Book Review Friday: The Underground Railroad

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in the universality.”

I picked up Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad after searching my local library database for new literature about the Underground Railroad. This book was recently featured in Oprah’s Book Club and won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. The author took a difficult topic and put it in an easy format for reading. He uses different perspectives and situations to address major issues of slavery that most authors are afraid to write down or mention. This book does not hide the cruelty, but it doesn’t feel like a vicious rant either. His writing asks readers to think about the past and how it is narrated.

Cora is a slave that was abandoned by her mother at a young age on the plantation. Her mother managed to escape and remain free which was a huge feat in the early days. A fellow slave approaches Cora about escaping with the assistance of the Underground Railroad. After intervening for another slave being beaten, she finally decides to escape with Cesar. She ends up killing a white man during the escape which raises the stakes for their capture. They are assisted by the Underground Railroad that according to Whitehead truly exists as an underground network of railway and old train cars that come along intermittently with no set destination. They settle in South Carolina for a while where Cora starts to feel safe. She has a job working at the Museum of Natural Wonders in their live history displays. This part of the book bothered me more than I care to admit. She is put on display as a slave in sections such as Typical Day on the Plantation and Life on the Slave Ship. In addition to this work she is taken to a doctor and realizes they are sterilizing patients and injecting some with syphilis for “research purposes.” They are discovered in South Carolina and must move forward, but Cora is separated and fears Cesar is dead. She is then held in an attic in North Carolina for an extended period before being caught. North Carolina features a barrage of death with the town square holding a hanging each week of a slave or those that helped them. The streets are lined with hanging bodies. This is the first novel I’ve read that mentions bodies hanging along the road. This detail just added to my perspective of the time. I can only see what I have learned from the past, but if you allow your imagination to see past what you know and the possibilities of what actually occurred you find the brutality is more than many could bear. This wasn’t that long ago, and these slave owners and catchers are human just like me. Where was their remorse? Their conscience? I don’t understand how cruelty so deep can form in a person that they no longer see a human being but property. I understand social constraints, but the choice of torture and abuse is a person’s alone. They are responsible.

Cora eventually makes her way to the Valentine Farm which appears as a modern day utopia. *Spoiler Alert* Utopia ends in blood and carnage. I felt like the Valentine scenes were a bit preachy to me, and after the heaviness of the other locations I was just ready for the book to be over. I wouldn’t rate this book on a level of Pulitzer Prize winning material, but his writing does make you think about injustice and the cruelty of slavery. He wasn’t afraid to include the dark and dirty side of history, but he also adds in a lot of lecturing. I do not like to be told how to think. I know some people may need this as an eye opener, but I just wanted more knowledge on the topic from a fresh perspective. I don’t think I would recommend it for most readers unless they have a true interest in the topic.

Book Review Friday: The Underground River

“Conflicted. That’s what the feeling of torn fabric inside of you is called.”

I have been (im)patiently waiting for Martha Conway’s next novel and she did not disappoint. I can’t describe the ease with which you become involved with her characters but they truly come to life. She doesn’t miss a single detail and the characters stay “in character” throughout the book as if they exist somewhere out in the world and are just waiting for you to find them. I was watching the Floating Theatre instead of reading about a fictional scene. Her historical fiction breathes life into time periods that are often lacking the feel of experience and authenticity.

The story starts out with an account of the boiler explosions on the Moselle riverboat on the Ohio River. May is a passenger along with her cousin when the boat begins to sink. She is quick to react and saves the life of a small child that will haunt her nightmares for the remainder of the book. This act of heroism sets the tone for the reader that she is of strong character and can handle any situation. She begins the search for her cousin who has been taken in by a known abolitionist. Her cousin decides to stay and begin a lecture tour for the cause because she will be well cared for, but this leaves May without any income or a place to stay. The abolitionist agrees to pay May $20 for a ticket home to get rid of her as quickly as possible. May wants to continue her life as a seamstress and looks for work near her cousin and lucks into a job on the Floating Theatre. The only catch is the $20 she is paid to return home will be required to get the boat up and running. May is incapable of telling a lie and must learn in order to utilize the money for another purpose than returning home.

Once she has paid Hugo, the captain of the ship, she begins her new career out on her own. Her duties on the boat go far beyond costume design and she has little experience. As May begins to grow and learn she falls in love with the boat and her fellow passengers. She has always been in her cousin’s shadow and now she can stand on her own. The climax of the book comes when May is blackmailed by the abolitionist to pay back the $20 when she discovers her working on the boat and realizes the money was not spent to return home. May must face the decision to work for the Underground Railroad. She has little knowledge of slavery and doesn’t begin to experience the injustices until the boat begins docking on the free North and slave holding South side of the river. The differences become evident and she is torn within herself about what is right and just. She decides to accept the offer since she sees little choice and the reader is lead into an intense “OMG! What is going to happen? She can’t get caught? Agh!” of excitement. The combination of the threat of discovery and the debut of a new play made it hard to put the book down. Conway does an excellent job of combining romance, action, suspense and a fresh perspective on a troubling topic in American history.

This book is simply put, fantastic. Buy it, read it, read it again, and then you can join me in waiting impatiently for her next book! Release date is June 20, make sure to preorder!

Write About it Wednesday: Harriet Beecher Stowe

“The family lived on words, spoken and written.”

One of my goals for this year was to become a more thoughtful reader. I want to know more about what I am reading and why it is important in the grand scheme of things. I do not need every book to change my life but I do believe there is a purpose for every piece of writing. Entertainment, learning, or just evaluating different styles of writing is important for me to grow as a reader and writer. I like to do some background work before I tackle any classical literature or books that are set in the past. I have been doing quite a bit of research on the Underground Railroad and I just completed three more books that will be reviewed in the upcoming months on the blog. Before I begin reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I wanted to know more about Harriet Beecher Stowe and her motivation behind writing the classic piece of literature that President Lincoln believes helped spark the Civil War.

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in a male dominated century. She was declared a genius in her youth, but her father famously stated that it was of no use unless she was a boy. She lived under the direction of her stern older sister after the age of 12 and later married Calvin Stowe. Her family and religious beliefs were a strong influence in her writing, and helped spur many of her characters and stories. She wrote about things she was most passionate about and after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 she turned her passive opposition to slavery into a determination to see the practice ended. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a plea to end slavery. It is a Victorian novel based on the life of Josiah Henson. Stowe knew a great deal about slavery from her family and time in Cincinnati. She also read slave literature including Theodore Weld’s American Slavery As it is. After the release of the book she faced several attacks on her character as well as her writing. She ended up writing an entire follow up book to defend herself and her research. The book was excellent publicity for the North and their crusade against slavery. Stowe published over 30 books, but is most well-known for Uncle Tom’s Cabin because of its inspiring subjects.

I found myself interested in the Fugitive Slave Act that spurred her reaction and led her to write. The original Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1793 and authorized local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners and imposed penalties for aiding their flight. If this was already in place where was the outrage when this passed? Was the sentiment against slavery not as strong? The 1850 Act added further provisions making the crimes a civil and criminal matter with harsher punishments for interfering in runaway slave capture. This occurred under President Fillmore’s watch during the peak of the Underground Railroad movement. To ensure that the 1850 law was enforced the control of individual cases were placed in the hands of the federal commissioners. Data shows that the law remained largely unenforced, but the fact remains that this law led to major outrage and was a factor in the growing tension between the north and south. I would be interested in researching other laws that were passed during this time and the effects it had on the outbreak of war.

I have an admiration of Stowe for the courage it must have taken to speak out about the injustices of slavery. She was at a disadvantage as a woman in a male word, but stood her ground when attacked for her beliefs. Slavery is a huge part of our American history and she earned her place in the fight against it. She is proof that we can use our words to change the world.

Write About it Wednesday: Ellen and William Craft’s Flight from Slavery

“Although runaways were free once they stepped on free soil, they could still lose their liberty.”

I have been continuing my research on the Underground Railroad and wanted to read some accounts of people who successfully escaped their circumstances into freedom. The Craft couple are one of the most well-known cases of escape. Ellen and William Craft had spent their entire lives as slaves being passed around from family to family. After they were married they began to discuss their mutual concerns for starting a family. They did not want their unborn child to be property that could be sold without their consent so they began to discuss plans for running away. The plan evolved into Ellen dressing as a Southern white gentleman heading to Philadelphia to consult a physician with her husband William assisting her along the way as her slave. They had the forethought to ask for passes for the Christmas holiday so they would not be immediately missed. Their plan was quite advanced and shows their true determination to escape.

The first step was boarding a train to Savannah where a neighbor sat right next to Ellen out of pure coincidence. She was able to fool her neighbor and continued to their second stop: boarding a Steamboat to Charleston. There was yet another scare on this leg of the journey that was thankfully quelled by an army officer who vouched for the couple after sharing a few meals together. Next they boarded a steamboat up the Carolina coast, followed by a train to Richmond, a steamboat up the Potomac, and then another train to Baltimore. At this point they had been traveling for nearly four days. They barely slept, ate, and the worry was constant that they would be found and returned to their owner to face harsh punishment if not death. On the final stop in the journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia the couple is stopped by an official. It was against the rules to allow any person out of Baltimore into Philadelphia without the proper approval/paperwork. They only managed to clear this checkpoint due to Ellen’s apparent illness that she concocted with her disguise. There were so many stops along this journey that I honestly can’t believe they made it. Even with their careful planning this was nothing short of a miracle. Many slaves didn’t even make it past their plantation, let alone several states over. I had heard this story on a Podcast before reading and remember almost biting my nails with worry at each stop. I felt certain they would never make it.

The Crafts became involved with several abolitionist groups and lectured across the country and eventually across England. They organized speaking tours and opened up schools in London and Georgia after the Civil War. No matter how hard or overwhelming the obstacle they never gave up. They believed in the cause of ending slavery and did their part to save and help those they could. There are tens of thousands of slaves that escaped throughout the years, but the Crafts had the courage to speak out at the time even with fear of capture once the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. Their story was printed in newspapers, circulations, and spread from plantation to plantation. They were hunted but still remained free from the moment they set foot in Philadelphia.

I can understand the appeal of this story, especially amongst slaves. They are heroes in their own right as they gave hope to those that needed it most. Slavery is gruesome, and the details of their past and what they bared witness to would shock and horrify even the most hardened person. I have found several other interesting slave escapes and if you are interested in a few then I would urge you to look at this concise list:

I utilized 5,000 Miles to Freedom: Ellen and William Craft’s Flight from Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin for this post. I recommend it to those who want more detail! Stay tuned for a few more posts about all things Underground Railroad. I have thoroughly enjoyed researching this topic, even though it makes you question the cruelty of humanity. There are a lot of lessons to be learned.

Write About it Wednesday: The Underground Railroad

“Above all, the Underground Railroad was the opportunity for the bold and adventurous, it had the excitement of piracy, the secrecy of burglary, the daring of insurrection; to the pleasure of relieving the poor negros’ sufferings it added the triumph of snapping one’s fingers at the slave catcher” – Albert Bushnell Hart

Most of what I know about the Underground Railroad I learned in high school. It’s a sad fact that I knew so little that I truly thought Harriet Tubman created the movement, and that it died down well before Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. This is why I research and why I always allow myself to question and look into everything my mind has a notion to learn about. I never go into something blindly, or believe myself to be an expert without extensive research. I have several book reviews coming up about this particular topic and I craved a deeper understanding. I lucked upon a quick overview at my local library while searching for Uncle Tom’s Cabin (I have yet to read this classic).

Slavery on a large scale began in the 15th century and took hold in the United States as a cheap form of labor for the plantation movement. The first abolitionist society was organized in 1775 before America became independent. In 1807, a law was passed prohibiting the import of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean causing the current slave values to increase. By 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed making the ease of capturing slaves detrimental to the freedom movement. This law allowed for easy capture of any fugitive on the word of the slave catcher without any factual evidence or proof. The fact that this law was allowed to pass in the first place shows the country was deeply rooted in the slavery movement, and that their lives were worth only the price a slave owner was willing to pay. A Southerner could walk past a freed slave on the street and claim they were a long lost runaway and they would be captured and returned to their “owner.” This goes well beyond a constitutional injustice, but slaves were still seen as property instead of people. Changes began to take place after the release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More volunteers, supplies, and money were gathered for the Underground Railroad and it gained respectability. The Underground Railroad by Shaaron Cosner gives an excellent overview of several key players in the movement, along with visuals including maps and actual photographs from the time period.

While Harriet Tubman did not create the movement of the Underground Railroad, she is dubbed the “Moses of her people” for her contributions. She, along with several other runaway slaves later joined the Underground Railroad risking their own freedom to save others. They stood up for what they believed in and most chose a peaceful approach. Many supporters faced financial ruin from fines and court fees associated with helping, and others used their money to purchase freedom for slaves. The sacrifices made by the Railroad workers were vast, but they continued to give of their time, money, and freedom until 1863 when Lincoln gave his famous Emancipation Proclamation which eventually led to the end of slavery.

I have many books on my Underground Railroad adventure, but I would love suggestions from readers that have read about this topic before. I am particularly interested in life after runaways obtained freedom. I want to know more about the social and economic difficulties they must have faced after risking their lives for freedom. I look forward to your suggestions and stay tuned for more Underground Railroad updates!

Displaced Persons

“As if what gave the experience its importance was the form of torture one had endured, rather than the loss of everything, mother, father, family, culture, language. The preferred violence- the gory details as Lola would say- to grief. Or perhaps people simply liked tales that matched with the pictures they had already seen.”

What happens to survivors after the Holocaust? How do they get back to the life they were meant to live? There are countless stories about what happened inside the concentration camps, but we never hear the stories after liberation. Ghita Schwarz gives insight into the life of displaced persons through several individuals who become intertwined in their attempts to move on after the war. The book is broken into periods of time, and follows the characters through businesses, marriages, children, retirement, and death. I am amazed at the author’s ability to write such a moving novel, without dwelling on the historical content. She focuses on what survivors must have felt emotionally, physically, and mentally and how they coped to their surroundings The simple things such as returning to school for children, learning a new language to communicate, or finding a new dwelling to call home are taken for granted by people who have never lived through something so horrific. I wonder how I would have coped. How would I feel about leaving my homeland? Giving up my language? Staring at a tattoo every day that wasn’t of my choosing? As an American, our freedom of choice and religion are so easily taken for granted.

We all hear about the brutality, but one story gripped me with full force. After the Germans came to a small town, they ordered each family to bring one young male to the square to be hanged. The head of the family had to choose, and families were required to watch the hanging. They turned the victims into killers. An impossible choice, but necessary to protect the rest of the family. As a father, how could you live with this choice? A parent is supposed to be able to protect their child.

It is important to note that after the war, many people turned a blind eye and never spoke of what occurred. I think this is a very big distinction made by Schwarz. As a child of the 80’s, I never knew a time where it was not discussed. There are people who claim it never happened, people who admire Hitler, and people who just want to know more about it. There is an abundant amount of resources now about the Holocaust that didn’t exist for the survivors for many decades. There was a time when survivors could not speak of it, and felt ashamed and embarrassed. They did not want to be near friends, because they only saw what happened to them instead of their future.

 I will never fully understand what it took for these people to move on with their lives, fortunate to have survived. I urge everyone to read, research, watch what is available and learn. I am so thankful this book found its way into my book sale bag. Schwarz leaves a lasting impression, and a new perspective to a topic that is so widely researched.

Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey

Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey 

“…it was the perceived destruction of shari’a law through Westernization that first gave way to dissent in the Ottoman empire, whose ideological continuity proved long-lasting and is crucial to understanding the mindset of Turkey’s conservative youth.” 

Disclaimer: ARC courtesy of I.B. Tauris via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

​I have a slight obsession with all things involving foreign affairs. With Turkey in the news lately, I jumped at the opportunity to read this book with a title about rage and revolution. I had some previous background knowledge of the unrest in the area, but I am always looking to increase my knowledge of other countries and the various viewpoints. I do not like to pick sides until I’ve heard varying opinions and I like to understand motivations behind why someone would protest against a power bigger than themselves.

This book focuses on the youth of Turkey, and the actions taken by a handful of people in the wake of protests, and rebellion. The author focuses on various viewpoints of the events unfolding by interviewing local journalists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, etc. I did like the perspective, but was disappointed in how much time was spent on background, and biographical information of the interviewees. I do not need to know about their parent’s backgrounds, but would rather spend time reading about their opinions on what is unfolding and their motivation behind their actions. I would have liked to see a broader population interviewed as well, instead of mainly focusing on the younger citizens of Turkey. The protests are spoken of, but I’m left with more questions than answers on events surrounding the parks and marches on streets and squares. I wish the author had provided more detail, so I would feel as if I’m at the protests, and marching with the people instead of observing from afar the repercussions.

The author does an excellent job of including real reports, and newspaper articles to stress the tension journalists face when reporting what is actually happening. The government utilized the prospect of a coup to lock people up, which led to the highest number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey’s history. Americans tend to take our freedom of speech for granted, whereas other countries are still persecuting citizens who speak their minds, or dare to oppose the government. Another interesting discussion was the discrimination faced by women pursuing academic degrees. A woman can be denied access to a higher degree based on her decision to dress according to her religious beliefs. The thought that women still face this type of discrimination is an embarrassment to our human rights in this century.

The question I’m left asking myself: Do marches, posters, graffiti and chanting really change anything? Is it worth the struggle to try and change? Many people choose to rebel and protest without understanding what is happening, or why they are involved. One of the entrepreneurs interviewed said “According to the analysis of our young friends, protesters didn’t really know what they were there for.” This has led to an interest in American protests and how citizens become involved and take things to the next level with violence and outrage.