Archive for the ‘slavery’ Tag

Race has several meanings   Leave a comment

Horse by Geraldine Brooks is much more than about the equestrian world. Along with some history of horse racing, other topics include slavery, art history, modern science and even romance. However, racism is the primary underlying theme throughout.

The narrative incorporates several threads across different, non-chronological time periods: 1850-75; 1954; and 2019. Blending perspectives and experiences of several characters across time to create a complete picture is one of Brooks’ trademarks.

Although Theo, a Black art history graduate student in Washington, D.C., in 2019, is the first character introduced, readers spend the most time with a 13-year-old slave identified by his masters’ name as Warfield’s Jarret in 1850. As the story progresses and Jarret matures, his owners’ names change as do his situations. Jarret has inherited his father’s horse training skills making a name for himself as an exceptional trainer working with Lexington, a thoroughbred whose lineage now extends through generations.

Other major characters include Jess, an Australian scientist working at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History; Thomas J. Scott, a 19th century artist, whose paintings of Lexington are a significant part of the plot; several of Lexington’s owners; and a 20th century gallery owner.

A discarded painting of a horse leads Theo to learn more about the work, and Jess to discover more about its subject.

As the novel moves back and forth through time, the issue of race remains a constant. Brooks’ deft approach provides an engaging look into the past and an important reflection on our times.

Horse

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Viking, 2022

401 pages (including “Lexington’s Historical Connections”)

Family Ties   2 comments

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At first, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi seems more like a collection of short stories than a novel and that, along with the title, is part of its beauty.

Spanning more than 300 years, this is an epic tale of the evolution of a family. Each chapter focuses on a specific character and could be a stand-alone story. Fortunately,  a thread connects one to the other, even though there are some knots and loops along the way. These simply enhance the narrative. There is a chronology but not in the traditional sense.

In 18th century Ghana, Effia, the young beautiful daughter of a village chief is married to an Englishman, where she lives in a castle. She’s unaware that her half-sister, Esi, is imprisoned in the castle dungeon as a slave to be sold and sent to America.

The author traces, through the years, the lives of the sisters’ descendants  as they experience warfare among Ghanian tribes, plantation slavery, British colonization, the migration from Alabama to Harlem, and more.

Gyasi provides portraits of 14 distinct main characters and a supporting cast of dozens more. Each is nuanced through his or her experience, determination and environment. Almost equally important are the landscapes; the element of place shapes the individuals in ways that can’t be ignored. There are lush and harsh jungles, shorelines, cotton fields, inner-city Baltimore, Alabama coal mines and smoky jazz bars.

Survival and the strength of family ties resonate in every chapter as each character takes a turn in the spotlight.

Homegoing
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
305 pages

Riding the Rails   Leave a comment

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Although Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, is about slavery in the pre-Civil War era, it remains timely. Timely in the unfortunate way that malice and marginalization still exist.

The narrative follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. She’s ostracized by the other slaves and hated in particular by the plantation owner, Terrance Randall, who embodies cruelty. Cora was abandoned by her mother who escaped years earlier.

Following a brutal beating, Cora agrees to flee with Caesar, an educated slave. Whitehead’s railroad is the real thing, complete with underground tracks, conductors and station masters.

Randall hires Ridgeway, a tenacious slave catcher, whose only blemish on his otherwise perfect record of returning slaves to their owners is Cora’s mother. Whitehead’s descriptions of the brutality, fear and first taste of freedom are gripping. They hold the reader throughout as Cora moves in her new world. Nonetheless, the horrors of what await her if caught cast long shadows.

Cora and Caesar arrive in South Carolina where they find paying jobs. Eventually, complacency, missteps, and a relentless Ridgeway force Cora back to the railroad. Her journey takes her to North Carolina and, later, Indiana where she encounters kindness, fear, deceit and Ridgeway.

Whitehead begins each section with an advertisement posted by a slaveholder offering a reward for the return of his property: runaway girls. The novel is often harrowing, but rousing. It’s also disappointing to consider that American society hasn’t necessarily progressed as much as we’d like to believe.

The Underground Railroad
Four Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2016
306 pages