book review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a powerful book in that, though it is fictional, depicts horrific situations that many real slaves had to endure.  Whitehead’s story follows a slave named Cora from her life on a plantation, her mother’s abandonment, her decision to escape, and the people she encounters during her journey.

Whitehead portrayed many aspects of African American history through Cora’s journey.  In one instance, she saw white people depicting blacks, using their racist stereotypical beliefs as motivation.  In reality, this happened quite often in film, with white people dictating how blacks should look and behave on screen.  In another instance, she saw white people gathered to watch the hanging of a runaway slave as an afternoon amusement.  Historical documents show that this, too, happened.  In another instance, Cora learned about a hospital for blacks that were actually conducting experiments on them for syphilis (read “Bad Blood” about the Tuskegee experiments).  There were descriptions of how the KKK burned houses.  From what I know or have learned about slavery, the things that happened to Cora or that she saw actually did happen to slaves and blacks in the United States.

Not only were the depictions accurate, the characters were realistic.  What I mean by that is that none of them were perfect – they all had their flaws and they seemed like real people with their own personalities.  The author did a great job of revealing enough of their traits to tell the reader who they were.

I was enjoying this book (actually, enjoying is probably the wrong word because there were many gruesome things described, but I liked the writing style and the book was engaging) until I got to the bit where Cora ran away on a real underground railroad.  I had to do a double take when the author described a real railroad.  Huh?  I had always heard that the underground railroad was a metaphor for the network of people that housed runaway slaves.  I know that this book is fiction, but this part of it really annoyed me.  Mostly, I didn’t understand the reason for changing the metaphor into a real railroad.  Everything else in the book seemed historically accurate – sometimes the years may have been off, but the events themselves were accurate.

I would still recommend this book, but I hope that people will understand that it is fictional and won’t think that there was a real underground railroad that runaway slaves used.

book review: Phoenix Island by Charlotte Paul

This book started out a little slow, and the characters were pretty dreadful so I didn’t think I would like this book.  However, after the tsunami hit, things got quite a bit more interesting.  Phoenix Island by Charlotte Paul is a modern day cross between Robinson Crusoe and a little bit of Lord of the Flies.

I loved that this book was realistic about the nature of its characters.  None of them were perfect people, or even good people, but they each brought a different set of skill sets and they managed to work together to survive.   The main characters include: Andrew Held (a scientist known for supporting the development of nuclear power), Felicia Held (Andrew’s estranged wife), Carlo (an entertainer hired by Andrew), Donald Campbell (Andrew’s hired assistant, who has a shady past), Diana (a girl hired to help guests), Rolf (Diana’s boyfriend), Warren (a famous sculptor), and Blake & Norma Mansfeld (an upper middle-class married couple from New York).  The book showed how the characters grew as people when they are stripped of modern day conveniences and defensive mechanisms.  For example, Felicia’s defensive mechanisms were her coiffured looks.  Her appearance made her seem unapproachable to some people, like Donald.  People like Andrew, Felicia, and Blake and Norma probably would avoid someone like Donald and wouldn’t think twice about Diana and Rolf.  However, on the island, they see how the Diana’s background led to her useful skills.  On the island, they lose the society-made class barriers.

I love survival stories – I love learning about the edible plants and ways they found substitutes for soap and shampoo.  The author must have done a lot of research for this book.

This book, though, is much more than an adventure story.  It’s a statement about society.  The characters represent a cross section of our society as a whole and how everyone is needed.  The book presents a utopian view in that the characters become a family, learning from each other and learning to work together, and they all improve, both in character and physically.  The characters become better people when they are a family, willing to open up to each other and to care for each other.  The author seems to be making a statement about how, even though we are all so different, we rely on each others’ skill sets to survive.  It’s our differences that are our strengths.

The 9 characters deal with crucial issues such as finding water and food, but they also deal with non-life-threatening, though nonetheless essential, issues such as crime and punishment.  The way they face the issues help define their society.  Will they be forgiving or will they be vengeful?  How can they enforce their punishment(s)?

Warning: spoiler ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It probably comes as no surprise that the person who commits the first major crime on the island is Donald.  Once the group decides to banish him for 1 month, Donald turns animal-like, threatening to lash out.  There are couple crucial moments.  The first is, just as he is about to leave the group, when the takes the group’s only knife (his jackknife originally).  Andrew explains that all of their personal property were given up to the greater good and the knife was no longer Donald’s.  However, Andrew looked at who had the greatest need for the knife – the group or Donald – and felt Donald should be allowed to take the knife, not because it belonged to him but because he had the greatest need for it.  This incidence gives an insight to the author’s idea of what contributes to a utopian society.  You need leaders who recognize that desperate individuals will do desperate things … and someone who will treat people fairly, looking at the greatest need.  The other incident concerning Donald’s punishment comes into play when he flees, leaving behind a small bag of dried foods.  The group decides to show leniency and mercy by gathering up the small bag and bringing it to Donald.  In addition to the dried foods (which wouldn’t last him for the 30 days he was banished from the others), Rolf adds some fishing hooks so that Donald will have a means of finding more food.  This showed that, though they knew that he needed to be punished, they wanted him to survive, to come back to them.  Their punishment was a necessity to prevent anarchy and to protect those who might be physically weaker.  Their punishment wasn’t spiteful.  In fact, during his absence, several members of the group missed Donald, as evidenced when the author described how they remarked upon his empty spot and how they went to the woods to yell a reminder that there were only 6 days left of his exile.  Two of the members also went to hunt for the wild dogs in an effort to find and kill the dogs so that Donald would be safer on his own.  The group treated Donald as a member of their family.  Despite what he did wrong, they still cared about him.  The author is telling us that perhaps, if we treated each other as family, our “family” members, even after they have done something wrong, will return and be a contributing member again.  Temper your punishments with mercy and caring.

Read the book as an adventure story or read it as the author’s chastisement of our society or read it as a utopian look at what society could be.  Just read it.

book review: The Revenant

The Revenant is a fictional account of a (probably) true story about Hugh Glass.  Hugh Glass was a real person who joined a trapping expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the 1800s.  Glass was mauled by a bear and his injuries were so severe that he was expected to die.  The captain of the expedition, Andrew Henry, asks for two volunteers to stay behind to wait until Glass dies to give him a decent burial.  He offers $75 to volunteers.  In the book, the volunteers are a character with questionable morals named John Fitzgerald and a younger man named Jim Bridger.  Fitzgerald is painted as a villain, being motivated by greed and self-serving interests, as indicated by how he treats Glass (Fitzgerald tells Bridger not to give him any broth and not to give him a poultice in the hopes that he will die more quickly).  Bridger is shown as a youngster looking for acceptance and not quite sure of himself.  Morally, he is a better person that Fitzgerald because he tries to help Glass after seeing him in pain, but because of his insecurity, is afraid to stand up to Fitzgerald. After staying with Glass for a few days, Fitzgerald is worried about being attacked by a nearby hostile Arikara tribe.  Fitzgerald convinces Bridger that they must leave immediately and that Glass is about to die soon anyway.  Fitzgerald takes Glass’ prized gun and gives Glass’ knife to Bridger.  Bridger hesitates, knowing that Glass is trying to say that he wants his gun, but Fitzgerald wins in the end and they leave Glass with very little.

Of course, Glass survives and chases after Fitzgerald and Bridger to survive.  Reading this book reminded me of reading Hatchet when I was younger.  My favorite parts of the book were where the author was describing the methods Glass used to hunt, to build a fire, and to survive, despite having very little resources.  I have heard the movie described as being a movie about revenge.  I haven’t seen the book so I can’t comment about that, but the book, to me, is a book about survival (even if he is motivated by revenge).

**Spoiler alert, don’t read anymore if you haven’t read the book ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book is not about forgiveness.  Yes, Glass ends up forgiving Bridger (after he beats him to a pulp), but only because Bridger felt guilty about what he had done and offered no resistance.  Fitzgerald, on the other hand, never shows any remorse and the only thing stopping Glass from killing him was the fear of being arrested for murder.  (Fitzgerald was forced to join the U.S. armed forces after getting into some trouble and was therefore under the protection of the U.S. government.)  The book’s name, the “revenant,” refers to a dead spirit that comes back to life to terrorize the living.  This was Glass’ goal – to terrorize the two people who abandoned him.

The author did a wonderful job of capturing the raw wilderness – not only in the descriptions of what Glass had to endure to survive, but in the personalities of the characters involved.  These were tough, capable men, used to a hard life.

After finishing the book, I was curious about what was truth and what was fiction so I did some research online.  Hugh Glass was a real fur trader.  There were many stories about Glass surviving a bear attack, but Glass himself never documented the incident, and most likely, his story was embellished as it was retold.  It has not been confirmed that Fitzgerald and Bridger were really the two who stayed behind, but this is what is generally believed.  Fitzgerald joined the U.S. army.  Little else is known about Fitzgerald so his character is mostly made up.  The movie introduces a wife and son for Glass, but there are no such characters in the book.  Historically, there is also no documentation of a marriage for Glass.  Bridger became a famous mountain man and has several namesakes, including Bridger Range (Montana), Bridger Peak (southern Wyoming), Bridger Pass (southern Wyoming), and the Bridger National Forest (western Wyoming).  Glass was killed in a hunting expedition by an attack by the Arikara.