The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit I was underwhelmed by this book after all the hoopla and press and a Pulitzer Prize. It’s not exactly fantasy, and it’s not exactly magical realism. So I’ve settled on alternate history. The Underground Railroad is imagined as an actual underground railroad, built in some mysterious past by unknown builders but in a time period before the railroad even existed in the United States. Likewise other events, like the section set in South Carolina with white doctors encouraging black women to have tubal ligations long before such a thing was historically available. So the “railroad” is something of a time machine as well. Those things didn’t bother me. I give it 4 stars because this movement through time and space made the plot feel disjointed at times. Or it has no plot in the traditional sense. There was also no character development. What makes this a compelling book, though, is the way it removes the “black experience” from time and place, making the reader a vicarious traveler on this same journey regardless of race. In that sense, perhaps the reader is actually the main character – hopefully a character that has learned something and gained in understanding of that experience.

Book description: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

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Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully written and a quick read, this is a childhood memoir written in free verse. The audiobook was read by the author. I never felt like I was listening to “poetry” but it all had a kind of flow that worked for each short snippet of memory. I am not sure how this would appeal to children, but to a white woman who also grew up in the 60s, this was a trip down memory lane. It made me think about my own childhood and the part that family, religion, and school teachers played. She describes a life both extraordinary and ordinary, both different and familiar to my own. I never felt distanced by her experiences as a black person growing up during the Civil Rights movement, or her memories of racism. I was more struck by how universal her experiences and memories were, and I think anyone reading this, young or old, black or white, will find much to relate to.

Book description: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars really, but I’m rounding up. After reading all the controversy around this book’s publication, I was quite pleasantly surprised. I loved the stream of consciousness style back and forth between past and present. The humor of To Kill a Mockingbird is fully present here. And I thought the social commentary quite illuminating of that time and place in our history. While the ending was a bit weak (this story was not a finished novel), it made me think. About shedding childhood illusions and recognizing that the people we love aren’t perfect. About racism and bigotry, which are still big issues today. This book probably cannot stand on its own – if you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird, I would read that first. You don’t have to, but I think having that context makes it more meaningful. I wish Harper Lee had gone on to write more. One could probably write a whole commentary on how her editors suppressed a voice for contemporary conscience in favor of the childhood fantasy. Not that To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t a gem, and a wake-up call for social justice – just that we all have to grow up and she had so much more to say.

Book Description: Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—”Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.

The Help

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t know what to say beyond “5 stars” – one of the best reads of the year! I loved the characters, and didn’t want the book to end. Can’t wait to see the movie. This one is destined to become a classic.

Description:
Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women—mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends—view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.