Advertisements

Archive for the ‘slavery’ Tag

Family Ties   2 comments

27071490

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

Advertisements

Riding the Rails   Leave a comment

30555488

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