This really good novel from expert NF writer and journalist John Vaillant takes you alongside Héctor, a young man from Mexico who is currently sealed into an old empty water tank on the back of a truck in the middle of the Arizona desert. He’s not by himself: jam-packed into this small hot space are also others from Mexico and elsewhere, all of them trying to smuggle their way into America for a chance at a better life for themselves and for their families. Their coyotes have left to go for help, and none of them has any other options except to sit and hope that help will come before the heat kills them.
It’s a brilliant set-up for the novel: a group of unrelated
strangers, all with the same goal, stuck into a small enclosed environment,
As the reader makes his/her way through the plot, Vaillant
gradually drops little nuggets of information about Héctor
and his travelling companions through the clever tool of having Héctor use his dying friend’s cellphone to leave voice messages
for whoever he can reach who lives in America (or even sounds like an American
person). Going through his friend’s contact list, Héctor
comes across a name that has an American area code with its number and this is
to whom Héctor narrates his story. (His story is
also the story of so many other hopeful immigrants as well…)
It’s really well done. As you read what Héctor is recording on his rapidly-fading phone, you get to know
and understand why Héctor has taken this enormous risk
and, just as in a more traditional epistolary books, you are given access to
his thoughts and feelings, more so than if the character was only allowed to
have conversations with other characters. Héctor
is so much more open and honest than he would have been otherwise, and by
giving the reader this avenue to meet him, you’re allowed a much more intimate
view than otherwise. You also grow more sympathetic with his plight (although
who wouldn’t be sympathetic with a guy in his awful situation?)
As the situation goes from bad to terrible, resources start
to run low: people start to run out of food, water and patience; under the
brutal Arizona sun, conditions inside the metal cylinder become deplorable and
claustrophobic – and deadly.
And so although Vaillant has chosen a hard-hitting (and very
relevant) topic, the book is still un-put-downable as you’re gradually sucked
into the lives of these unwilling captives, caught in a dark and empty water
tank with no way out.
There’s an argument that it’s also reflective of the actual living situations from which many of the immigrants were running from: they had also been trapped in situations in their original countries which they could not change or impact, apart from leaving in this high-risk way. They exchange one prison for the other with only the optimistic hope of things getting better at the other end of the journey.
And so what happens in the end? Does Héctor escape? Does the group get rescued? Aaah. That would be
telling, so I’ll only point you to the book and recommend that you also read it
to find out.
(The only slightly off-putting thing for me was that Vaillant, as a white male author (and with all the privileges that that identity entails) is writing as Héctor, a poor Mexican immigrant. Do you think that, in this situation, Vaillant is co-opting being a character of color and in him being a person of privilege, is that offensive? Shouldn’t he (Vaillant) have “let” a true POC with this backstory tell his/her own narrative?
OR – is this being too sensitive? What is the answer if no POCs have written this story yet? Should Vaillant, as a prize-winning journalist, have gone and found this story with real-life sources (if they exist)? Is this the same situation as perhaps someone moaning about an author pretending to be, say, a dragon? Since dragons don’t exist, would that be more acceptable for an author to take on that identity him/herself? Any ideas/comments?)
“My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.”
Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)
Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians
in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women
and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as
late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the
entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…
(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are but still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (1913, US Census Bureau).)
Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.
Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler
was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very
courageous and determined she was:
1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)
But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon
by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who
arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the
slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the
So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!
Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the
healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been
the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her
healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler
was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American
populations as well…)
It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:
health advice (under 5s):
One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂
“All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “ (Chapter 5)
If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat,
Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the
down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t
give the baby “soot tea”, by any
Saffron tea is really crocus tea? And was popular for baby’s poop problems?
Don’t give infants a “little
weak toddy” to “bring up wind and
make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may
“inculcate a desire for tippling in many
of our weak-minded youth”.
Later on:watch out if giving your baby any alcohol:it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”
And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)
And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.
And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them”
– the habit needs to “vanish like dew
before the noonday sun” …
Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be
troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).
If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the
unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to
trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom”
Teething and not
wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause
lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get
pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient
watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.
Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the
noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the
kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…
Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…
If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So . – try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…
If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)
Reading for kids is also dangerous: “Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?”
a breast-feeding mother:
If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent
for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult
or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get
(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff
as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)
If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may
be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re
careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being
Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is
breastfeeding or this could happen: “the
babe was sieved with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while
the mother became “almost helpless with
fright”… But some quick-thinking
from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the
try to avoid cholera if you can:
There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation
– it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive
(or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children
(and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…
Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)
Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)
And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows
at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer
this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic,
it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread
who’s responsible for all this?…
Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.
Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)
(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder
to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)
Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that
women “appear to shrink from any
responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.
She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the
for women’s health in general:
Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren,
have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).
Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)
“Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.”
Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.
(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth
control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if
these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and
get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children
into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…”
Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…
Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines
(especially those that contract or
depress muscles): “may cause suffocation
and death at any moment.”
Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork,
gaseous vegetables, and anything that
depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should
Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.
This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience.
This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!)
(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)
To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination.
A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.
(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)
It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.
So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole.
As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire.
(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)
This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
A complex but good read.
For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).
A rather good reading month, as it turned out (despite the initial craziness of back-to-school). I’m having (and enjoying) a big focus on the TBR pile right now (hopefully, this will continue until the end of the year), and also an ongoing craze on NF… I’m loving it all.
Total books read:12 (including 2 x halfway-through-DNFs)
Total pages read:2,886 (av. 240)
NF:9 (75% of total)
F:3 (25% of total)
Total % TBR for year to date: 54%. <takes a bow>
Library:3 (including 1x ILL).
POC author/topic(s):1. (Oh dear.)
Male to Female:5 males + 5 females + 2 of mixed genders.
DNFs(new for this month): 2. (I’m getting better at this.)
Longest title (re: page count):340pp.
Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 122pp.
Now that October is here (and September, to me, has to have been the longest month in the entire year), I’m looking forward to some gradually cooling temperatures, slightly fewer daylight hours, and the steady routine of the university semester.
We have chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light. Jonathon Swift (1667-1745)
Shuffling along the animal shelves at the library and searching for something rather fun to read to recover from some recent not-so-great book experiences, this title, with its promise Sweetness and Light and honeybees, jumped into my little mitts. What’s not to love about the humble bumble bee? (Actually, serious question: are honey bees the same as bumble bees? Actually, there is quite a lot of difference, I learned.*)
This was a curious read for me. The author writes well, so
that was lovely, but there was a general feeling when I finished it, that she may
have been a little thin on material and so there was quite a mishmash of info
in this volume. Its subtitle focuses on the “mysterious history” of the
honeybee, and although bees have been around for hundreds of years, no one
really knows how they evolved (if they have evolved even) so the starting chapters
on the early history of these insects were rather speculative in nature. (But
then anyone’s writing would be on this topic, since no one really knows for
I definitely think the strongest part of the read was in the
middle section when Ellis is focusing on the true hard facts of honey life and
culture: how the queen bees live, the roles of the worker and the drone bees
etc. And, in fact, that is more along the lines of what I was really looking
for when I chose this book: more of a biography than a history, really.
Despite this, I learned a ton more about bees in general:
that their houses are called skeps, that they are dying off from different causes
(including epidemics of mites), that different honeys have different flavors
depending on the flora the bees found… I loved learning these facts and even (superficially)
deliberated on whether the hubby would go for a beehive in the garden. (Not too
enthusiastic about that idea.)
So, for a random pick off the shelves, this turned out to be
a fast and interesting read about some creatures who play an important but usually
unheralded role in the world around us. I’m still dreaming of having a beehive,
but in reality, I’m a complete woose when it comes to the world of insects
landing on me. But it’s good to dream…
*Bumblebees are rounder, “large in girth”, more hairy and colored with yellow, orange and black. Bumblebees can sting multiple times. Generally, honeybees are more slender, less hairy and have a pointy stomach. Honeybees can only sting once. I’m still going to run screaming from bees though, so not certain that I’ll have the peace of mind to check about the shape of their tummies. 🙂