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This book was selected by the Oprah book club, which was enough to make me refuse to read it since many of her books feel very chick-lit to me. But a friend heard it was about time travel (it isn't) and was dying to read it. Also the author was coming to a speaker series that I often attend and so I broke down and read it. And then I heard him read from it and talk about it last night. I was wrong to have rejected it and lucky to have heard him speak. I don't know what those of you outside of the U.S. know about U.S. history, so at the risk of telling you something you know, the Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses that allowed slaves to flee their bondage. They were hidden, provided for, and guided to freedom, but it was a very dangerous undertaking for everyone involved. This book starts out as a description of slave life on a Georgia plantation. Although being a slave is one terrible level of misery, the farther south you went, the worse it generally was. So I think it is generally accepted that slavery in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was particularly terrible. After a terrible incident, the main character, Cora, decides to flee with a friend of hers, Cesar, who had been sold from a plantation in Virginia, where he was taught to read, to Georgia. And when they flee, Cora finds that the Underground Railroad is exactly that...a railroad. They take various trains and when they come up out of the ground, they are in alternative versions of South Carolina and North Carolina during slave times. What happens to Cora and what she (and the reader) finds out is very interesting, but also thought-provoking. For example (but not the only example), very late in the book, the reader finds out something that Cora doesn't know and will never know, which makes it clear that the lifelong anger she holds against her mother is ill-placed. The speaker came last night and he was funny and thoughtful. He also dealt well with the 2 instances of rambling series of observations masquerading as questions from the audience. He also seemed very genuine. One person asked him how he felt when white people wrote about the experience of slavery (he's African American) and he said, 'if they can do it, great. My main character in this book was female, so I don't think it's impossible to write from such a different point of view. You have to use your imagination." I really enjoyed his talk and will probably look up some more of his books. Highly recommend.
When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak his mind. Wash struggles to accept these freedoms, perhaps mindful that they only exist as long as Titch is prepared to let them exist. Then a paradigm shift and we are with Titch and Wash aboard a trading ship plying its way to Virginia. The captain and medic seem somewhat nonplussed to have given refuge to an obvious runaway slave. We have a historic maritime novella, reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Ian Maguire’s The North Water. It is well done and there is a sense of menace and tension. Then we have a stay in Arctic Canada looking at marine life. Then on to Nova Scotia where Wash finds romance but lives in fear of recapture. Then to London, trying to engage with Titch’s aristocratic family. Then to Amsterdam. Then to Morocco. [BEWARE - POTENTIAL SPOILERS] This is a plot driven novel with vivid detail. Esi Edugyan evokes four different worlds in vivid colours. But, the story never quite convinces. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth despite having plenty of action. Even Wash, the narrator, really just feels like an everyman. The main characters all do things for no obvious reason. Why does Cousin Philip shoot himself? Why does he visit Erasmus at all when he has such an unhappy history with the man? Why does Mr Wilde pretend to be dead? Why did Titch walk away from Wash? Why did John Willard keep trying to track Wash when there was no longer a bounty to be had? Why would Erasmus place such a large bounty on a slave in the first place when he thought them no more and no less than livestock? The shifting across different worlds also produced what felt like several different stories with several different atmospheres – almost like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with only the slenderest of threads to hold them together. And given the issues of character motivation, each subsequent section became slightly diminished. The final section, England (although much of it was in Morocco) felt confusing and didn’t really provide the resolutions it set out to achieve. This doesn’t make Washington Black a bad book. Much of it is compelling, visceral. It is never less than readable and the progression from Barbados to the sea to Canada to England to Morocco is innovative for a 19th Century historical novel. There is something steampunk about the ballooning; the slave section is as good a slave narrative as any; the journey at sea is rollicking. There is an air of menace and tension through much of the novel - although this starts to dissipate in Nova Scotia and is gone by London. There is a sense of how a black person might have fitted in to various different communities. There are questions about the nature of freedom, particularly when bound by societal expectations, station of birth, and the threat that freedom might be taken away. But there is an abiding sense that this has fizzled after a really stunning first half. How does that all stack up? Being generous, perhaps four stars. ****0
Philida is an African slave girl, working for the Brink family in the Eastern Cape in the early 19th century. She narrates some chapters; others are narrated by the plantation owner Cornelis or his son Frans. Later on, more narrators are also brought in. It seems from the end-notes that it is loosely based on Andre Brink's own ancestors. The basic premise is that Frans has had a relationship with Philida and promised her freedom; he appears to have reneged on the promise and so Philida has gone off to Cape Town to lodge an official complaint. You know it is unlikely to end well. There are many novels centring around exploitation of slaves. Amongst the best in recent years are The Polished Hoe and The Long Song. Philida is different because it doesn't put forward a straight narrative of oppression and hatred. Instead, we see the perspectives of the landowners, struggling to run farms on tight budgets as the market price of grapes falls. We see a world where slaves can be treated with compassion and do have some rights. We see that in some cases, bonded labourers could be given freedom and could even become accepted into family homes. Yet for all this apparent rigour and potential for kindness, there is still the fundamental obstacle that the plantation owners were in charge and the slaves were not. Any judicial process would be tilted to work in favour of the landowners and any relationship between slave and farmer could never be one of equals. This makes the abuses (and there are real abuses in Philida) all the harder to stomach. Half way through the novel, it takes a different turn as Philida is sold on to new owners away from the Cape. *****