The Underground Railroad
Award winning (Pulitzer and National Book Award) and now I see why.
Whitehead’s railroad is at once metaphorical and real. Each station along its path delivers the young runaway slave, Cora, to a different future. The places range from seemingly benevolent (at least on the surface) to outright hostile. However, danger, brutality, and death are everywhere for the slaves and those who dared to help them.
Cora is relentlessly pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher whose views sound eerily familiar.
“In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.”
“…I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the new, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.
Cora learns to read and educates herself with almanacs and gazettes. But she already knew the injustice of the world.
“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of heir masters…But the ideals they held for themselves, they denied to others.”
The number of slaves grew to accommodate cotton. As their numbers grew, so did fear of an uprising.
“That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast.”
Echoes of that hate and fear are sadly still evident today.
“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.”
And the author offers the teensiest bit of hope.
“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”
You’re going to think I like everything I read. Not true. After reading this book, I dove right into Jodi Piccoult’s Small Great Things, thinking I could tie the two together. You know, racism then and now. It was so well-written, the anger and hatred so real, so visceral it was painful to read. It hurt my heart. I chose not to read after the first quarter of the book. I had a similar reaction when I read her Handle with Care. It was just too sad. I stopped reading her books.
Nonetheless, when a book is worth sharing, I will. I recommend The Underground Railroad to you.
On its surface, this is a coming of age story. It’s told in the lively and distinct voices of three women–Willa and Jottie Romeyn and Layla Beck–during the sultry summer of 1938 in the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. Annie Barrows’ makes readers swelter and seek one cool spot in the days before air conditioning. We sit on the screened porch in creaking wicker chairs in the evening. We feel the relief offered by the tiniest breeze and sweating glasses of iced tea.
In other ways though, The Truth According to Us is the story of how we all come to terms with the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts. Sometimes the truth hurts, even when those we love try to protect us.
Young Willa Romeyn introduces the story, almost as Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind.”
At twelve, Willa is a voracious reader and has grown suspicious of her mysterious father’s frequent absences and the secrets being kept from her.
“If you’re going to unearth hidden truths, keen observing is your shovel.”
“It seemed so hard that I had to work out the answers on my own, but that’s what I had to do. I had to keep at it, finding out, guessing what would happen next, fighting for the right ending, trying to save them all.”
Willa’s Aunt Jottie is her surrogate mother. Jottie knows—or thinks she knows–the secrets and tries to protect Willa and her little sister Bird from them. She tries to instill in them the Macedonian virtues of “ferocity and devotion.”
“If only Willa could have what I had, Jottie mourned. If only she could be so certain and proud. It was an illusion every child should have. And Willa was losing it, right before her eyes.”
Pretty, spoiled Layla Beck, a Senator’s daughter, is sent here to grow up and earn her keep during the WPA era. She is tasked with writing the history of Macedonia for its upcoming sesquicentennial. She is soon confronted with conflicting versions of events and comes to a conclusion about history in general.
“A successful history is one that captures the living heat of opinion and imagination and ancient grudge.”
Those short weeks in West Virginia reveal “truths” about the town’s founder, the Civil War, bootleggers, the tragic death of young man years ago, and the price of family loyalty. Some of those lessons take a toll, especially on young Willa.
“I didn’t want to know everything anymore; I didn’t want to know anything.”
Nonetheless, the truth is I’d love to have sat on the Romeyn’s front porch sipping iced tea with the colorful residents of Macedonia that summer. Even in the heat. I was sorry to say good-bye.
The book begins quietly with Swedish immigrant, Lordor Nordstrom advertising for a bride to join him on his dairy farm in Missouri. Katrina Olson, recently arrived from Sweden herself, reads the ad in Chicago and comes for a visit. Lordor is smitten, but wisely awaits the verdict of the women of the community.
“It was a look in her eye that certain immigrants recognized in one another. A look of hope and determination, almost as it she was gazing past him, far into the future.”
Lordor and Katrina marry and build a community that eventually becomes the town of Elmwood Springs. Their story reminded me of my own Swedish and German immigrant ancestors who settled in Minnesota, Ohio, and Missouri. They relied on one another and their neighbors when they first arrived here.
“You depended on them for your very survival. It didn’t matter if you liked some more than others. They were your neighbors.”
And the neighbors do talk. And talk. We soon discover that the conversations go on beyond death, as we listen in on residents of Still Meadows Cemetery reconnecting and chatting amongst themselves. They enjoy visits from loved ones they left behind and they remark on some hard-won life lessons.
“I think most people are confused about life, because it’s not just one thing going on… It’s many things going on at the same time. Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time.”
But every once in a while, one of the voices at Still Meadows goes silent and is never heard again. Where do they go? It’s a mystery.
The book also tracks the growth and eventual demise of small-town America, from 1889 through 2020 with references to wars, music, technology, and the arrival of Wal-Mart. The changing times have some residents of Elmwood Springs worried.
“Macky was glad he and Norma had grown up when they had. They had come of age in such an innocent time, when people wanted to work and better themselves… Each generation had become a weaker version of the last, until we were fast becoming a nation of whiners and people looking for a free ride—even expecting it.”
Of course, the young people feel differently.
“… people are so much more tolerant and accepting of everything now: different races, different religions, different lifestyles… Life is so much easier that when you were growing up, and women are just doing everything, and now with the Internet, well…the whole world has changed. Honestly, I have to say I grew up in the very best time possible.”
I was also charmed when Flagg mentioned Elmwood Spring’s connection the WASPS, the fine female pilots she wrote about in The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.
The takeaway lesson here is “It takes time and lot of suffering, but sometimes, when you least expect it, life has a strange way of working out.” Readers can count on Flagg for a happy ending, even when it happens in the most unlikely of ways. You just never know…
“It may take a while, but everybody gets what they deserve, eventually.”
The Summer Before the War has been on my “to be read” shelf since I heard author, Helen Simonson interviewed on NPR some time ago. I’d enjoyed her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I found to be simply charming and have recommended often.
Now I can recommend her second novel to you, especially if, like me, you were a fan of “Downton Abbey.” This book is not set on a grand estate, but rather in the town of Rye in Sussex, just before England enters World War I.
We meet liberally-educated and well-traveled, Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died. She arrives in Rye, still grieving, to take a position teaching Latin as she seeks to gain independence from her family who controls what little money she has inherited. Already in her early twenties, she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Moreover, as a woman in 1914, she is thwarted at every turn by convention, pettiness, hypocrisy, and prejudice embodied by landladies, solicitors, and small town gossips. Through Beatrice, we are also introduced to a cast of artists, progressives, and a few gypsies who challenge the status quo with their kindness, courage, intelligence, and heart. Beatrice even finds love.
I admire Simonson’s skill at immersing readers into the landscape and conflicts of this time and place. Every well-chosen detail does double duty, informing character or enhancing tension. Simply a pleasure to read. Recommend.
In my previous life as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist, one of my professional principles was the importance of reaching students where they were. To hook them somehow, by attaching what they were interested in to what we were doing in class. Spiders. Trains. Kittens. Dragons. Whatever. I also knew that if they disliked reading, I just hadn’t found the right book. Yet.
I still believe that everyone ought to be reading and recent research seems to suggest that reading books prolongs our lives. Readers live longer! It also makes us happier and more empathetic, not to mention giving us somewhere to go when we’re stuck where we are.
With that in mind, I find books about books doubly intriguing. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and The Little Paris Book Shop are examples. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald is the latest in this sub-genre, and while charming, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Perhaps because it was translated from the original Swedish? Whatever its imperfections, it was good enough to keep me reading to see that the small cast of characters achieved their own happy endings.
Summary: Amy is elderly and lives in tiny Broken Wheel, Iowa. Bookworm Sara is younger and works at a bookshop in Sweden. They become pen pals in the snail mail sense. When Sara travels to Iowa to visit Amy, she is unexpectedly thrown into the center of small town life. She connects with the somewhat reluctant residents of Broken Wheel over books. She finds herself, and because it’s a novel, she finds love.
Like me, Sara believes that there is a book out there for everyone. Readers will probably appreciate the list of books and authors mentioned in the book that the author has included added at the end. She’s also given us the unique book classifications that Sara uses to help readers decide what to read: “Sex, Violence, and Weapons,” “Short but Sweet,” “For Friday Nights and Lazy Sundays,” “Unhappy Endings,” and “Happy Endings When You Need Them.”
Sara made it her mission to connect people with just the right book. Not a bad reason to read this book, if you ask me.
Are there other books about books that you’ve enjoyed? Kindly share in the comments.
A teacher once pointed out that the young woman in Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, was a real person who couldn’t walk and whose entire world was the house in the distance and the field surrounding it. Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World expands my appreciation of this famous painting by letting Christina Olson tell her own story in a first-person, present-tense narrative that immersed me deeply into her life.
Christina is stricken as a child by an unknown illness that leaves her unable to walk without stumbling awkwardly. She recovers but becomes more and more disabled as time goes by. As an adult, she rarely leaves her chair on the ground floor of her three-story house. She defiantly refuses a wheel chair, preferring to scrape her wooden chair around the kitchen to prepare meals for her parents and brothers. She crawls on her elbows when she wishes to go elsewhere, even to the home a friend a mile away.
“I wonder, not for the first time, if shame and pride are merely two sides of the same coin.”
“To me using a wheelchair would mean I’ve given up, resigned myself to a small existence inside the house… I see it as a cage…I am willing to risk injury and humiliation to move about as I choose…”
She cuts herself off from many well-meaning neighbors in the nearby town of Cushing, Maine.
“These neighbors leach pity the way a canteen of cold water sweats in the heat. The slightest inquiry is freighted with words unsaid. Worried about you…feel sorry for you…so glad I’m not you.”
When a young Andrew Wyeth appears at her door, she reluctantly lets him take over a room upstairs as a summer studio. He returns every summer to paint the fields, the farm, the house, the rooms, her brother, and her. He alone seems to see her beyond her infirmity and her crankiness.
Wyeth tells Christina…
“…I think you’re used to being observed but not really…seen. People are always concerned about you, worried about you, watching to see how you’re getting on. Well-meaning, of course, but–intrusive. And I think you’ve figured out how to deflect their concern, or pity, or whatever it is, by carrying yourself in this ‘–he raises his arm as if holding an orb–‘ dignified, aloof way….Like the Queen of Sweden…Ruling over all of Cushing from your chair in the kitchen.”
Kline researched the very real people and places depicted to create a sensitive, insightful, and thought-provoking exploration of a familiar image. Recommend.
I discovered yet another layer of revision by making a “word cloud” from my manuscript. I simply pasted my entire manuscript into the tool at WordItOut. You can easily see my overuse of certain words.
I’ve spent the last two mornings removing about half of my uses of know. Only a little tedious. I found most of them were in dialogue that I thought sounded conversational, but was merely boring, you know? Now, maybe I’ll just do that with all the rest.
Thanks to Joan Dempsey over at Revise With Confidence for the link and the insights.
Have you tried this with your writing? What did you learn?
Bless their hearts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year.
That was in 2008.
Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”
Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!
I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.
Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.
Here’s what I heard instead:
- “Beautiful writing, but where’s the story?”
- “What does your protagonist want and what are the stakes?”
- “Where is the conflict, the drama?
- “Who is the POV character? And why does it seem to switch in the middle of this paragraph?
Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.
Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.
They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on a long ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.
What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.
In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.
So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.
Now, where’s my sunscreen?
Ann Patchett is one of my favorites. Her ability to place a reader into a scene and inside the heads and hearts of her characters is masterful. She is funny, perceptive, and even-handed as she tells this family saga from deep inside.
The first words of Commonwealth plunge us into a christening party for little Franny Keating. Bert Cousins is an uninvited guest who arrives with a huge bottle of gin. Franny’s L.A. cop dad, Fix Keating, her pretty mother, Beverly, and Bert set the whole story in motion when after a few too many glasses of orange juice laced with that gin, Beverly kisses Bert. Or he kisses her. It hardly matters. Divorce and the inevitable blending of two families ensue. The six children spend summers together in Virginia with minimal supervision from Beverly and Bert.
“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”
Those summers of running amok lead to a tragedy that the children witness, and the details of which they keep secret. That secret both shatters and binds them. Everyone involved is affected by the event, not least of all Franny. At twenty-something, she’s a law school dropout and cocktail waitress with a degree in English. She meets and falls in love with—or perhaps in awe of—a famous novelist. Like Scheherazade, she entertains Leo Pozen with the story of those raucous long-ago summers, including the secret. He is inspired by her tale, and uses it as the basis for a new novel, which becomes a bestseller and years later, a movie.
Now in midlife, the children are rocked by the public disclosure, but are still bound by the love and responsibility they share toward each other and their now aging parents and step-parents.
“‘People are scared of the wrong things, Fix said, his eyes closed. ‘Cops are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that… For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.’”
I recommend Commonwealth and these two others by Patchett. Enjoy!