Monday, November 28, 2011

A mercy by Toni Morrison (Jill)

A Mercy
By Toni Morrison
Completed November 27, 2011

"It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human." - page 195

A Mercy has a quietness about it - as if each character is whispering a secret in my ear. But the message was strong, powerful and riveting. I haven't read a book quite like it before.

The story centers on the trade of Florens, a literate slave girl who comes to the home of Jacob Vaark. Florens' mother insisted the girl be traded away from her, and as Florens settles into her new home, she ponders why her mother would be so willing to give her up. While at Jacob's home, Florens falls under the care of Lina, a Native American woman who tends to the farm and household. Also at the home are Sorrow, a supposedly dim-witted slave, and Rebekka, Jacob's wife.

When Jacob dies unexpectedly, the entire structure of the home unravels, thread by thread. Rebekka is stricken with illness, Florens is dispatched to find help from her lover, Sorrow gives birth to a baby, and Lina can't function out of worry about Florens. Chapters are divided among the characters, adding new perspectives to the tragedy. The most telling chapter was the last, when Florens' mother told her side of the story.

The plot doesn't move really, but as the story weaves in and out among the characters, you get a hard look at the effects of slavery in 1680's America. The moral of the story, though whispered, was still loud and clear: Slavery, in all forms, destroys lives. ( )

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

Recently, I was asked the question 'Why do you read historical fiction?' I think my answer was something along the lines of being able to eavesdrop on history. Really, the answer could have been to read books like this to find out about little known facts from history. My knowledge of homesteaders in America is very limited and I certainly hadn't given any thought to the fact that there were African-American homesteaders,or to the life that they and their families would have lived.

Rachel and Isaac DuPree are living in the Badlands of South Dakota,  a land that is beautiful but also harsh at the best of times but is especially harsh during a long drought. The novel opens with a disturbing episode as one of the smaller children, Liz, is sent down the well to scoop out what little water remains at the bottom because the bucket can't be used in such a small amount of water as the well is practically dry.

Rachel tells us of her life in the Badlands but also flashes back to episodes from her past, especially back to when she was working in the Chicago boarding house owned by Mrs DuPree. When Mrs DuPree's son Isaac returns on leave from his duties as a buffalo soldier, she has grand ideas of marrying him off to a nice young lady from an acceptable section of society. She certainly doesn't want him marrying the help, but that is exactly what happens when Rachel agrees to join the parcel of land that she is entitled to under the Homestead Act to that which Isaac has already claimed, thus doubling his land size. They initially agreed to a limited time marriage, but they are still together, working hard to maintain their constantly expanding land holdings and their expanding family.

Rachel is in the latter stages of pregnancy when we meet her, and already has several young children, but this life that she has chosen with Isaac was not an easy one and she has also lost two children. She is however proud of the life that she has built with Isaac, having started with nothing, then living in a sod dugout until finally she is living in a wood house that they built themselves. That begins to change however when she begins to questions Isaac's priorities.

I loved reading about Rachel. She was strong enough to make the decisions that need to be made, both for herself and her children. It took her a while, but she got there in the end.

The character that has me thinking the most though is Isaac. I can't quite decide if he is such a driven man that he can think of nothing but acquiring and holding on to land, or if he is just a guy who doesn't easily show or communicate his emotions. He is hard on all of his family but I don't think he is blind to them and just making them do things that they won't like just for his own selfish ends. For example, with sending a terrified Liz down the well, the fact of the matter was that without doing this there would be absolutely no water for his family and they would all die of thirst.

In his mind, he thinks he is doing the right thing by contemplating going off to work in the mines to bring in a steady income and leaving Rachel to cope despite the fact she is telling him quite plainly that she won't be able too. It is obvious though that he is capable of physical affection with Rachel which he shows just by the touch of his hand on her back when she needs it. He does have feelings about his children, evidenced by the tears he sheds at one of the key moments in the book.

Isaac is particularly rigid when it comes to the rules in his own house. He seems to me to be very much of a generation where the father in the house must be obeyed by everyone, including his wife. Some of his rules make sense, but we did get to see more emphasis on the idea of persecution of a minority group with his own refusal to allow agency Indians into his home, or even to meet his own responsibilities in relation to certain Indians who make their way to him. He is discriminated against by certain towns people but he in turn is intolerant of others who he sees as beneath him for whatever reason.

I didn't actually realise for a few chapters that the characters in the book were African-American, and for me, that can be seen as quite a good thing. Whilst a big part of the subject matter of the book is both the isolation that Rachel felt not only living in the middle nowhere with few neighbours, but even more isolating is the fact that there are no other African-American people living anywhere near her. At it's heart though The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a human story - a woman who is struggling to get by in a difficult situation and making the difficult but necessary choices to get the best outcome for both herself and her children. A story of endurance, of courage and of knowing when it is time to make changes.

A couple of years ago I was visiting Perth and I spent some time listening to the stories that my grandfather told about some of the jobs he has done over the years. One of his earliest jobs was clearing areas of land in some of the hilly areas nearby. He had a horse and cart, and himself, and that was it. In another example is having to walk from one town to the next in the country areas of Western Australia in order to get to the next job, and these towns were not close together. All of his work as a farmer and a shearer was hard and it was physical, and is really pretty foreign to the kind of work that his grandchildren get to do. I found myself thinking of his stories as I read this book, mainly because of the sheer physicality of their day to day lives! I suspect that I would be a bit too soft from modern city living to live this kind of life.

When I think of pioneers and homesteaders in Australian terms I think that we are talking more than 150 years ago, and yet this book is very much talking about life in the wilderness, about making a life for yourself in the isolated rural region of the Badlands of South Dakota in America. 100 years ago was a long time ago, but by that time in the cities there was electricity, there was running water, there were cars on the street. It was therefore something of a shock to me to realise that timewise, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was in my grandfather's lifetime! In 1917, he would have been 8 or 9 years old. Giving it some kind of context makes it feel as though it happened very recently indeed.

This is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone who loves to read about times gone by. I am sure that you will cheer for Rachel, just as I did.

Rating 4.5

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Laura's Review - Scottsboro

Inside the courtroom, rows of long windows ran along two walls. They were closed against the noise of the square, and the yellow shades were drawn, but midday light filtered through, cooking the air. An American flag and another for the state of Alabama hung limp on either side of the judge's bench. ... Instead of a jury box, two rows of chairs that swiveled and tipped to allow the jurors to make themselves comfortable were bolted to the floor. In front of each row, a brass pipe, also attached to the floor, served as a footrest. Spittoons stood at regular intervals, each surrounded by the familiar corona of hardened tobacco juice and saliva. (p. 208)
As the title implies, this novel is about the Scottsboro boys, a famous US civil rights case from the 1930s. A group of black men -- boys, really -- were accused of raping two white women on a train. The case was fraught with racism and questionable legal processes that denied the boys a fair trial. Appeals continued for several years. Author Ellen Feldman describes these events through Alice Whittier, a fictional news reporter, and Ruby Bates, one of the two white women. She paints a vivid picture of Alabama in the 1930s: the climate, the people, and the extreme racism.

Readers unfamiliar with the case will enjoy Feldman's ability to bring history to life. As historical fiction, however, it doesn't quite pass muster. The best of this genre (or, at least, the ones I've most enjoyed) go beyond the basic facts and delve deep into the historic characters, embellishing where facts are scarce. Scottsboro provides factual information comparable to Wikipedia's article on the Scottsboro boys. But Alice Whittier is one-dimensional; a vehicle to advance the plot and fill the time between trials. Her storyline was like a superfluous wrapper around the heart of the book. I wasn't interested in her romantic relationships, or the skeletons in her family's closet, because I knew them to be complete fiction. This would have been a better book had Feldman used an actual journalist in the story. Instead the result is something not quite history, and not quite historical fiction.

Cross-posted from my blog

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Laura's Review - When we Were Bad

I love it when I have an unexpectedly delightful reading experience like When we Were Bad. This unobtrusive little novel about a family of English Jews took me completely by surprise. Things start with a bang when the Rubins' eldest son Leo runs away with another woman just one minute before his wedding. Our first impression of Leo's family, then, is seen through their reactions to this scandalous event.

Leo's mother Claudia is a well-known rabbi, one of the first women in her field and highly respected by everyone. She's worked hard all her life, but she's good at what she does, and knows it. Claudia is also intensely committed to maintaining the Rubins' image as the family that has it all. This is all the more important since her book is about to be published. When Leo runs off, her greatest concern is not for him or his relationship, but on keeping up appearances as a family.

Claudia's husband Norman has supported her career all these years, keeping his own ambitions largely to himself. Daughter Frances is married with an infant and two older stepchildren. Two younger adult children, Simeon and Emily, are still trying to establish their independence. All are intensely loyal to one another, and especially to Claudia. She's formidable, and such a strong force in their lives that not one of them will make a move without considering the impact on her. But this also causes a lot of sneaking around. Norman, for example, is working on a book of his own but can't find the right time to tell Claudia. Frances feels trapped by marriage and parenthood, but feels completely alone and unable to ask her family for support. And even Claudia, so cool and collected on the outside, has her own secret problems to deal with.

So much family drama makes When we Were Bad sound like an intense read, but it's served with a generous helping of humor. Just as I was getting all teary over developments in one character's life, something else would happen to make me laugh. Each of the characters are tremendously flawed, and yet completely likeable. On the one hand, I felt I should despise Claudia for controlling everything around her and stifling others. But I loved her for what she had achieved, and for her fierce devotion to her family. As each character's story line moved towards its conclusion, I felt both happy and sad about this family that I'd come to know so well. We went through a lot together over 321 pages, and I won't soon forget it.

Cross-posted from my blog