Brown Baggers Fiction/Nonfiction Pairings

The Brown Baggers book club is preparing for a new “season” of reading, which will begin in June! Each December we host a potluck party to celebrate a year of reading and to recommend and choose new titles for our next batch of books (June-May). We enjoy reading a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, but in our most recent round of voting, the nonfiction titles were hedged out in favor of historical fiction. 

So we’re giving our members a bit of flexibility this upcoming year – if you find yourself at any point uninspired or uninterested in the fiction selection for the month, we encourage you to try a nonfiction companion title from the curated list we have below (or read fiction and nonfiction both, when you have extra time!). Come to book club prepared to share about the book you read; we believe we’ll have some really interesting dialogues as our fiction readers converse with our nonfiction readers. 

June: Passing by Nella Larsen

nonfiction options:  

A Chosen Exile: a history of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs

White Like Her: my family’s story of race and racial passing by Gail Lukasik

Black Lotus: a woman’s search for racial identity by Sil Lai Abrams

July: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

nonfiction options: 

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday 

Earth Keeper: reflections on the American Land by N. Scott Momaday

The Three-Cornered War: the Union, the Confederacy, and native peoples in the fight for the West by Megan Kate Nelson

Born of Lakes and Plains: mixed-descent peoples and the making of the American West by Anne Hyde

The Captured by Scott Zesch (we don’t own this book, but “Jiles wrote that much of her account of Johanna’s alienation is based on The Captured”)

August: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

nonfiction options: 

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: an intimate history of domestic life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light 

Upstairs & Downstairs: the illustrated guide to the real world of Downton Abbey by Sarah Warwick 

September: The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey 

nonfiction option: 

The Sibling Effect by Jeffrey Kluger 

October: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain 

nonfiction option: 

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: sex, murder, and madness at the dawn of the twentieth century by Simon Baatz 

November: The Paris Library by Janet Charles

nonfiction options: 

The Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history by Robert Edsel 

Americans in Paris: a literary anthology edited by Adam Gopnik 

Part of Our Lives: a people’s history of the American public library by Wayne Wiegand 

December: no book

January: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

nonfiction options: 

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: traveling through the land of my ancestors by Louise Erdrich 

Rez Life: an Indian’s journey through reservation life by David Treuer 

Unworthy Republic: the dispossession of Native Americans and the road to Indian territory by Claudio Saunt 

Coyote Warrior: one man, three tribes, and the trial that forged a nation by Paul VanDevelder

February: My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson 

nonfiction options: 

Documenting Hate: Charlottesville & New American Nazis (PBS documentary)

Beyond Charlottesville: taking a stand against white nationalism by Terry McAuliffe 

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Thomas Jefferson Foundation 

Black is the Body: stories from my grandmother’s time, my mother’s time, and mine by Emily Bernard 

The Fire This Time: a new generation speaks about race edited by Jesmyn Ward 

March: Same Page Community Read

April: Matrix by Lauren Groff

nonfiction options: 

Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales: the building church, 600-1540 by Richard Morris 

Devon’s Torre Abbey: Faith, Politics, and Grand Designs by Michael Rhodes 

May: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead 

nonfiction options: 

Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller drug laws and the politics of punishment by Michael Fortner 

You might also enjoy a book about the Harlem Riot of 1964. Here are two options (unfortunately we don’t own either, but ILL is an option!): The Harlem Uprising by Christopher Hayes or In The Heat of Summer by Michael Flamm 

What great nonfiction books that would pair well with our fiction titles this year did we miss? Comment below to add your recommendations!

“They did what other human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”

Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, January 20, to discuss The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is the group’s tradition to read the longest book of the year in January, and this year was no exception. Coming in at around 622 pages, this nonfiction book about the Great Migration is “epic” in more ways than one; Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand people, and the book has been called a “major assessment,” “definitive,” and “destined to become a classic.” For an excellent selection of interviews, articles, and a podcast and TED talk, all diving deeper into Wilkerson’s work and impact, visit the “News, Reviews & Interviews” page on Wilkerson’s website. Some curious readers will appreciate the 100-ish pages at the end of the book detailing the methodology of the research, sources notes, and an index.

Our group was not intimidated by the length or scope of the book, and found Wilkerson’s choice to follow three individuals (Ida, George, and Robert) clarifying and grounding – it’s easier to hold onto facts when you have a human story woven throughout. The three people featured were not perfect…as a group, we didn’t like everything about them. But they were fully human, come alive on the page. They were flawed but captivating. They moved across the country out of life-preserving necessity – or in order to be who they really wanted to be. The book’s title comes from Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and Native Son, who wrote: 

“I was leaving the South

to fling myself into the unknown . . .

I was taking a part of the South

to transplant in alien soil,

to see if it could grow differently,

if it could drink of new and cool rains,

bend in strange winds,

respond to the warmth of other suns

and, perhaps, to bloom”

We talked about the inclusion of repetition. The amount of repetition did work for many readers who read the book in “gulps” (putting it down for a while, then picking it back up). The repetition helped them remember where they’d left off. In addition, they felt the repetition served stylistically, to illustrate the repetitive nature of appalling racism, threats, and brutality against black people. A few readers said the book was too gruesome to read, while others encouraged them to try again. This is the heart of book club – collective reading, for the sake of the conversation each month, but also for the sake of holding the book in your memory bank for as long as it can stay, and letting it shape you moving forward. For a truly difficult book but also an amazing read, some of our members recommended reading Caste (also by Wilkerson). Another member recommended the short but powerful Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. 

Many in our group did not realize the length or scope of the Great Migration. A few even said they had never heard the term “Great Migration” before. One participant shared that while they had never known about it, the Great Migration was a “big part of my life” (white flight, changes in the economy and demographic makeup of the entire country, etc.). We found that statement to be an intelligent acknowledgement recognizing the interconnectedness of lived experience. Wilkerson did a great job sinking this story into our brains and hearts. 

This is American history, but it may not be our personal history. This is African American history that lives and breathes uniquely through the families of descendants; it may be a “big part” of a white person’s life, but for a black person, this history might be your own mother or father’s story, a pivotal turning point for your family, a large reason you are where you are and who you are today. Wilkerson, in the acknowledgements, thanks her parents, “who gave me my earliest understanding of the Great Migration through their lives and experiences and through what they passed on to me…”

The three individuals Wilkerson follows through The Warmth of Other Suns each revealed bravery and desperation. We ended up arguing over who was the most courageous and sharing which moments from the book were the most startling – Robert the doctor sleeping in his car on his way out west, and the description of lynching (always very difficult to read). Wilkerson credited The Grapes of Wrath as a literary inspiration for her book, and it shows: both books are moving journeys featuring multiple protagonists. Most members loved this book and would recommend it to others. Three cheers to everyone who devoted themselves to this year’s longest read! Two snowstorms certainly helped provide time for reading! 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, February 17 at noon to discuss The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

“I won’t tell you what kind of man your daddy was. I’ll let my story do that and you be the judge.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. The novel promises to be a coming of age and love story, a story of family dysfunction and loss, and also the story of community: Virginia families displaced by the government as land is siphoned to create a National Park. Many of us have been intrigued by the chimneys scattered throughout Shenandoah National Park; these are the stately scars, all that remain of the countless houses taken and burned. Some of us have seen the resettlement house offerings in Madison county, still standing. The novel is close enough to home that we were eager to get started, and as we read, all of us enjoyed the local references littered throughout the narrative. And yet having the book set in our backyard was not enough to win us over. A majority of readers found this book disappointing, melodramatic, surface level, and at times, amateurish. 

That being said, we were disappointed for the best reason: we wanted to know more, and Battle’s story did not dredge deeply enough into the historical content promised to us as readers. We were not satisfied with the innumerable plot points meant to excite and shock us; we wanted to know more intimately about the experience of displacement, or the economic or social gains the state and nation had to gain from creating the park. We were fascinated by the Virginia Colony for the Feebleminded — just as we were intrigued by the snake charming, children begging in burlap, a state-abducted infant, shoot-outs and human-destroying dogs, and the love triangle to boot. There was plenty of intrigue here — but sadly, not enough deep-diving to quench our thirst for understanding, or our curiosity to know these characters on a human level.

While the sentimental among us enjoyed the loose structure of the novel — a mother writing to her daughter to finally reveal “the truth” of her lineage — we also agreed this strategy would have been more affecting if the daughter was old enough to find the box of letters herself. We could then get to know her as a character and witness the story twofold: as it happened to our narrator, and then how her daughter processed it. Not only would this have focused the story and brought more richness to the characters, as they thought about and interacted with one another, but it also would have introduced a generational element to the story, which many of our readers enjoyed recently in Red At The Bone

In the end, some of the Brown Baggers learned for the first time about the reality of families being forced off of their own land so that Shenandoah could be created. Some were not familiar at all with the devastating reality of being stripped of not only your land, but also your livelihood. Some were also introduced to the evil of eugenics and forced sterilization. We all agreed that this book — while not our favorite — is now driving us to pursue more information. As we continue to read as a group, a recurring comment is, “I never knew….” Month after month, we are unearthing truths that have always existed, but that are new to us. Whether we’ve contributed to the writing of history, or just ingested the often unilateral narrative, our reading is nudging us to find another version. Another version, and another, and another. We thank Battle for her story, full of twists, turns, and to her credit, one surprise after another. We also thank her for sparking us to read and learn more. 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

“Answer At Once”: Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934-1938 ed. Katrina Powell

The Anguish of Displacement: The Politics of Literacy in the Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park by Katrina Powell

Writing Appalachia: An Anthology by Tess Lloyd 

Contrasted to books by Lee Smith

Links:

The Displaced People of Shenandoah National Park: a ArcGIS Story Map (sponsored by Greene Co. VA) – included history, photos, video, and modern interpretations

Oral Histories of the CCC in Shenandoah – collected by the NPS

Living In Virginia: The Iris Still Blooms (YouTube) – part of a video series by VA Public Media, this section covers the displacement

Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection (solid state held at JMU) – part of an archival collection which includes oral history from folks living in the mountains before the creation of the park (materials accessible online)

Monument to Families Displaced by Shenandoah National Park Unveiled – Daily Progress

Blue Ridge Heritage Project Monument – Homepage (NPS)

Shenandoah Secrets: Pork, Propaganda, and the Creation of a COOL National Park – Lisa Provence, The Hook

Shenandoah National Park History and Culture – National Park Service

Shenandoah National Park: From Idea to Reality – National Park Service