the other, from Ghana to the U.S. and back so that we see history unfold for slaves in the U.S. while the wars between tribes direct the slave trade from Gold Coast to the Americas.

We read of the migration of former slaves to the North, to Baltimore, Harlem and beyond. To the convict leasing system in the coal mines. To the impact of heroin addiction, the war on drugs.

On the African side of the family tree, we read of James Richard Collins who changes the path of the Chief by marrying for love. Each chapter is a new story taking us closer to the present time.

The Author was born in Ghana, but grew up in Alabama. The book was well-researched to give the reader a full understanding of the history on both sides of the Atlantic. An awesome task.


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Friday, May 20, 2016

The Book of Harlan

The Book of HarlanThe Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Can we say six stars? This is Bernice L. McFadden's best book ever! Her prose is stunning, gliding over an epic of horrific proportions.

We meet Harlan's parents Sam Elliot, and Emma Robinson before he was conceived, while Emma was too innocent to protect herself. But they did the best they could, leaving Harlan with his doting grandmother while the young couple goes off seeking their fortune from Macon to Louisville to Michigan, returning home to Macon when Emma's father Tenant Robinson dies. When Tenant's estate is settled, Emma and Sam move on to Harlem where Emma's best friend Lucille a famous blues singer, has settled in a large home, with rooms to spare.

McFadden weaves her story around historical facts of life in Harlem with famous singers and musicians of the 1920's. When Emma and Sam go back to get Harlan to join them in Harlem, he is at first defiant, but goes with his parents to New York where he discovers a life he never imagined. When Harlan learns to play the guitar, Lucille invites him to go on the road with her. But Harlan, who never has any personal discipline was often late, or drunk, until Lucille has to fire him and send him home.

Harlan lacked discipline, but he did love the music enough to form a jazz band. He found his partner in music in one Leo "Lizard" Rubenstein, who could play trumpet like Satchmo. Harlan called him his "brother from another mother." The band was invited to play in L'Escadrille in Montmarte in Paris. And so they went. Harlan, still lacking discipline, had a wild partying time in Paris, not aware of the Nazi invasion of France. (No spoilers here, it's in the book-blurb.)

McFadden continues the heartbreaking part of the story, leaving me in tears. The story ends in the 1960's, the Viet Nam War, "riots" in the cities, Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), "free love." And a wonderful denouement.


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