Homegoing

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 rounded up because I think it is an “important” book. Important to realize that slavery and colonization didn’t just affect the United States, nor is slavery just a white man’s crime, and that there are no easy answers for the lingering effects of war, slavery, poverty, drug use, and discrimination. Also, that the whole notion of race is very artificial. White and black become mixed into both lines of descent. This book is told in alternating short stories following the descendants of two sisters – two sisters who never knew each other – and yet, the sense of family is strong on both sides. I especially liked the character called “Crazy Woman” – crazy because of her dreams where her ancestors spoke to her. She provided the needed link between all the stories, reminding us that whether we know them or not, we are the product of those who have gone before us.

The TV show “Finding Your Roots” has much the same message. We will never know everything about the people in our past, but we can learn bits and pieces, and tell the story of who we are. No matter what tragedies and hardships they went through, they survived. The evidence is that we are here. It may be uncomfortable to read about, it may make us cry, but there’s also a powerful message that there is always the hope of redemption and reconciliation and healing.

The writing itself is beautiful. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel. I predict a great career for Ms. Gyasi. I think it could be read by teens as well as adults, and ought to be required reading in high schools across the country. This will be a classic some day.

Book description: Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

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The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating and true story told in alternating voices. Well researched and the author made only minor historical adjustments to tell her story. Sarah’s stammer got a little tedious in the audio version. That was an addition by the author, and I’m not really sure what the purpose of it was, except to reinforce the idea that Sarah was also “enslaved,” in a way, by a culture that profited from slavery and did not support the advancement of women. The first half of the book rambled and went on a bit too long. The second half was riveting, but the ending left things up in the air. Perhaps there is more to be told that could become a sequel. Certainly we are still a nation shaped by slavery, and we have still not achieved a world without racism and sexism. If nothing else, our current “President” has shown us just how far we still have to go.

Book description: Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women. On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

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.

The Kitchen House

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a 3.5 for me. A notch above average, but not enough to bump it up to 4 stars. The story begins very well. I loved the contrast between the white, indentured servant and the mulatto slave. The audiobook used two narrators for the alternating points of view. Overall, I wish Belle’s story had been fleshed out more. The bulk of the telling belonged to Lavinia, the Irish indentured servant. I cared about the characters, although they bordered on being stereotypical. My book club members liked this book though. By the second half of the book, I began to have problems with Lavinia’s extreme naivete and her life choices. The spirited girl of the first half became so passive that she turned to opium. Really? She didn’t learn anything from caring for the captain’s wife all those years? What could have been a really satisfying coming-of-age and love story just kind of became a tragedy. The historical setting was well researched, although I didn’t have a very good sense of time. It seemed closer to the 1850s than the late 1790s and early 1800s. Quibbles aside, I like this well enough to seek out the sequel.

Book description: Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family. In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves. Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.