Brown Baggers met on February 15 to discuss The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Originally published in 2016, this novel focuses on the escape story of enslaved woman named Cora as she travels north on her search for freedom. The Underground Railroad was well regarded by critics and selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Whitehead used a literal train as a device to move the story and characters from point to point on their journey. This threw off some readers who thought it would detract from the other historical details present in the book and some found it harder to read as a result. They also were chagrined at the state of education in America when they discovered the gullibility of acquaintances — thinking the train was real because it’s called an underground railroad. Others felt it freed the author up to have such horrific realistic details if the main focus was fantastical.
The horrific violence kept some readers from reading continuously. While the brutality made them take frequent breaks and spread out their reading they felt it was very realistic and was well written, just a tough subject. They recoiled from the depictions of strong hatred and spite towards African Americans and talked about the seeds of racism that lead to such behaviors.
Talking about racism brought the discussion forward to the present day, allowing reflections on the horrific events here in Charlottesville during August 2017. Readers felt like the book’s popularity is due to the need for a reminder of what has happened historically as well as what may still not be resolved. They discussed the concept of African Americans and freedom — how free they are or feel like they are. Readers were impressed by those willing to help people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad despite the near constant threat of death.
The key to the book was relationships, readers felt — mainly those Cora has with Lovey, Royal, and Mabel. Also mentioned was Cora’s relationship with herself and her similarities and differences from the antagonist Ridgeway, doing whatever they have to to survive. Readers were astounded that she had such a strong sense of self despite not being her own person. This sense of self allowed her to care for and defend her plot of land and continue forward and northward despite many setbacks in her journey to freedom.
Interview with author
National Book award info
Twelve Years a Slave book by Solomon Northrup (as well as the film)
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
The Underground Railroad (the other) by Charles Blockson
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (about a real life slave who stay in an attic)
Brown Baggers will meet again on March 15 at noon to discuss the JMRL inaugural Same Page community read selection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. For a free copy stop by the Reference Desk at the Central Library.
A new project from the Boston Public Library invites you to help transcribe their collection of Anti-Slavery Manuscripts, and engage with history.
If you’re interested in more firsthand resources, you might like these accounts collected from formerly enslaved people in Virginia.
Weevils in the Wheat
Weevils in the Wheat
Virginia Slave Narratives
These narratives were collected by the Federal Writers’ Project as a part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. You can view the full collection of accounts by visiting the Library of Congress collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project.
For more opportunities to help transcribe history, check out Making History: Transcribe from the Library of Virginia.
Books on Tap read The Call of the Wild (other editions available) by Jack London at Champion Brewery on January 4. It was the perfect chilly night to discuss a book set in the Yukon. A short, spirited classic about the conversion of a pet dog into a wild, independent creature, it was either a re-read or vaguely familiar to all participants. In it, Buck, a large pet dog, is stolen and sold away from a California ranch to traders in Canada during the gold rush. Beaten into submission, he quickly adapts and then thrives as a sled dog. Eventually, he becomes fully feral and a legend in the woods. Inspired by London’s participation in the Klondike Gold Rush, the story was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and built on his earlier success with The Son of the Wolf.
The novel is told from Buck’s perspective, if not in his voice (see the title of this blog for a possible reason why). This choice by London intensifies Buck’s transition from pet to creature of the wild and cranks up the dramatic tension. For instance, we the reader understand why Manuel sells Buck from the ranch in California but come to understand later that Buck was more loved as a working animal with John Thornton on the trail than he ever was as a pampered pet. However, this style of narration did open up London to accusations of anthropomorphizing. Both Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Burroughs accused him of creating animals who were “men in fur.” London answered that The Call of the Wild and White Fang were instead “a protest against the ‘humanizing’ of animals,” and that they were motivated not by reasoning but by “instinct, sensation, and emotion, and by simple reasoning.”
According to one interpretation, the characters can be seen as political figures, a la Orwell’s Animal Farm. In that reading, the man in the red sweater is a stand-in for the USSR. It certainly succeeded as a non-political tale. None of the readers around the table were particularly struck by the political interpretation, we pick up on the influence of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (one of two books autodidact London took into the the Yukon, the other being Milton’s Paradise Lost). The brutal survival-of-the fittest ethos is vividly captured in scenes in which Buck fights both men and beasts making us wonder if the novel would be as heavily marketed to children if it were released today. Having read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in November, we compared the two self-consciously masculine writers. London won on all counts: description, emotion and heart. Continue reading
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- Tagged book, book club, Book Discussion, books, call of the wild, classic, dog, dogs, fiction, jack london, novel, reading