Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

As a child growing up in England, this was a title that I frequently heard about, but I can’t remember if I ever read it or not. If I didn’t, then I should have as it’s one that I would have probably enjoyed: siblings going to camp on a “deserted” island unaccompanied by parental units all having some harmless adventures without any major repercussions. Yes please.

Whether I had read it or not, this time around the read seemed brand new to me. Published in 1930, it’s clearly written in a more innocent time when children go off and have harmless adventures without supervision and if you take it in that spirit, you’ll enjoy this.

It’s a kid’s novel along the same lines as the Adventures of Mallory Towers/Blyton (and their ilk), but this is a slightly more grown up version of life. Set in the Lake District, the narrative revolves around the Swallow family having their holiday on the shores of the lake in Conistan (a real place).

uk-mapFour siblings (very gender-stereotyped but them were the times) find an “uninhabited island” in the middle of the lake and claim it for themselves in a world of Make-Believe. The adults left on shore are “natives” and play a peripheral role for the most part, the oldest boy bosses everyone around, the oldest girl cooks and cleans (!!) and it’s all rather jolly hockey sticks and ginger beer.

The adventure ensues when another family’s kids also end up “discovering and claiming” the island – they of the Amazon clan in the title – and so it turns into a very tame gang war complete with a potential pirate in the mix. It’s a fairly straight-forward goodies/baddies set up, although the two rival groups of kids do end up collaborating against a common enemy (who isn’t that bad in the end), and it runs along the lines of a Scooby Doo episode but with more kids.

One thing that I was impressed with was how familiar Ransome assumed his readers would be with the sailing terms. It’s packed with these suckers, and since I have less-than-zero sailing experience myself, it was a bit mystifying at the start. However, sailing or no sailing, you can still keep up with the story itself and it all sorts itself out in the end. Just know that there are a LOT of nautical terms to keep up with.

I made a list of the ones that I remember, just to give you the scope of things:

  • “careen” the boat
  • Ballast
  • Aft/fore
  • Stern
  • Painter (something that was attached to the boat and was fastened to a tree)
  • Gunwale
  • Thwarts (a thing on the boat, not a verb)
  • Starboard
  • Foredeck
  • Let out a “reef in sail”
  • Broadside
  • Windward side
  • Sailing “close-hauled”
  • Halyards
  • On the “port tack”
  • Yaw
  • “Following wind”
  • Boat’s “forefoot”
  • Lee of an island

I have a passing knowledge of some of these terms (thanks to Star Trek mostly :-)), but it’s interesting to me that Ransome could assume that most of his readers would already have this sailing knowledge. Perhaps kids did back then? I’ll have to check with my mum.

So, a fun read and a journey back to simpler times (at least it seems to me).

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General Catch-Up…

catch_upIt’s been a busy few days which has included several new lesson plans, two batches of grading, and the normal day-to-day stuff, which helps to explain the silence in this space.

Actually, it also included one of the houses on our street exploding (!) just before we went to bed and so that took a few days before life resumed its normalcy for us. Quite a week. (And honestly – one of the houses five houses away from us literally exploded. You don’t forget that in a hurry.)

However, despite this, I have been reading and writing (although more slowly than usual) and that’s what I thought we’d catch up with today.

I happened to come across Angela Thomas’ debut YA novel called ‘The Hate U Give” whose plot revolves around a young African-American teenager who is in the same car as her (also AfAm) friend when they get stopped for a perceived infraction by a white police officer and the young man gets shot and killed. The novel moves forward in time as the young woman and her community try to deal with this situation with its murky causes.

Although a heavy (and timely) topic, this novel moves along at a fast pace as it deals with the issue of police-related shooting, morality, race, and modern life in a city, and it’s probably going to make one of my Top Ten Fiction Reads this year. For once, the hype is worth it and I recommend that you pick this up at some point soon and then you can judge for yourself. Thomas does a great job of covering the multiple perspectives in such an incident without resorting to usual state of black-and-white thinking, and whether you agree with how the characters act or not, it’s probably going to leave you thinking once you’re turned that last page.

file3I also learned the acronym behind Tupac’s phrase, Thug Life which (according to the author) means The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everyone (or maybe Everything?), meaning that it’s important to look after every person in your community whoever they may be. True that.

Moving on and to give myself a change in pace, I picked up a psychological mystery story, “The Girl Next Door” by Ruth Rendell, which was good fun to read (although oh-so-confusing at first due to playing with time and a lot of characters). I sorted it out in the end and I haven’t read just a mystery for ages, so this was rather fun and read like a hot knife through butter. Now I’m reading through one of America’s Best… series, this one a collection of science and nature from 2011 and edited by the wonderful Mary Roach. Just right for a Monkey Mind…

And then, thinking about a non-complicated plot and also filling in a slot in the Century of Books project that I have going on, I’m also reading the children’s classic, “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome (1930). I haven’t read any of this series before, and although I’m not a sailor and have next-to-no-familiarity with sailing terms, I’m enjoying this quick read of two families of children enjoying their island adventures up in the Lake District of England. (Lots of ginger beer et al.)

With the semester fully underway, there have also been loads of events at the university including an entertaining talk by visiting Ruth Reichl, NYT best-selling non-fiction author and restaurant critic, which was really enjoyable. Plus, it’s play season on campus and we went to watch the one-act plays that students both write and perform. Good stuff.

So, it’s been a busy few weeks, but now we’re in the home stretch of the university term, and then I’m looking forward to some time off from work. What to do, where to go… Those are the questions…

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Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers – Shyam Selvadurai (ed.) (2005)

book416After having fully immersed myself in authors and writing by African-American writers during February, I thought it would be fun to continue reading other POC authors and writings from around the world, so browsing through the TBR shelves (go me!), I came across this title and thought it would fit the bill perfectly.

I’m not sure where I ended up hearing about this title, but the stickers on the book lend credence to the fact that it’s probably used as a textbook in a world literature class somewhere or other, and regardless, this was great fun to read.

As the whole book title reads, Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, this was an anthology of writings and authors from Southern Asia and featured a wide range of writers from the well-known (such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith) to the slightly less well-known (at least to me). They were all originally written in English (I think) and all fiction, and the range of the short stories was quite astounding. I loved it. It was like eating candy in a pick-n-mix as you (I) never really knew what was coming once I’d finished a story. There wasn’t a bad one in the whole anthology, and I adored almost every page that I read.

As Shyam Selvadurai writes in his introduction, “The stories jostle up against each other . . . The effect is a marvelous cacophony that reminds me of . . . one of those South Asian bazaars, a bargaining, carnival-like milieu. The goods on sale in this instance being stories hawked by story-traders: story-wallahs.”

Edited by Selvadurai, it’s a perfect read for a monkey mind (comme moi right now), and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every story, even taking notes of a few favorite authors to dig into at a later date as their included short stories were so strong.

Authors ranged from locales across the Southern Asia diaspora, from Sri Lanka, India, Great Britain, USA, Trinidad, Fiji and others, and explored (as GoodReads says) universal themes of identify, culture and home. I fairly gobbled this read down, and am going to keep it on the shelves for another read at another time. Yes, it was that good.

Naturally, some authors were more favorite than others (as is typical in a wide-sweeping anthology), and I made notes to make sure that I track down more work by Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Farida Karodia, Hanif Kureishi, and Shani Mootoo, but there are loads more from which to choose.

It’s a big book (>400 pages), but it’s extremely readable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Highly recommended in almost every metric. 🙂

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(Above) – This is what is generally accepted as Southern Asia, but the book travels more widely than this…

General Catch-Up…

catch_upSo it’s been a while since I’ve done a general catch-up with life, so I thought it might be nice to bring you up to speed on my absolutely riveting lifestyle. 🙂

The semester is going very smoothly. I’m teaching two sections of Media Writing, and I seem to have some really good students in both of those classes. (Wheee!) Focused students are really great to work with, so I’m lucky. I’m really enjoying teaching as well, much more than last semester, and I think that’s because I have a much better idea of what to expect and the general game plan. It’s a different world, TBH.

Movie-wise, I’ve been seeing quite a few lately. Saw the awesome Three Billboards… (Frances McDormand et al.) which was really good, and followed that up with a watch of The Post (about the Pentagon Papers and Nixon et al.). Learned a lot about that, so that was enjoyable. I do rather miss the typewriter days and using paper, but probably the e-office set up works a little more swiftly and smoothly now we have the technology!
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Also happened to go to the movies to see a selection of Oscar-nominated short documentaries which were just great. (Glad that I don’t have to choose which one to win, as I enjoyed them all.) This category is filled with short (in length), but big on content documentaries which have been split into two sections (just because of the time commitment). The three that we saw were:

  • Edith and Eddie – A look at inter-racial and elderly romance, this film covers the relationship of Edith and Eddie who got married when they were 95 and 96. The romance is pretty straightforward, until Edith gets diagnosed with early dementia and one of her two daughters wants to sell the house where the couple live and force Edith to go and live in Florida with her family, leaving Eddie behind. It’s never explained exactly why this daughter thinks that that is the humane thing to do, but the film documents what happens rather than explain things. Good, all the same though.
  • Heaven in a Traffic Jam on the 405 – this doc portrays the fascinating life of American artist Mindy Apler who works primarily in papier mache. Suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mental challenges, the film shows how art is a survival technique for Alper, particularly during the ten years when she was without speech. Great artist with an intriguing story to go along with it.
  • Traffic Stop – In 2015, an African-American math teacher was stopped in Austin, Texas, for a minor traffic violation, but it turns into a violent arrest. The documentary follows Breaion King as her life is turned upside down by callous police behavior and racism. It really makes you think about things…

oscarCheck out this article from IndieWire for more details. I’m not usually the biggest cinema person, but I love documentaries so this was a good way to spend an afternoon! An added bonus is that some of these selected docs are available to watch for free on YouTube… 🙂

Moving on to other things:  My ankle is slowly healing from its surgery back before Christmas. I had no idea that it would take almost three months before I could drive again, but it did, and now, thank heavens, I am back in the driver’s seat and walking (carefully) around. The Superhero was fantastic shuttling me around everywhere, but I’m glad to have my independence back. (I think he is as well!)

And then one of my favorite months, Black History Month, wraps up as March arrives with its windy weather. I ended up reading a load of African-American books and stories, either written by African-Americans and/or about a person of color, and it was fascinating. I’m planning on diversifying my reading for the rest of the year since it’s been so fun, so hoping to keep that going on. Race can be such a divisive issue, and even though I consider myself to be very aware of this, there are still times when I unconsciously have white privilege running for me, so I’m trying to be even more aware of that, in order to reach my students, both white and POC. It’s a fascinating journey.

So, we’re almost coming up on Spring Break (mid-March), and with that week off, I’m going to fly to Washington D.C. to meet my lovely mum flying in from London, and then we’ll see the sights (dependent on how comfortable my ankle is). I’m thinking that with lots of coffee breaks and some cake, we’ll be ok. 🙂

Life is good. I hope that you can say the same!

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February 2018 Reading Review

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It’s just finishing up the second month of the year and the Spring semester, and everything is going quite swimmingly. 🙂 I’m not teaching that extra class this semester, and it has made a world of difference in terms of work load, stress, etc., so I’m happy that I made the executive decision to not take that on again.

It’s the start of Spring here in West Texas which can mean temperatures from the low 20s to the high 80s, so it’s dressing in layers here for most of the time. Keeps things interesting, let me tell you!

To the books read during February:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in February: 8

Total number of pages read: 1,823 pages (av. 228).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 3 fiction / 4 non-fiction; 0 play. 1 DNF.

Diversity: 6 POC. (Hat tip to Black History Month.) books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library book, owned book and 1 e-book.

Guilty admission: I ended up DNF-ing Roxanne Gay’s memoir, Hunger. (I just couldn’t click with it, but I did read 150 pages, so not a total loss.)

Plans for March: Read lots. Read widely. 🙂

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Kindred – Octavia E. Butler (1976)

OctaviaEButler_KindredBilled as the first science fiction book to be written and published by an African-American female author, Kindred finds itself quite commonly on community One-Read reading lists across the country, and although written in 1976, it’s still a powerfully relevant read for the world as it is today in America.

The story revolves around the main protagonist, Dana, an African-American who is living in 1976 and working on her writing in CA living with her white boyfriend/partner. One day to her surprise, she passes out after being dizzy, and finds herself waking up by herself in 1815 Maryland on a slavery-run plantation being put into the position of saving a young white boy called Rufus from drowning in the river. It’s only after some time passes that Dana manages to work out that she is slipping through time from 1976 back to the early eighteenth century with the goal of keeping Rufus alive so that he can father her grandfather in modern days, and the only way that she will not influence her future (and her very being alive) is to fight for Rufus.

“The ease. Us, the children… I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

Butler keeps the ethnicities of both Dana and Kevin under wraps for quite some time, so as a reader, it’s quite confusing as you read about how the African-American slaves with whom she interacts treat her. To them in their time period, she talks and acts “white”, but she looks African-American, so it’s tres confusing for everyone for quite some time. Eventually, Dana learns that her time slippage has the mission, and then as the chapters progress, the story fits together really well.

It’s interesting that when Butler published this novel in 1976, it was the two-hundredth anniversary of American independence from the Crown, and about a century after the emancipation of slavery and thus, is an obvious link with that difficult history. It’s much deeper than you realize at first, as the novel is very well written and the relationships between Dana and her fellow slaves are delicately handled. With Dana’s first-person modern POV, the novel seems epistolary in some ways, a reminder of some of the earlier first-person slave narratives except that Dana was born free and then was enslaved (similar to poor old Solomon Northup), as opposed to the more traditional narrative of being a slave and getting one’s freedom, such as was the case for Frederick Douglass and others.

However, despite the serious topic, it’s a fast read. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read — some of the scenes are harrowing in terms of how her fellow slaves are treated or how she herself is treated – but the narrative flows very smoothly and once you get the hang of the how and the why behind this time slippage, everything makes sense. Despite the fact that this is fiction, Butler sets it up so convincingly that at times, I just fell completely into the story itself that it read as though it was actually happening. (Sign of a great writer, methinks.)

Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, and the first African-American female sci-fi writer. Butler was awarded both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and in 1995, became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died in 2006.

I really loved this read and am now interested in reading more of Butler’s work.  Going to toddle off to the library soon…

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Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder (2000)

Kidder_tracySubtitle: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.

So, this title was quite an astonishing read for me, in that the guy who is the focus of this story went through such an amazing and never-ending amount of crud and STILL didn’t get a bad attitude towards the other humans.

Here’s a summary of the story if you are not familiar with it already: Deo (full name: Deogratias) was a young man in Burundi who survived a civil war and the related genocide only to end up at JFK in New York carrying two suitcases and $200 in his pocket. He knew no one, had no contacts, no place to stay, no nothing, and yet somehow, through a combination of factors, he ends up in one piece and a medical school graduate.

I know, right? Rather puts your own life into perspective…

Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, found out about Deo’s story after he (Kidder) had penned his earlier NF, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer who formed a non-profit to tackle public health nightmare situations in Haiti (and beyond). Kidder tracked down Deo’s awe-inspiring story whilst he was tracing Farmer’s since both Farmer and Deo ended up working together on some health projects.

deoDeo, born to a small farmer and his wife, grew up in the forests and mountains of Burundi, living a fairly typical agricultural childhood for his country until the civil war and unrest arrived. Having to run for his life when the murderous rebels surround his region, Dec finds himself alone and with no money or help as he crosses the Burundian landscape trying his hardest to avoid being killed in the genocide that was taking his country by storm. (The descriptions of what he sees and what he goes through have to be read to be believed. Warning: they are harrowing.)

After surviving months on the run, hiding in forests and just a few steps ahead of the rebel groups, Deo’s good fortune puts him on one of the few remaining aeroplane rides out of the unstable country, and Deo arrives in New York with not much, really, apart from his attitude and his ability to make friends along the way.

The young immigrant scrapes a living delivering groceries 12 hours a day, and living in Central Park or co-squatting in unlivable vacant buildings, but as you can read, by an amazing series of coincidences and people who know people, Deo ends up at Columbia University, followed by medical school. The “how” of all this is proof that good people live out in the world, even if they’re not obvious to you.

So, this was a true rags-to-riches story for this young African person, and as you can probably surmise, it’s a great story with an almost fairy-tale ending, so you’d think that Kidder, an award-winning author, would be the perfect match to tell this narrative.

And you know, he was until about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly, for no reason really, Kidder starts injecting himself into the story taking it on a very philosophical track of meaning and forgiveness. All very valid, but TBH, Kidder really got in the way of Deo’s story, and I’m wondering if perhaps Kidder was trying to meet a publisher’s page number goal of some kind, because if he had stopped at an earlier finishing point, this book would have been outstanding.

It was almost as though this was two different books all smashed into one: one a fairly straightforward chronological narrative and the other more of an esoteric take on the morality side of things. I’m not sure why Kidder did this — I can only speculate — but it did not do the book justice, as by the time I’d reached the end and turned the last page, I was very ready to finish up the read.

And that’s a shame as the book should have ended up with much more powerful punch than it did. Instead of thinking “Wow. This is an amazing young man with an incredible story filled with hope and compassion,” I ended up going “finish up already, Kidder.”

So, I’d recommend that you read this story for the Deo true narrative, and when Kidder inserts himself in this unwarranted Yoda fashion, just stop your story there.

Deo’s story is breathtaking, but unfortunately, I ended up being annoyed with Kidder more than continue to be amazed at Deo. As any narrative NF writer should know, you don’t want to be part of the story unless you can’t help it. I think Kidder could have, but didn’t.

 

Negroland: A Memoir – Margo Jefferson (2015)

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“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”

Note: the historical meaning for the term Negroland (or Nigrita) was an old term used in some of the maps of Africa by European map-makers to describe the inland and poorly explored region in West Africa.

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, addresses the privileges and pains of growing up in a small privileged segment of African-American society, a group that Jefferson calls the black bourgeoisie. This select group of wealthy African-American families called themselves various names: the Colored 400, the Talented Tenth, the colored elite…

Margo_Jefferson_2015No matter what their group name was, it was a world unlike any other for Jefferson and her family. Her father was the head of pediatrics at one of Chicago’s largest black hospitals and her mother played a socialite role, and so Jefferson’s perspective growing up in this rarefied space is unlike most of the other African-American authors whose work I have read in that they did not live in poverty.

This was a challenging read in the end, not because it was hard to read or follow, but because I had mistakenly entered the experience thinking it would be a straight-forward narrative arc, when actually, it’s more of a series of linked and not-linked memories. (I think that this is where some of the reviewers on GoodReads went astray in that they were expecting a fairly chronological read and instead got a more looping and wandering group of events. Several people did not enjoy this at all. It took me by surprise as well, but then I decided to hang on for the ride.)

Jefferson is an intellectual writer and university professor who has been recognized for her critical writing, so this is very well written, and once you get the hang of the book’s style, it works really well. The caveat is that it’s not a traditional read: I was born here, I went to school here, I attended university there… but is much more of a vague and meandering tour of her memories growing up in the era of Jim Crow (and its after-effects) whilst living in a rather removed world of privilege, surrounded by others who were in that same social and racial realm.

It’s a worldview that does not shy away from the indelicate surroundings of race, but one that is also enmeshed in a strict class distinction from other African-American families not so fortunate to have a large bank account. There’s a ripple of dissonance here. Yes, we’ve earned this and we should be allowed to enjoy our good fortune, and we are not going to be held back just because so many others do not have this privileged life.

There’s an uncomfortable push-pull mechanism here in terms of living an African-American upper class life (with the privileges that accompany it), but it’s also a life that seems a bit tenuous at times, in terms of not quite being secure despite their wealth. The surrounding society still has that racial bite that needs to be addressed, and I got the feeling that the Jefferson family are, understandably, irritated and frustrated by this fragile balance despite their healthy bank account and position in their class.

For Jefferson, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, this insecurity is a heavy burden to bear as she is very aware of how fragile and easily broken this lifestyle of her parents actually is. It’s difficult for her parents (and thus her) to settle in and relax with this set up, and it must have been exhausting trying to balance it all, knowing that a simple racist incident could upset the whole hard-won apple cart. There’s such a responsibility, in some ways, to be more than perfect as “representatives” of successful African-American people in a country that conspired to knock them down at every opportunity.

This wasn’t a comfortable read in any way, but I think that’s the whole point of it for the author. Her whole life has been uncomfortable and ill-fitting in some ways (notably for people outside her own life) so that there is a level of rage below these descriptions of events and of her friends and family, and I think that Jefferson wants you, as a reader, to feel just as out-of-place as she had to.

This was a pretty provocative read for me that I’m still contemplating a few days later.

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(Above) A eighteenth century European map of north African countries,        including Negroland.

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Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin (1952)

bookxxxxI had no idea of what to expect, but went along for the ride with this book to see how the narrative would go. I’d heard of this title, naturally, but had not read it, and thought this month would be the month to try it.

Hmm. I’m not sure that I can say that I enjoyed (or even understood) the read. It’s strongly influenced by Christianity, specifically the African-American Pentecostal perspective, and so I think, since I’m not religious, that I probably missed half the references and thus didn’t really understand what the book was talking about.

It’s well written – very lyrical – but hell’s bells if I wasn’t mightily confused for the majority of the read. So, this might be a short review!

The title of the book comes from an 1865 African-American spiritual song, “Tell it on the Mountain”, and this book has been highly ranked in both the Modern Library’s 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century, and Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005.

So – short post today. Glad I read it. Highly unlikely that I will ever read it again. :-}

This title is part of JOMP’s celebration of African-American History Month.

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Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)

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…they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others are doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was to be bold, do something nobody had thought of…

Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, is one heckuva powerful novel to read, and I can’t believe that it’s not more common in required reading lists for English classes, because it brings up so many discussion points: racism, housing, poverty, education, perseverance… And the writing… It was just great.

To back up a little, let me explain how this title was chosen in the first place. February is African American (or Black) History Month in the U.S., which is I think an important public recognition of the contributions of the African-American people over the years.

I have been wanting to add more POC authors and topics to my TBR, and thus, this reading project was born.

Native Son is a novel that covers the journey of one Bigger Thomas, raised in one room with a single mother and two other siblings, and one of thousands who lived in on the South Side of Chicago (or the Black Belt as Wright describes it). It’s the late 1930’s, and Bigger (like a lot of other people) had stopped his education early due to having to work to support his family. It was during one of the gaps in employment when the crux of this whole matter arises.

Bigger is selected by one of the wealthy philanthropists to get trained to be his chauffeur. It’s win-win for everyone it seems: the rich people feel better for “saving” one of the many poor people, and the guy in the job gets to feed his family. What could possibly go wrong?

Surrounded by desperate people with little access to resources, Bigger is skirting the edge of crime, but it’s not until one night that he actually crosses over into that dark world. After accidentally committing murder one night with someone in his employer’s family, Bigger finds a freedom in himself and his life that he had never experienced before. And once someone has tasted freedom after years of being in chains, it’s very hard to go back…

 “No Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.”

The novel is divided into three separate parts (Flight, Fear, Fate) and time is very compressed in the story. The whole book’s action happens only over a couple of weeks, and it’s compelling to see Bigger’s life journey as it just spirals and spirals down.

wright_richardWright uses an omniscient POV, so readers can see what everyone is thinking as the narrative progresses, and it’s a really good writing choice to use this as you get to understand the motivations of each person in the story balanced with what the rest of the world sees. The world only sees the actions and reactions of the characters, and without the access to the characters’ thoughts, you can see how things can go very very wrong.

So – to the story itself: Bigger takes the new job eagerly, and meets his employers who allow him to have a room in their big house. You never really know when you might need a chauffeur, and the married couple who hired him thinks themselves very big-hearted to take a boy out of the South Side. Indeed, they have done a lot for the African-American community, donating millions of dollars to black schools, and training centers.

On the first night of his first day of chauffeuring, Bigger takes Mary, the (white) daughter of the house to a party elsewhere, where she stays for a while and picks up a male friend, and then they cruise around, reluctant to go home. Both Mary and her new friend are progressive for the time, so when they want to stop and get a drink or two, they naturally invite Bigger in with them to have a drink as well.

After a while, it gets to be very late and Mary needs to get back to sleep as she’s traveling out of town the next day. She is, however, completely wasted from all the alcohol she’s been drinking, and after dropping her friend off, Bigger is forced to help Mary into the house and put her to bed. No big deal, except that this was 1930’s Chicago, smack in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and “negros” didn’t go into young white lady’s bedrooms at three in the morning.

And then the story ricochets from there, and you go along willingly for the wild ride. Bigger ends up being accused of rape and murder, which is the start of his downfall, as you can imagine. However, as the book progresses, Wright carefully points out all the cultural problems in such a way that you can follow Bigger’s thinking and how easy it was for him to fall into this legal trap.

Murder is wrong, but it was accidental. Why didn’t Bigger just leave Mary in the room? Because one thing happens which triggers a whole onslaught of other related events, but every single stage of this journey is based on faulty cultural assumptions (i.e. White vs. Black), so honestly how could this event have played out any differently? It really couldn’t have, and that’s why it was a really effective writing decision to use the omniscient point of view. Having all the thoughts of each character means that you, as the reader, see the logic in some of the decisions that follow when the book’s characters don’t.

The first part, Fear, is when Wright is setting up the scene of the poverty and high levels of unemployment that the African-American community faces just trying to live their lives. There’s a lot of fear around: white people fear black people, black people fear white people, and almost every action that anyone takes is grounded by being afraid. It’s a fraught time for the country, and such racial tension is easy to be ignited with the open flames of unrest and discontent.

The second part, Flight, is right after Bigger murders Mary, and the events that occur very quickly after that, as Bigger has to leave home to hide from the police. This is a really tense novel, if you haven’t picked that up already, and it was soooo difficult to actually put down. (There are no chapter breaks and no paragraph breaks to take a breath. You are as exhausted as Bigger gets when you’re reading it.) Bigger is on the run…

The final section, Fate, is when the law catches up with Bigger and he faces his court trial for the death penalty for murder (and not just murder: murder of a white woman by a black man…). Even more shocking and great media fodder. The trial ends up drawing massive attention, and people rally outside the court room shouting and chanting what they think should happen to Bigger.

But Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, gives an astonishing speech in his closing arguments – you’ll have to read it to believe it – and throughout his talk, Mr. Max clearly shines the spotlights on the cultural mores and assumptions that have led to this situation. Taking a birds-eye view (with the omniscient POV) opens the full range of reasons why Bigger murdered Mary. Was he culpable?  Sure, but how much blame can you assign to a racist society which cuts off opportunities for betterment to a large part of society? Where does the line stop?

Anyway, a fascinating read and one that kept me up rather later a few nights as I just couldn’t leave Bigger without knowing his fate. Highly recommended as a African-American classic. Everyone should be reading this, even (and perhaps especially) the Orange Goblin (if he can read).

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

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