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.

Book Review Friday: The Dollhouse

“Where everyone acts like they’re the main character of their own book.”

The Dollhouse is the debut novel from author, Fiona Davis. I decided to read this tale of Barbizon’s Hotel for Women before beginning Davis’s next book. I had never heard of the hotel in Manhattan that housed many famous women as they were starting their careers in the big city. The history is fascinating, and there are several excellent articles covering the women who stayed there and the historical significance of the hotel. Sylvia Plath created a fictional Barbizon in The Bell Jar, after her short stay during an internship for Mademoiselle.

Davis weaves the story of a journalist in modern day with the past of a Barbizon girl trying to make it in the big city. The two women are connected through the hotel which has now turned into condominiums where they both reside. Rose, a journalist for a new startup company, sees a story in Darby almost immediately. As she begins to dig into the past she finds that her instincts were correct. The story is constantly evolving and keeps the reader intrigued. I liked the addition of the twist of mystery mixed with the rich detail of the characters and the history of jazz clubs and heroin trade. My only criticism of this book would be its correlation to the Bell Jar. It has very similar conflicts, and I kept thinking back and remembering events that unfolded almost the exact same way. I am going to be doing a feature on Sylvia Plath and the Bell Jar soon since this has peaked my interest.

This was a different era for women. They could start a career and depend on themselves. New York was a bright, new adventure. It was the city of opportunity. I find it sad that most books in this time period share a moment of men trying to take advantage of a woman. Did this occur often? I can’t say that I’d want to research this topic further but it seems that the assault of women was a common occurrence or at least literature wants us to believe that. Another reoccurring theme is the fear of failure. The women worry about returning home and their bleak possibilities if they are unsuccessful. The shame that these women must have felt had to be brought on by social pressure of the times. I think it’s important to look back at how far women have come and the confidence placed in our right to start a career, fail and keep going. This book does a great job of tying everything together and showing that women can be alone and successful. Stay tuned for my review of Davis’s next book: The Address.

Write About it Wednesday: The Fountain of Youth

“Why, heck, Winnie, life’s to enjoy yourself isn’t it? What else is it good for? That’s what I say.”

I began my research of the Fountain of Youth before reading Tuck Everlasting. This well-known classic has been on my reading list for quite some time and I was lucky enough to share it with my students. The idea of eternal youth is an interesting concept. The perspective of a teenager compared to my now adult (do I have to admit it?) opinion varies greatly on the subject.

The Fountain of Youth holds the key to staying young forever. If you drink or bathe in the waters, youth will be restored. Many believe that Ponce de Leon went in search of the fountain in present day Florida, but the accounts of his travel do not support this claim. The tale continues to live on, but I think it’s the adventure of finding it that actually appeals to readers. There are countless articles and documentaries of people searching for the fountain. What do you think would happen if these magical waters were found today? 

Tuck Everlasting is a tale of young love and adventure. Winnie is desperate to live life outside the confines of her mother. She decides to go into the woods by her house and discovers Jess, a member of the Tuck family, drinking from a spring. The spring provides immortality to all those that consume it, but Winnie wishes to drink from it without knowing the consequences. The Tucks fear that she will either drink the water or tell others about the spring so they kidnap her. Winnie is scared at first, but after spending time with the family she grows to love and care for them. She is given the choice to drink from the spring, but I won’t reveal the ending! It made me question if I would drink from the fountain if given the choice. Life is so short, and there is so much to do and see. If tempted, would I have the courage to decide?

I think aging is such a natural process. I can’t imagine being suspended in time. My students think youth is the greatest asset for a person. Anything can be possible if you are young. I would argue that wisdom and experience make for a greater asset. I think after several years I would grow weary of the constant change surrounding me while I remain in a state of agelessness. I already grow cynical with the state of the world. If given the choice, I would have to choose to live life to the fullest with the knowledge that it would end one day. What’s that old saying? We must make the most of it while we are here.

Would you drink from the fountain? Let me know if you have read Tuck Everlasting, or have any opinions on eternal youth! 

Write About it Wednesday: What Makes a Good Biography?

“Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.”

Biographies are my go to nonfiction. I find it hard to pick up a book that details a war or a particular time period with 500 + pages without getting bored and feeling guilty for not being able to read it through. A biography allows the reader a more personal experience of what occurred.

So what makes a good biography?

A good biography should read like a novel. Truth can be told as any other story, and presentation is important. A reader shouldn’t feel as though they picked up their old history book and need to take notes in case there is a quiz at the end. The story should flow and keep the reader engaged and excited. The most important aspect of a biography is the research. An author should research thoroughly before beginning the writing process. Facts about the person’s life are important, but combining elements of the world around them makes it authentic. It is immediately evident if the right amount of research has been done. Another important element is the author’s passion. Why are they writing about this particular person? What made them significant? If the reader can’t tell then the author has missed an essential element.

My biggest pet peeve in a biography is when the author is outright biased about a historical event, or a decision made by the person they are discussing. I do not pick up a biography to hear an author’s opinion on historical matters. I want a well-rounded viewpoint so I can develop my own opinions. How do I know if something is accurate if the author is telling their own form of the truth?

What are your favorite biographies? Do you have any that you despised?

May TBR

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The Marriage Plot- I found this on a website that suggested books for Austen fans. I haven’t read a Pulitzer Prize in awhile and I’m excited for another romantic novel.

Those Are Real Bullets- I found this book on a search for an Ireland challenge on Goodreads. I have fairly limited knowledge of Bloody Sunday, or Ireland in general so this will be a great start to the challenge.

Breaking Dawn – The finale to Twilight. This is my second time reading but I’m still not prepared for it to be over.

The Palestine-Israeli Conflict- After reading The Rise of ISIS, I wanted to check into Hamas and the Gaza conflict. I think the Beginner’s Guide is a perfect starting place.

Martha Washington- This is the precursor for another blog that I will be heading up. I have made it through several presidential biographies, but I haven’t read any about the women in their lives.

Captivated by You- I started this series in April and I’m already on book four. I’m not sure why I can’t put them down. I do not even like their controlling, jealous relationship but I have to know how it ends.

The Shadow Queen- This was a suggestion from a friend. I love anything to do with the British throne.

A Rising Man- I am halfway through this mystery novel and obsessed. It takes place during British occupation of India, and I have already started research on this time period. I find everything about it fascinating.

There are big changes coming to A Million Pages this month! Look for Write About it Wednesday, featuring nonfiction reviews and Book Review Friday for my fictional reads.

Also, my contact information, about me, and review policies have been updated!

May is a wonderful month for book lovers!