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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Underground Railroad image

If you are a book lover, you most likely have heard the buzz about The Underground Railroad. The book was originally scheduled to be published in September 2016 but during the summer, Oprah announced that the book would be her pick for the Oprah’s book club (her first pick in a year). The publisher pushed the release date up to August and ordered several additional printings of the book.

This lyrical work of fiction uses a metaphor of an actual physical train to describe the Underground Railroad with train cars, rails and tunnels. The term Underground Railroad was used as far back as 1840s to describe the network of black and white individuals who helped slaves escape captivity in the south.

The novel tells Cora’s story, a teen-age girl enslaved on a Georgia plantation. Her grandmother died in those fields picking cotton and her mother Mabel escaped from the plantation when Cora was 10. When Cora is 16, or maybe 17, she doesn’t know for sure, another slave, Caesar, suggests to Cora that they run away from the plantation.  Their escape via the Underground Railroad begins a liberating, terrifying, and sometimes brutal journey north toward freedom.

Cora first arrives in South Carolina where she finds domestic work for a white family. Running is dangerous but staying put has its own share of perils so Cora moves on with stops in North Carolina, Indiana and Tennessee. These perils include cramped, unsafe living quarters, bounties offered for the return of escaped slaves, beatings, and public lynching.

Cora is pursued mercilessly by slave catcher Ridgeway who has a chip on his shoulder because he failed to capture Mabel and return her to the plantation when she escaped years before. Ridgeway’s maniacal obsession with capturing Cora and returning her to the Randall Plantation shadows over Cora every step of the way.

Cora is a fierce woman. Whether she is protecting her garden plot or fighting off attackers Cora’s toughness is present throughout the story. It’s inspirational. She is a character that I won’t soon forget. I would highly recommend that you read this book. It’s important. The struggles and atrocities experienced by African Americans that are described in the book are still relevant today.

But in addition to the topic being important the writing is terrific. Whitehead is a wonderful storyteller. You should consider picking up a few extra copies to give as gifts to your literary minded friends and family too. President Obama has The Underground Railroad on his summer reading list too.

New York Times book review

A different take on the underground railroad in this New Yorker article

Colson Whitehead’s website

 

Book Review: The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni

Lightkeepers Pin

In this novel, Abby Geni tells the story of Miranda, a nature photographer, who has been granted yearlong residency on the wild and isolated Farallon Islands which are located thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco. The only other human inhabitants on the islands are the few biologists who live and work on the archipelago. The Farallon Islands are home to over 400 species of seabirds including puffins and cormorants.  The resident biologists also study the seals, sea lions, great white sharks and humpback whales which congregate on or pass by the Farallons.

Miranda initially finds herself socially and emotionally isolated from the six biologists.  The isolation is a feat given the fact that they live in close physical proximity to one another while sharing the one habitable cabin on the islands. In fact, the biologists mistakenly call her Melissa instead of Miranda during her stay on the island and she never corrects them. Through a series of letters to her deceased mother, we learn of Miranda’s past and how her mother’s untimely death twenty years earlier when Miranda was 14 has affected her relationship with her father. We learn that her adult life has been spent traveling and photographing the world; a satisfying albeit solitary existence.

The writing is sparse and dramatic which matches both the landscape of the islands and the unfolding events of her time with the biologists. This novel was not at all what I expected. I was drawn to the novel because of my interest in nature photography but enjoyed learning much about the wildlife that the biologists were studying. This isn’t your typical summer reading beach read though.

You will quickly realize that there is more going on than meets the eye. Foreshadowing kept me on edge as this thriller progressed. I found myself thinking that I knew what was coming as the mystery unfolded but I was kept enough off-kilter that I was compelled to keep reading. I thought the writing was beautiful and the story engaging. I recommend that you add this book to your reading list.

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