Tag Archives: slavery

I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, AD 79 by Lauren Tarshis ~ Book Review

 

20578944Pages:  112

Published:  August 26, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

I read this with my 8 year old son and thought it was a great mix of interest and learning.  The story takes place in Pompeii leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D.  The reader learns about Roman times, a period of great learning and discovery.  It was also a period where slavery was commonplace and entertainment was via watching gladiator fights, in which slaves were pitted against each other.  The people believed in the Greek Gods which are also part of the story.  The book does an excellent job of incorporating many facets of history into this novel without it seeming too intrusive.

I, myself, thoroughly enjoyed this tale and felt like it was a great tool for educating children about history.  If I hadn’t been reading with my son, I’m sure he would have skipped the afterward which talks about Mount Vesuvius, the Roman times, and further history of the destruction of Pompeii and the eventual discovery of a buried city.  I thought this was a great addition and was glad it was there for additional talking points.  I would recommend this for 6-10 year olds.  This was the first “I Survived” book that we have read together, but we will definitely be reading more! images-2

Lauren Tarshis’ website with links to comprehension check, novel activities and novel quiz

 

 

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

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

 

30555488

 

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