Tag Archives: race

Swing Time by Zadie Smith ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  453

Publication Date:  November 15, 2016

Format:  Audiobook

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2016), Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2017)

 

A sweeping multi-layered novel that reads like a dance through childhood into adulthood, across cultures, exploring race, class and gender issues.  At the heart of this novel is the friendship between two “brown girls” growing up in public housing estates but in school with a largely white community in London.   They see each other at dance class and are immediately drawn to each other, to the same tone of skin, similar but opposites.  They are opposites in that one has a white obese doting mother that lathers her daughter with praise and attention while the other has a black mother subsumed with leftist politics and educating herself seemingly hardly noticing her daughter.  The narrator feels like an accessory to her mother.  She feels barely noticed and out of place until her friendship with Tracey begins.

The narrator is unnamed throughout the novel and her childhood friend is Tracey, who is  boisterous, adventurous, fun loving and narcissistic.  The narrator seems to float through the novel on the energy of others.  First and foremost, there is Tracey’s energy that dictates their play and social lives.  Tracey is a brilliantly talented dancer and though the narrator loves dancing, she lacks Tracey’s talent.  They spend countless hours watching videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson to name a few.

The narrator’s Jamaican mother, a modern day Nefertiti, is a left wing feminist and activist studying politics and philosophy.  The father lacks motivation, but is loving and doting towards his family.  This is in sharp contrast to Tracey’s family, where there is an absent father.  Tracey creates stories to explain where he is and what he is doing, but it seems he left them and has a new family.  Though the narrator’s mother criticizes Tracey’s mother and her habits, the narrator enjoys the quiet of Tracey’s home compared to the anger in her own home where her mother no longer wishes to be married to her father.

Jealousies arise and tensions result.  The girls in childhood had written stories of “ballet dancers in peril.”  Tracey would create and dictate these stories while the narrator transcribed.  Always, just as it seemed the happy ending would arrive, disaster would result.  Thus, Tracey’s stories foreshadow the end of the beautiful friendship of Tracey and the narrator.  Tracey tells the narrator a story about her father, which may be fact or fiction, that causes them to cease speaking to each other for over a decade.

The narrator goes off to college and leaves behind Tracey and their friendship.   After a few gigs as a dancer, Tracey’s dancing career fades and she is a single mother to three children all by different fathers and is still living in the public housing estates, a fate the narrator’s mother warned against.  The narrator begins working for a big name singer/dancer named Aimee.  Aimee’s life is large.  She has many people who work for her, numerous boyfriends, children by various men, she travels widely, and becomes interested in opening a girls’ school in an un-named country West Africa, which by geographical description can be identified as Gambia.  The narrator again is living in the shadow of another large personality, not living a life of her own, running on the energy of another.  The narrator travels back and forth getting to know the inhabitants this West African country, watching the fall out of diaspora that occurs there as people (especially men) begin to leave.

The narrator is eventually drawn back to Tracey through her mother who has been working for Parliament.  The narrator’s mother reaches out to the narrator pleading with her to ask Tracey to stop harassing her with countless letters that initially ask for help, but then begin to criticize the government, and her mother, and the inability of anybody to help with her situation.  Her mother becomes consumed and tortured by these letters, unable to think of anything else.  She is guilt ridden and seemingly identifying Tracey rather than the narrator as her daughter as she is dying,

When the narrator confronts Tracey, Tracey asks her who she is trying to be.  The narrator’s voice has changed, her life has changed.  After leaking the childhood video, Tracey sends it to the narrator with a note saying, “now everyone knows who you really are.”  Are we our childhood selves?  Is who we are defined by who we connect and interact with?  Is that identity forever changing?  How much of that identity is tied to gender, class and race?  How much of our childhood identity, our moral core, do we keep with us?

This novel is beautifully written, incredibly expansive and brings up awesome philosophical questions.  There are so many layers to this novel, that one could go on dissecting this for a very long time.  I highly recommend this book to everyone.  It would make a superb book club book.  My one wish for this novel is that the narrator had more presence, but I think that is part of the point of this book.  She floats on the energy of others, she is visible in the shadows of her relationship with others.  Class, race and gender issues are often seen in reaction to the narrator.

Quotes from the Book:

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”

“And I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships—all relations—involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”

“People aren’t poor because they make bad choices. They make bad choices because they’re poor.”

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the narrator remains un-named for the duration of this novel?  What effect does this have on the reader?
  2. Compare and contrast the fathers of Tracey and the narrator.   Discuss how Tracey’s story about the narrator’s  father drew a wedge in their friendship.  Do you believe Tracey’s story?
  3. Compare and contrast Tracey and the narrator’s mothers.
  4. The narrator’s mother compares the narrator’s life to slavery.  She is working for Amy and not living a life of her own.  What do you think the narrator really wants from life?
  5. Tracey’s father talks about how there is distinct separation of races inside prison, where on the outside there is mixing.  How much mixing do Tracey and the narrator experience?  Are they fundamentally drawn to like as well?
  6. Discuss the experience of being of mixed race, not being fully white or black as experienced by the narrator and Tracey.
  7. Discuss the complexities of girlhood friendships and how this might change as girls mature into adults?
  8. The narrator’s mother tells the narrator that she is nothing if she uses her body for work rather than her mind.  The narrator tells her mother that she is nothing.  How is this a coming of age moment?
  9. Discuss the relationship the narrator has and the warmth she feels from her father as compared to her mother.
  10. Why does our obsession with celebrities allow for a certain amount of chaos?
  11. Discuss the video made of Tracey and the narrator dancing.  What effect does it have at the time and how does this come back to haunt the narrator?
  12. When the narrator goes to West Africa she is told repeatedly “things are difficult here,” when she tries to go somewhere or do something on her own.  Why?  Why do they treat her with “kid gloves”?
  13. Compare the fates of the women in the West African village to Tracey’s fate.
  14. Discuss the culture and community that the narrator experiences in West Africa.  How does Amy’s presence and the wealth that flows in change things?  Discuss the diaspora that is happening.
  15. The narrator’s mother becomes part of Parliament, but is beaten down and tormented by the letters that Tracey sends.  Why do you think these letters affect her so deeply?
  16. Why does the narrator go to visit Tracey and her children as the novel ends?  What is her intent?

 

 

New York Times Review by Holly Bass

Review in The Atlantic by Dayna Tortorici

Review by Annalisa Quinn for NPR

Interview with Zadie Smith on NPR

 

 

 

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  224

Published:  November 15, 2016

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

 

 

“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent.  Race-mixing proves that races can mix – and in a lot of cases, want to mix.  Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

There is so much to love about this collection of essays by Trevor Noah about his life growing up in South Africa.  He was born during the era of apartheid to a black mother and a Swiss-German father at a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to mix.  He had tremendous strength of character in a world in which he did not have a place.  He did not feel like he truly belonged with the whites, the coloreds, or the blacks.  Most other children born to parents of mixed races fled the country, so the parents did not have to hide their “crime.”

Trevor’s essays shed insight and understanding on and about South Africa’s diverse African cultural population (a country with 12 official languages), life under apartheid, and the aftermath of conditions once apartheid ended.  They are full of humor, grit, love and incredible good fortune or luck.

Trevor was raised by his mother who was a very resourceful, independent, strong woman who devoted her life to religion and instilling strong morals into her son.  She would whip him for misbehaving.  They would have long dialogues over what was right and wrong, and when she felt that he could think up arguments faster than she, she agreed only to argue in writing.  Letters back and forth would ensue, sometimes friendly and other times more aggressive.   She very much shaped who he was, what he became, made him a strong thinker, a fast runner, and who he is today.  Interestingly, he also helped to shape his mother.  She parented his younger brother differently from how she parented Trevor, because of what he had taught her.

This book is so small, yet so expansive.  It is full of wisdom, insight, depth, humility and love.  To cover topics including apartheid, poverty, religion, domestic abuse, relationships, police corruption and do it all so well is an incredible feat.    I highly recommend this book to everyone!  

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the role of religion in Trevor’s family’s life.  Why did he and his mother attend so many services and what did they get from each?  How do Trevor and his mother view the importance of religion?
  2. How and why does Trevor’s mother change her parenting style with Trevor’s younger brother?
  3. How does witchcraft figure into South African society and belief systems?
  4. Trevor compares apartheid with Catholic school, both authoritarian and ruthless.  In what ways is this true in the book?
  5. How does Patricia, Trevor’s mom, challenge Trevor to think for himself and stand up for himself?
  6. How is Trevor like a chameleon?  Why does he do this?
  7. Discuss Trevor’s relationship with his father.  Does Trevor feel good about it?
  8. How is Trevor’s step-father abusive?  Why won’t the police take a report about it?
  9. Discuss the role of the police in South Africa and this book.
  10. What lessons in love does Trevor learn in this book?
  11. This book speaks a lot about Trevor’s relationship with his mother.  How would you express the way Trevor feels about her?
  12. How does Trevor Noah’s background make his commentary on America so meaningful?
  13. Why do you think Trevor Noah has been so successful as a comedian, writer and on the Daily Show?

 

Michiko Kakutani review in the NY Times

Trevor Noah’s Utube clips

Review by Fellow Blogger, “The Paperback Princess”

 

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

23943137

 

Pages:  371

Published:  September 1, 2015

Awards:  Locus Award Nominee for Best First Novel

Format: Audiobook

 

 

 

This magical, fantastical, witty comedy of manners meets magical fairyland is so fun to read.  There is much foreshadowing to provide plenty of excitement and anticipation for the sequel which has not yet been published.  For all it’s playfulness, there is also an underlining seriousness to this novel.  This has to do with the politics of Britain and the treatment of women and people of color.  In fairyland, race does not matter, it is not even noticed.  Likewise, in fairyland, women are equally adept and capable of practicing magic as men are.  This is in stark contrast to England.  Politics and society are portrayed as a comedy of manners in Britain where people are tripping over themselves to maintain decorum despite the pervading racism and sexism.

The story is set in 19th century England.   Upon the death of his guardian and mentor, Zacharias Wythe becomes the “sorcerer royal” more out of obligation, than desire.   Given that he is a freed slave, a black man, there is much outcry against him.  There is an underground movement afoot to unseat him, led by the unscrupulous and dishonest Geoffrey Midsomer.    This all comes at a time when there is a drain on the magic in England, there are political entanglements with magicians from foreign lands, and war is ensuing with France.

Zacharias is asked to visit a school for gentle witches where the main objective is to banish or hide their magical abilities.  Zacharias immediately notices the magical talents of Prunella Gentleman, who was orphaned and left in the care of Mrs. Daubney at a young age.    Prunella has fallen out of favor with Mrs. Daubney, the headmistress of the school and Prunella’s guardian since her father’s death.  She asks Prunella to move to the servant’s quarters, but instead Prunella accompanies Zacharias back to London and begins to study thaurmatorgy with him.  Prunella has recently discovered herself in possession of a singing orb and seven familiar’s eggs.  As she begins to grow her familiars while looking for a husband, her powers grow, and a love interest develops between Zacharias and Prunella.   Prunella is certainly a “Cinderella” character, but one with much bravery, talent and ambition.  It is she who becomes the true star, the heroine of the novel, able to take the reins of her position, to succeed as the ultimate “Sorceress Royal.”

This is, of course, a very simplified and scaled back version of the novel.  There are many subplots within the main plot.  The novel is chock full of an interesting array of characters:  nosy society ladies, seedy politicians, faeries, vampiresses, curious familiars, mermaids, dragons, and much more!

This novel is craftily written, full of surprises and larger than life characters.  It is at once serious and whimsical.  It delights and  exceeds expectations.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction!! images-2

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What similarities do Prunella Gentleman and Zacharias Wythe share?
  2. Is magic seen as good or evil?  How does this differ depending upon the practitioner of magic?
  3. Discuss race and gender in the British society of this novel.  Does the author construe them as they were in 19th century Britain or modern day?   Is there a depiction of white supremacy and institutionalized oppression?  How so?
  4. How is Prunella like a Cinderella story?
  5. Discuss Mak Genggang’s role.
  6. How does Zacharias respond to Sir Stephen’s advice?  How does this differ from when Sir Stephen was alive?
  7. Discuss Prunella’s plans for the future of England.  What specific changes does she have in mind?
  8. How does Zacharias sacrifice himself for Sir Stephen?  How ultimately is the repaired?
  9. What is the value and cost of having a familiar?
  10. Zachary’s does not confront Sir Stephen about his parents until the end.  Please discuss.
  11. Discuss the parallel between Sir Stephen wanting to train a black sorcerer and Zacharias championing the rights of female magicians, or magiciennes.

Review by Marina Berlin published in “Strange Horizons”

Review published on “Galleywampus” blog

Review by Amal El-Mohtar published by NPR

Zen Cho’s website

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

27071490

Pages:  305

Published:  June 7, 2016

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

 

 

 

“The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.”  –Akan Proverb

This magnificent sweeping tale of eight generations gives a broad look and much insight into the history of slavery and the slave trade. The writing is incredible!  Each chapter focuses upon a family member and is so richly described, containing so much history, emotion and conflict that each could theoretically be further developed into a novel of its own.

Homegoing begins in Cape Coast, Africa in which is modern day Ghana.  Cobbe has a child with a house girl, who we know as Maame.  Effia, the daughter, is raised as Babba’s (Cobbe’s first wife’s) daughter.  This house slave ends up free by marrying an Asante and has a second daughter Esi who ends up kidnapped by the Fantes and sold into slavery.   For a brief time period, Esi lives in the basement of the castle with the other slaves while her half-sister, Effia is above, married to James, one of the slave traders.  Both Esi and Effia have the necklaces handed down to them by their mother, until Esi’s is lost as her ancestry and heritage is stolen from her by being sent to America as a slave.  The novel begins with Effia’s and Esi’s stories and continues through generations upon generation of their offspring.

The book has two parts.  The first half reads like a fable.  It is vibrant with the culture of the African people.  The story-telling is itself true to the culture of these people, full of their belief systems.  For me, the magic of the book lies in this first half.  It is fascinating to learn about the Asantes and Fantes, their beliefs, and the warring that occurs between them. The second half becomes more straight forward in its manner of relating the stories of the characters, as we get closer to modern day.

I listened to this novel and the audio version is amazing!  I also obtained a physical copy of this book afterwards so I could refer back to spellings of names of characters.

The most important theme running through this book is that of slavery and what it did to these people, effectively cutting off their ancestry, their heritage, making them a different people from Africans.  Marjory, in chapter 14, does not feel African-American, because she was born in Ghana.  This was reminiscent, for me, of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s “Americanah”  in this respect.  However, it is the in-between period which becomes so illuminated and shocking when viewed over eight generations.  Gyasi depicts a beautifully functioning African culture that becomes fractured by the slave trade.    The horrors of slavery and it’s aftermath are put in perspective with this broadly sweeping novel.  We are still dealing with the aftermath today, and Gyasi bravely posits the question of where will it end.

Even though each chapter reads as a short story, Gyasi, does a beautiful job of weaving themes through the story, connecting them in so many ways.  Gyasi tackles so many subjects within this novel that it is impossible to enumerate them all in a quick review.  I’ve touched on many within the discussion questions.  Suffice it to say, this is an incredible read, and I recommend it to everyone!  I am amazed that this is a debut novel by such a young author!images

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Cape Coast Castleslavetrade-deblijmap

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Map of the slave trade

 

Favorite Quotes:

“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”  — Essie’s Maame

“Evil is like a shadow, it follows you everywhere.”

“I can only make the impossible attainable…  People think they are coming to me for advice, but really, they come to me for permission.”  — Mampanyin, witch doctor

“Beulah was running.  Maybe this was where it started, Jo thought.  Maybe Beulah was seeing something more clearly on the nights she had these dreams, a little black child fighting in her sleep against an opponent she couldn’t name come morning because in the light that opponent just looked like the world around her.  Intangible evil.  Unspeakable unfairness.  Beulah ran in her sleep, ran like she’d stolen something, when really she had done nothing other than expect the peace, the clarity, that came with dreaming.  Yes, Jo thought, this was where it started, but when, where, did it end?”

“Evil begets evil.  It grows.  It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”  —Akua

“When someone does wrong whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net in the water.  He keeps only one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal.  No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.” –Akua

“Most people lived on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.”  –Marcus

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the theme of fire throughout the book.
  2. Discuss the meaning of family and ancestry, knowing where you come from in this book.
  3. How are women treated within different cultures in this novel?
  4. Discuss the importance of scars as a theme in this book.  Does the author believe that scars can be inherited or passed down from one generation to the next?
  5. Who was your favorite character and why?  Which chapter did you like best?
  6. Discuss the meaning of obroni and the effect this word had on people.
  7. What do you think the meaning of the title “Homegoing” is?
  8. What effect do the British have on Africa as slave traders?  as missionaries?
  9. Discuss the theme of rape in the book.  Both Ese’s mame and Ese are raped as slaves.
  10. Discuss the theme of power and the various places it is found:  in Effia’s beauty, in Kujo’s physical strength, in James’ lineage…
  11. Discuss the character of Quey and how his father deals with his apparent homosexuality.
  12. How is race perceived differently in different locations?  Africa, the south vs. the north?
  13. How is race defined in different ways within the novel?  By skin color, by speech?
  14. What is the role of religion and belief systems within this novel?
  15. Discuss the quotes mentioned above and their relevance to the novel and it’s themes.
  16. Yaw is a teacher of history.  What does he teach his students about the learning of history?  How is the theme of storytelling important within this chapter as well as throughout the novel?
  17. Discuss the figure of Akua.  Crazy woman or sage woman?  Is it a matter of interpretation?

Isabel Wilkerson’s Review from the New York Times

Michiko Kakutani”s review in the NY Times

Reading Guide by Lit Lovers

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

27213163

 

 

Pages: 192

Published:  August 9, 2016

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

 

Exquisite!  Such a beautifully written piece of work, that it felt like poetry, both in the flow and the content.  It has an ethereal dreamy quality and is full of rich metaphors.

I have been struggling with my review of this book, because whatever I seem to write doesn’t really do the book justice.  It is such a unique beautiful piece of writing.  The story begins with August, the narrator, returning by train to visit her dying father.  She catches a glimpse of Sylvia, a childhood friend and memories come flooding back to her.  The ethereal quality of the book has in part to do with the fact that the narrator is looking way back on an earlier part of her life;  in part that she is remembering her childhood, one in which she could not comprehend or accept the death of her mother; and thirdly the poetic quality to the writing.

The idea that August thinks her mother will return and convinces her younger brother of the same, feels so honest, so real, so a part of how children really cope with the loss of a parent.  Within the book, different cultural rites of death are mentioned reminding the reader that death is there, but not letting us know the actual circumstances of the mother’s death until later.

Once August arrives in Brooklyn with her father and brother, the father cages the children in the house worried about the dangers of the outside world.  This backfires as her younger brother falls through the glass window injuring his arm in his attempts to watch the outside world.   At this point, August and her brother are allowed outside to experience the world.

August reminisces about her female friendships from this era in her life.   She had developed a close-knit group of girlfriends who become her “home, ” her family, and this allows her feel alive again, after feeling cooped up in their Brooklyn apartment.  Together these girls feel stronger and braver.  Their friendship gives them a sense of safety, of home, of togetherness that is lacking from their actual home environments.  They grow into puberty together, date, experiment with sex.  They confide in each other about  things that they do not feel safe confiding to their own parents.

August’s mother’s words about not trusting female friendships keep echoing back to her.  “Don’t trust women, my mother said to me. Even the ugly ones will take what you thought was yours.”  August learns how this can be true as the friendships begin to slip and in some cases fracture.  However, for a time, the friendships are a beautiful thing and allow the girls to feel powerful in a world where they are vulnerable, on account of being female, minorities and poor.

This reflection is of Brooklyn in the 1970’s in a neighborhood that is turning from white to black.  While August finds comfort in her friendships, her father finds comfort in religion.  It is a stunning look at this place and time period, the struggles these girls faced as they came of age and the hope and courage needed to face it.   I highly recommend this to everyone.  images

 

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Biafra  – map

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think August did not realize her mother was dead or did she just not accept it?
  2. Discuss the role of friendship in the novel.
  3. Discuss the role of religion in this novel.
  4. Discuss race relations in Brooklyn in the 1970s as described in this novel.
  5. Compare their Brooklyn to life as described in Biafra.
  6. Why do you think that August does not find comfort and hope with her father?
  7. Why does Jennie disappear each time her children return?
  8. Why can’t Gigi tell her parents about the soldier?  Why does she think they won’t believe her?
  9. Did her mother’s prophecy about friendships become true?
  10. Discuss the ugliness of the surroundings contrasted by the beauty of the friendships.

 

Jacqueline Woodson’s website

Review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post

Review by Tayari Jones in the New York Times

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

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Pages: 320

Publication Date:  August 2, 2016

Literary Awards:  Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (2016),  Oprah’s Book Club Selection (2016)

Format:  E-book

 

A work of amazing scope and breadth, shocking in the brutality of events, and so pertinent to politics and race discussions being held today.  This is an important piece of literature reminding Americans of our history, the beginnings of race relations in our country, and you can follow this thread out to today and realize that we still have a long way to go.  I love that Michelle Obama reminded us that the white house was built by slaves, at the DNR earlier this month, a fact that is also mentioned in this book.  Our government is literally built on slavery.

“White folk eat you up but sometimes colored folk eat you up, too.”

Cora is the protagonist of the novel, born on a Georgia cotton plantation, whose mother runs away from the plantation while Cora is still young.  Cora is mistreated by the slave owners and fellow slaves alike, being shunned, raped, whipped, and degraded in every way seemingly possible.   She is labelled a stray.  The horrors she and others face on the plantation at the outset of this novel are shocking in their rendering and brutality.

“With strategic sterilization – first the women but both sexes in time – we could free them from bondage without the fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep.”

Caesar, a fellow slave, approaches her with an escape plan and she accepts.  The book follows Cora’s tortuous escape route on a literal underground railroad, bringing a magical element into the novel.  This isn’t the only time that Colson Whitehead takes liberty with historical elements.  Each stop along the railroad highlight different aspects of African American history, that in reality may have occurred in vastly different times and places.  While Cora and Caesar are in South Carolina, the Tuskegee experiment is being conducted on the black population, an event that in history does not occur until much later, 1932-1972, with penicillin becoming available for the treatment of syphilis in 1947.  It was also here in South Carolina, where Cora is offered sterilization and is asked to help persuade the other blacks living there to accept this measure.

“In North Carolina, the negro race did not exist except at the end of ropes.”  Again, the fear many whites have of blacks is manifested in hatred and horrific acts.  The North Carolinians in the novel abolished slavery by abolishing blacks from the state; those who did not leave willingly were hung along the “Freedom Trail,” as decided by the “Justice Convention.”  Such ironical terms are attached to such atrocities to emphasize the justification involved.   “But they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear.”  Those who aid Cora are subjected to the same fate as blacks.

Whitehead tackles many heavy issues in this novel, even religion.  Cora sees paradox and hypocrisy in the bible.  Ridgeway and other use the bible to find justification for their cause and actions.  It is interesting to me the continuing theme of religion, something that many people find such comfort and peace in, also becomes a tool or justification for divisiveness and war.

In Tennesee, Whitehead tackles the treatment of Native Americans. “Manifest Destiny” is cited as the ultimate narcissistic doctrine of self justification for the mistreatment and displacement of another race.

Some chapters are named for the location in which they occur, but others are named after a character in the book, to get better insight into their mindset and thinking.  Interestingly and unsurprisingly, the thugs of society, found purpose in becoming slave catchers.  Homer never received his own chapter, and this leaves the reader wondering why a free black would choose to spend his life working and living alongside Ridgeway, a monstrous slave-catcher.

Valentine’s Farm, in Indiana, becomes a relative utopia, where blacks can live freely and share ideas, at least for a time.  Lander states, “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all.  The white race believes – that it is their right to take the land.  To kill the Indians.  Make war.  Enslave their brothers.  This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty.  Yet here we are.”  These words are so important.

Whitehead’s words and message throughout this novel are direct, strong, and sweeping. We cannot be blind to our past. We cannot repeat the past by creating a culture of fear. We must live with our past, acknowledge our past and continue to make peace with it. There is so much to take in with this novel – the brutality of slavery and treatment of blacks outside of slavery, the kindness shown by those who were willing to risk their lives to help, the feeling that there is nowhere to escape to, only places to flee, the deeply seated racial prejudice and violence that continues, and so much more. I highly recommend this book to everyone! It is hugely pertinent to current times, beautifully rendered, and brilliant. There is so much to this novel, that I had to sit and think about it for days before attempting to put thoughts into a review. It is excellent material for discussion.   images

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the author chose a female for the main character?
  2. How did you feel about the historical facts being changed for the sake of the story here?
  3. How does fear affect people?
  4. What role does religion play in this novel?
  5. How is the Hob represented outside of the plantation?
  6. Do you think there was anywhere truly safe to escape to in these times?
  7. Discuss branding, literally and figuratively.  How are the former slaves branded?
  8. In what way do blacks become equals to whites in this novel?
  9. What did you suspect happened to Mabel, Cora’s mother?
  10. Why is the character Homer important?  Why do you think he stays with Ridgeway?
  11. Discuss some of the discussions that took place on the Valentine farm.
  12. Discuss the role of those who helped slaves escape via the underground railroad and the risks taken.

Interview with Colson Whitehead published in Vulture

Review published by NPR

Review published in NY Times

Oprah’s Reading Group Guide