The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Standard

   This book’s won rave reviews and the Pulitzer Prize, so I was expecting to think it was brilliant; but I’m afraid I didn’t really get it.  I was expecting historical fiction, and that’s what it seemed to be at the beginning; but it then turned into … I’m not sure if it was meant to be an alternative history or sci-fi or an allegory or what, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting.  Each to their own and I’m sure that a lot of people will love this book, but it wasn’t for me.

I’ve read this prior to watching the TV adaptation of it, now showing on Amazon Prime. That’s been praised, as well as the book.  However, concern’s been expressed about the plethora of Auschwitz novels appearing in recent years, and I understand that concern is now growing about the number of films and TV series about slavery in the US.  It’s hard to strike a balance which draws attention to difficult aspects of the past without portraying the history of a particular demographic group as nothing but trauma; but I hope that people aren’t going to criticise individual authors and directors, all of whom I’m sure have genuinely good intentions.  You can’t do right for doing wrong, sometimes.

This started with a young woman, Cora, who was a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  It wasn’t entirely clear when it was meant to be set – there were some references that suggested particular dates, but they weren’t consistent.  We heard about her family history, her grandmother being brought from Africa as a slave, and her mother escaping, and we also saw some of the horrors of life on a plantation with a cruel overseer and a cruel master.   Then Cora and a male friend, Caesar, decided to try to escape.  We then heard about a slave catcher, who was determined to catch Cora because her mother had eluded him, and we heard a bit about how being a slave catcher seemed like a good job for a thug with little hope of getting a well-paid job elsewhere.  So that was all very interesting, and that tied in with what I was expecting.  So far, so good.

But then it all moved away from history.  The Underground Railroad became an actual physical underground railroad.  First of all, Cora went to South Carolina, and found that medical schools there were conducting experiments on former slaves: presumably this was meant to put the reader in mind of Josef Mengele.  Then on to North Carolina, which had abolished slavery but was pursuing an ethnic cleansing programme of trying to create al all-white state.  Then she was captured, but escaped, and got to Indiana, which we were told was a former slave state, and lived in some kind of commune.  And then she headed out west – American destiny, Go West?  There’d already been references to the expulsion of Native Americans from lands taken by white settlers.

I’m sure it was all very well-written, and very clever if you like that sort of thing, but it just wasn’t for me.  I was looking for a book about someone reaching freedom with the help of the real Underground Railroad, i.e. the one which wasn’t a literal underground railroad bit was a network of people trying to help escaped slaves.  It started off with a very powerful depiction of the horrors of slavery, but I just couldn’t really take much from the rest of it because I knew that it wasn’t based on reality.

I’ll still watch the TV series, but I don’t really get this sort of alternative/fantasy/sci-fi history.  I don’t particularly get Game of Thrones, but at least that’s not messing about with such an emotive subject.  But, hey, life, would be boring if we were all into the same thing.

 

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Standard

  Last week was Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week, and this is an interesting and unusual historical novel with an autistic protagonist, working on a floating theatre – think Show Boat, but on the Ohio rather than the Mississippi, and in the 1830s rather than the 1880s.  The part of the Ohio which they’re on is effectively an extension of the Mason-Dixon line, with slaveholding Kentucky to the south and the free states of Ohio and Indiana to the north, and our girl May inadvertently becomes involved in helping slaves to escape.  So it’s a fascinating combination of themes – May’s “social awkwardness”, life on a showboat, and the Underground Railroad.  It’s just a shame that it’s so short, just under 350 pages long: I think there was the potential to develop the story much more than the book actually did.

May isn’t an actress or a singer: she makes costumes.  She’s always worked alongside her cousin, but, when roles begin to dry up, the cousin accepts a job giving speeches for a wealthy Abolitionist.  There’s no place for May, but the woman gives her some money – but then, when she gets a job on a showboat, demands that she repay her by smuggling slaves to freedom on the opposite bank.

So, really, it’s all a bit cynical.  Neither cousin becomes involved out of conviction.  Both oppose slavery, but, like a lot of us with a lot of things, they haven’t actually been doing anything active about it, because they’re too busy working and getting on with their daily lives.  The boyfriend of one of the actresses is a doctor who moonlights as a slave-catcher, not because he’s got any strong feelings about slavery but because it’s a good way of making a fast buck.  Most of the other people in the theatre company just want to keep their heads down: expressing any strong views on a controversial subject risks stopping people from coming to see them.

And that’s the way most things go, isn’t it?   People don’t get involved.  But May does, because she can’t pay this woman back any other way.  And, obviously, it’s very dangerous.  This is before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but May is still breaking the law under the terms of the 1793 Act, and putting herself in physical danger as well.  The horrors of slavery are really brought home to her when she meets a young girl who’s recently given birth after being raped by her master’s son, and is desperate to get both herself and her baby to a free state.

It’s really getting interesting at this point … but then the book’s cut short.  The showboat goes up in flames after a curtain catches fire, and one of the men on it, Leo, himself the son of an escaped slave, is tragically killed.  May and the leader of the company, after several earlier hints of romance, get together, and plan to get a new boat and continue helping slaves to escape – this time, out of genuine conviction, rather than to pay off a debt.  So, apart from the death of poor Leo, it’s a positive ending, but I wish that the book had been longer.

May is “high functioning autistic”, for lack of a better expression, and I’ve an idea that she’s based on the author’s sister.  The book isn’t about autism: the protagonist just happens to be autistic, although obviously autism had not been recognised in the 1830s so the term “autism” is not used.  She worked brilliantly as a character.  The portrayal of life on the showboat worked well too.  May and her cousin getting involved in antislavery activities purely for financial reasons wasn’t really what I’d expected, but it wasn’t unconvincing.  This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth a go because of the combination of three interesting themes.

 

Harriet

Standard

I missed this film, about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and helped many others to do the same, at the pictures.  It’s really not like me to miss a film about 19th century American history; but it wasn’t on for long, and not all cinemas showed it.  So thank you to Sky for showing it, as part of Black History Month.  All the local cinemas would, however, definitely have shown the new James Bond film next month, had its release gone ahead; and I would definitely have gone to see it, as would many other people.  I’d also have gone to see The Secret Garden, but that’s now gone straight to Sky without even being shown at cinemas.   And now it looks as if Cineworld are going to mothball all their cinemas, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vue and Odeon follow suit.  It’s very sad.  The film distributors aren’t giving them a chance.

Anyway, back to the point.  This unfortunately isn’t very historically accurate, but it does get across the message of how brutal slave owners could be, the tragedy of families torn apart, and the bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad – and just how much work and organisation went into it, at a time when communication systems were obviously nothing like they are now, and many of those involved hadn’t even had the chance to learn to read and write.

It’s quite an old-fashioned film, with an ’80s/’90s feel to it – glorious music, sweeping panoramas, elegant costumes for the slave owners and the free black characters, and a dramatic chase through the forest.  I know there was a bit of moaning that the lead role went to a British actress rather than an American actress, but Cynthia Erivo really does a superb job.  It must have been particularly difficult to portray Harriet’s belief that she was having religious visions – thought to have been linked to a severe head injury inflicted on her when she was young – but she does it very convincingly.

I’m surprised that this didn’t do better at the box office, but – very sadly for me! – American historical dramas just don’t seem to sell well these days.  I was sorry to see Mercy Street pulled after two series.   Oh well, I enjoyed it!  And it tells an important story.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross, into slavery in Maryland, and married John Tubman, a freedman.  Dramas about slavery do tend to focus on the Deep South, where marriages between slaves and free people were very unusual, but they did happen in the Upper South.  And, with Maryland bordering the free state of Pennsylvania, it was easier (in relative terms) there for slaves to escape; and we see Minty escaping, being assisted by members of the Underground Railroad, and adopting her mother’s name, Harriet – the change of name, to reflect her new status, is a powerful moment.

We then see her returning to try to bring her husband and sister to slavery, only to find that her husband, thinking she was dead, had remarried, and her sister wouldn’t leave her children, but then leading many others to freedom, returning time and again to come so and becoming known as “Moses”.  She did indeed lead many people to freedom, thought to be around 70 people in 13 trips  – and she was actually even braver than the film suggests, because this was mostly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act meant that escaped slaves, if recaptured, would be returned to slavery, whereas the film suggests that many of her missions were earlier.

The film over-dramatises it, giving Harriet a glamorous friend who runs a boarding house where she stays, and giving Harriet’s former owners, the Brodesses, a handsome son who seems to be rather obsessed with her.  It also shows the Brodesses’ neighbours all turning up at their plantation to confront them when they realise who “Moses” is, and Harriet tying up three of the Brodesses inside their plantation house as she helps some of their slaves to escape, and culminates in a dramatic chase through a forest and a showdown in which Harriet gets the better of the handsome son and prophesies the coming of the war and his death in it.   It’s a shame that it’s not historically accurate, because the showdown really is a great scene and Cynthia Erivo plays it so well, as she does another scene in which she reminds members of the Underground Railroad who were born free just how evil slavery is, and how they can’t possibly understand it in the way that she can.

It then shows Harriet fleeing to Canada, and briefly reminds that she led the Combahee River Raid during the war, in which she actually led a military expedition which rescued over 750 former slaves, but that’s all done briefly so as not to detract from the big showdown scene preceding it.

Not too many marks for historical accuracy, but the general storyline’s there – the horrors of slavery, and this brave and rather mystical woman who escapes from it and helps many others to do the same.  It’s not at all preachy or aggressive: it gets the message across through the excellent performance of Cynthia Erivo and the big dramatic, if not accurate, key scenes.  Certainly well worth watching.

 

Song of Slaves in the Desert by Alan Cheuse

Standard

 I can’t quite decide what I thought about this book, in which Nate Pereira, a young man from New York, reluctantly visited his uncle’s plantation in South Carolina, in (the year wasn’t actually given) the late 1840s, and became involved with Liza, a young slave woman, whom he eventually helped to escape.  It tried to be a bit too clever by jumping around between too many themes; but it was certainly interesting, and different from most books about slavery.  It traced Liza’s family history forward from 16th century Timbuktu and, unlike, say, Roots, it showed how slavery was practised in Africa long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, and that people like Liza’s ancestors were sold to European slave traders by fellow Africans.  It also covered issues about slave owners within America coming from different religious groups.  Some parts of it worked much better than others, but, overall, I think it was worth reading.

It worked best as a “house divided against itself” book, showing the reaction of a young man from a free state to spending time in a slave state.  I don’t actually think that that was the angle the author was aiming for, but that was what worked for me.  Sometimes I think about all those decades of Compromises and Provisos and talk about popular sovereignty, and wonder how the Union lasted as long as it did.

I was very sorry to learn that the author of this book was killed in a car accident a few years ago.  That’s extremely sad.

As far as the book went, there were two stories intertwined, which didn’t work too badly – it can sometimes be very confusing when there are two stories in one, but this was OK –  but I could have done without the bits that went off into mysticism and talked about goddesses and spirits.  We had the story of Liza’s female line ancestors, through several generations of slaves, first in Africa and then in America.  That was interesting, and quite unusual: there seems to be so much emphasis on white people enslaving Africans that histories of black and Arab slave traders are rather neglected.

However, every single generation had children only through rape.  Obviously this was something that happened to many women; but not one of the women was able to form a relationship with a fellow slave and have children with him, which happened as well.  Liza had a friend called Isaac who thought he was the child of a happy marriage between two slaves, but it turned out that even he was the result of the master raping his mother.  Liza herself was Nate’s uncle’s daughter, born through rape, and her own father repeatedly raped her.  It was all just too much rape.  There were happy relationships between slaves, and there were children born of those relationships.  But that didn’t happen here.  Not once.

The relationship between Liza and Nate was shown largely from Nate’s viewpoint, as the second storyline was his story of his visit to South Carolina, and was rather confused.  As far as he was concerned, they were in love … but then it turned out that her father/rapist, his uncle, had asked her to seduce him in order to try to keep him there (the uncle wanted his brother’s money), and then that she’d decided to try to seduce him so that he’d help her to run away.  In the end, she did get away … and ended up in San Francisco.

He went back to New York and his old life, married his childhood sweetheart and had children, but was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas.  This only came out in an epilogue, but the impression given was that he’d volunteered as soon as war broke out, because he wanted to fight against the southern states because of his abhorrence of slavery.  Amid the confusion, that message was strong: the boy from New York couldn’t deal with a society based on slavery.

Another confused relationship was between the slaves and Rebecca, Nate’s cousin’s wife, who had some bizarre idea about her mission being to civilise all the slaves.  She was teaching them to read, saying that she could free them but then get more slaves to work on the plantation, and teach them to read, and then free them, and so on.  What?  Apart from anything else, it was illegal to teach slaves to read.  That bit didn’t really make sense.

And then there was the confused relationship between everyone and religion, the Pereiras all being Jewish.  The issue of Jewish slave owners also came up, albeit briefly, in “The Plot Against America” last week.  I feel uncomfortable writing about this, because there are a lot of utterly vile conspiracy theories regarding this subject – the disgusting “artist” Wiley has repeated them just within the last few days, some members of Momentum have been repeating them over the last few years, and factions in America have repeated them as well.  It’s even something that’s been linked to terrorist attacks in America.  That was not for one second what the author of this book was doing, but it’s such an awkward subject in the current climate that it’s difficult to write about.

I hate that.  I shouldn’t have to feel like that.  Slavery was practised across the antebellum South, at least amongst people who could afford to have slaves.  There were Protestant slave owners, Catholic slave owners, and a small number of Jewish slave owners.  It was not about religion, and no religious group behaved any better (other than the Quakers) or worse than another. I don’t think anyone really needs to be making a big deal of the fact that members of any one religion owned slaves, any more than that members of any other religion did.  .

However, apparently Alan Creuse wrote this book because he was surprised to learn that there were Jewish slave owners.  I’m surprised that he was surprised.  This has come up in loads of books – Belva Plain’s Crescent City and Eugenia Price’s Savannah, to name but two.  And surely he knew that Judah Benjamin was Confederate Secretary of State, although Benjamin personally didn’t own slaves until his marriage. It wasn’t about religion or culture.  Almost all well-to-do people in the South did own slaves, and there’ve been a small number of well-to-do Jewish people in the South since way back when. In the days of concern about Catholics in Florida and Louisiana, there was a kind of Protestant-Jewish alliance in the Deep South, and there was not the same degree of anti-Jewish prejudice that there was in some parts of the North.  And I’m getting off the point now.  The point is that it was a regional thing, not a religious thing.  It’s not really an issue that there were members of different religious groups amongst the slaveowners.

However, Nate seemed very troubled by how owning slaves fitted in with the Bible stories in the book of Exodus and about the Babylonian captivity.  I’m not sure that bringing Bible stories into it was all that convincing.  It might have been better to have had him talking about the 1492 expulsions instead.  I know that that would have lost the point about slavery, but it would have been more relevant.  That was presumably where Alan Creuse was coming from – he was surprised that members of one demographic group which had faced persecution throughout the ages should have been amongst those in enslaving another group.  And I understand that.  But, as I’ve said, I think we need to accept that owning slaves in the antebellum South was not about religion or culture, and that there was no religious exceptionalism over that.

I seem to be doing a lot of moaning here.  It was actually a good book!  The points about the many generations of slaves in Africa were well made, and it did a particularly good job of getting across the message about the house divided against itself.  Here was a young man from New York, going to visit another American state, another state within the union, to visit his own close relatives, and finding a way of life that was alien and abhorrent to him.  As I said, it’s perhaps surprising that the Union lasted as long as it did … the Missouri Compromise, Nullification, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, all the Kansas/Nebraska stuff … it is actually quite surprising that it didn’t all come to a head sooner.  I don’t think that was meant to be the message of the book, but it was the one which came across best.

This was a very ambitious book.  Some of it worked, some of it perhaps didn’t.  But it certainly made me think.  I like that. In this weird times, getting my head back into 1840s/1850s America, a favourite subject for nearly 35 years, is great.   I could write all day about this stuff.  And I’ve already spent ages writing about it, for a handful of people to read, so I shall shut up now!   If anyone’s reading these long waffles, thank you.  Writing them keeps my brain occupied in these strange times!

Ruth’s Journey by Donald McCaig

Standard

Oh dear.  This was dire!  It was supposed to be a prequel to Gone With The Wind, and it sounded like such an interesting idea – a book about the early life of Mammy, and also touching on the life of Scarlett’s intriguingly scandalous grandmother Solange.  Unfortunately, the writing was poor, and the author didn’t capture the character of Mammy at all.  If you’re writing a book about an existing character, then the book needs to be true to that character.  There are probably sides to them that we don’t see, especially when, as in this case, the character exists largely in relation to other characters and we hear next to nothing of their own life; but it still needs to link in with what we do know of them. If that’s not what you want to do, create your own character and write about them instead!

Also, there were umpteen inconsistences with GWTW itself – if you’re going to try to write a prequel to the best-selling novel of all time, read it properly first, and, for heaven’s sake, at least get the names right, if nothing else – and what he wrote about the other characters was beyond stupid.  Ellen, the perfect lady, hanging around in disreputable bars?  Scarlett, whom Mammy watched like a hawk, dressing up as a male jockey and hanging around at the racecourse?   It was just dreadful.  How could anyone make such a mess of writing about some of the most interesting characters in the entire history of fiction?!

Most annoyingly of all, the second half of the book was all about the Robillards and the O’Haras.  No, no, no!  The book was meant to be about Mammy.  So it completely defeated its own point!

The author of this also wrote Rhett Butler’s People, and that wasn’t bad.  This was!  What is the one clue that we’re given to Solange Robillard’s personality?  That she wore a wet petticoat to show the shape of her legs.  Is that one thing mentioned anywhere in this book.  It is not.  There’s also a mention in GWTW of Great-Grandfather Prudhomme, who was forced out of Haiti by the Haitian Revolution.  So we know that Solange’s maiden name was Prudhomme, and that her father was a landowner in Haiti.  Well, everyone else does, but Donald McCaig apparently doesn’t, because he had Solange’s maiden name being Escarlette, and her father living in Brittany.

We’re told that Solange’s first husband (he at least gets the fact that she had three husbands right, although I don’t know why he says that Pauline and Eulalie’s father was her second husband rather than Pierre Robillard) found a small child alone after her mother and been murdered, and that he and Solange took her in and named her Ruth.  This was the child who became Mammy.  That works, at least.  They move to Savannah.  OK.  Ruth, when she’s 15, wants to marry a free black man.  Solange agrees to let him buy her, so that the two of them can be together, and they move to Charleston … where he gets involved in Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion.

OK, this could have happened, and marks for bringing Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion into it.  The actual history was pretty much accurate.  And the portrayal of young Ruth wasn’t that bad: you could see how that young woman might have become the Mammy we know from GWTW.  But we were then told that her husband was hanged by Rhett Butler’s dad.  What??  OK, Mammy does take a dislike to Rhett when she first meets him, but that’s because she can see what a bad lot he is.  The name “Butler” doesn’t mean anything to her until Rhett comes along.  An she changes her mind about him when she sees what a good father he is to Bonnie.  Would she really have done that, and lived under his roof at all – she could have said she was going back to Tara, as she did later – if his dad had hanged her husband?  The story, which also involved her child being sold and then dying, which was very poignant, might have worked without the Butler link.  As it was, it didn’t.

She then smacks her new owner over the head with a heavy object when he tries it on with her, bullies him into giving her a pass, and makes her way back to Savannah.  Come on – how likely is that to have happened?  And, from then on, the story isn’t even about her anyway.  We move on to this nonsense about Ellen hanging around in bars.  No, no, no.  Yes, Ellen wants to marry her dodgy cousin Philippe.  Her father’s supposed to have run him out of town.  He gets killed in a bar room brawl – that bit at least is sort of included accurately.  But Ellen hanging around in disreputable bars?  Hardly!  Even if she’d wanted to, Mammy wouldn’t have let her.  That’s the whole point.  Mammy keeps an eye on her.

Ellen then marries Gerald O’Hara.  There is a vague nod to her threat to go into a convent, but only in passing: there’s no big showdown with her dad, who doesn’t seen very interested.  And who’s a Baptist.  OK, at least McCaig got the fact that he was a Protestant right, but how many French Baptists are there?

Then all the familiar Clayton County crowd turn up.  Ashley Wilkes seems to be much older than he should be.  So does Cathleen Calvert.  Raif Calvert, even though we know that he and Scarlett were friendly as children, is hardly mentioned.  Suellen seems to have a lot of beaux – er, no.  And Scarlett is known as Katie until she’s about 15.  WTF?!  OK, she’s Katie Scarlett, but she’s always “Miss Scarlett”.  And there’s all this utter nonsense about Scarlett going off riding by herself, and dressing up as a jockey and hanging around racecourses.  Excuse me?  This is Scarlett, who worries about concealing “small breaches of etiquette” from her elders, hanging around racecourses in men’s clothing?!  And, again, as if the daughter of a Southern plantation owner would have been able to get away with doing that?  Mammy watched her every move!  And when was there ever the slightest suggestion that Scarlett was interested in racing anyway?!

As if all this isn’t stupid enough, Mammy has some sort of vision of Scarlett marrying Rhett and their child dying.  This is in early 1861.  Mammy didn’t even know that Rhett existed until Scarlett decided to dress up in the green curtains to go and visit him, after the war.  She never met him at the Twelve Oaks barbecue.  Or, if she did, it was only in passing.  She doesn’t know who he is when Scarlett says she’s going to get the money from “Rhett”.

And the book was meant to be about Mammy, not about the O’Haras!  On top of all this, most of the second half of the book, from Ellen’s marriage onwards, is narrated by Mammy, and it’s all in “I’se gwine …” dialect.  Now, I know that views differ as to whether or not it’s appropriate to write an African-American character as speaking or thinking in … I think the term “Ebonics” is used now.  But I personally am not keen on it.   We don’t see Solange speaking or thinking in Franglais.  I’d rather have had things in standard English.  That’s my view: other people’s may differ.  And we just lost who Mammy was … Mammy would never, ever have let either Ellen or Scarlett behave like that.  She would have known what they were up to, and stopped it.

And where was her story?  Once she was back with Solange, all she was doing was being the Robillards’/O’Haras’ Mammy.  The point of this book was meant to be to show that she was so much more than that.

It was a good idea.  But it was certainly not a good book.  Don’t bother reading this.  It’s really not worth it.

 

 

 

As Far As Blood Goes and A Different Sin by Rochelle Hollander Schwab

Standard

I originally picked A Different Sin, the story of two newsmen who fall in love in 1850s New York, and the experiences of one of the two – the protagonist, David –  as a war artist, from my extensive TBR American Civil War books pile, to mark Pride month.  Then I found out that there was an earlier book, As Far As Blood Goes, about David’s half-brother Michael, who was born into slavery in Virginia but escaped to make a new life for himself in Massachusetts, and decided that, given the present circumstances, it’d be a good time to read that as well.

The story in the earlier book, which I think was the author’s debut novel, is pretty far-fetched, but it does do a reasonable job of getting across some of the horrors of slavery.  The second book is far better written, and works well both as a war novel and as a novel of a relationship between two men at a time when Western society didn’t accept same sex love.  It also addresses the frustration of black men wanting to enlist in the Union Army, with Michael’s eldest son eventually enlisting in the famous Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, and the attacks on black people in New York during the Draft Riots.  However, whilst it’s pretty good on facts and figures, I felt that it could have explained the causes of the war better.  Also, it all but ignored the fact the main character was a Southerner living and working in the North, which was rather odd.  But nothing’s perfect … and I’m *extremely* picky about novels covering this period of history.

The first book’s told entirely from Michael’s point of view, and the second book entirely from David’s point of view.  That’s a shame in a way, because it means we don’t get to share anyone else’s thoughts or feelings. On the other hand, it *is* all about them – Michael’s position as a black man born into slavery, David’s as a gay man born into a society which doesn’t accept same sex relationships – and so it’s their thoughts and feelings which really matter. The author’s done a very good job of avoiding extremes or stereotypes or preaching, and, although not without some quibbles, I enjoyed both books.

At the end of the second book, the lessons of both are brought together when David sees how horrific it is that society will allow people to be mistreated because of the colour of their skin, and yet, at the same time, condemns two people for being in love.  It’s rather sad that, 155 years later, there are still some people who are guilty on both counts.  #BlackLivesMatter #LoveisLove.

As Far As Blood Goes starts in the 1820s, in the very lovely town of Alexandria, where I stayed for a few nights in 2001.  A Dr Carter has two sons – David, his son by his late wife, Anne, who died when David was little more than a baby, and, barely a year younger, Michael, his unacknowledged son by his slavewoman, Hetty.  Hetty dies a few years into the book.  Michael’s everything he would have wanted in an acknowledged son, academic and hard-working and interested in medicine: David is only interested in art.

The author’s tried very hard not to go to any extremes, as I said.  Dr Carter isn’t evil Simon Legree, but nor is he beloved Gerald O’Hara.  It’s made quite clear that Michael and Hetty despise their status and long for freedom.  We also hear that Hetty had a husband and three children but was separated from them when her previous owner sold her.  And we see Michael’s best friend, Sammy, being sold south by his owner, a neighbour.  But Dr Carter isn’t, at this stage, cruel.  We also learn that he didn’t physically force Hetty, but that she was only compliant because she knew she had little choice.

And, unlike a lot of novels about slavery, there are no plantations here: we don’t get dozens of slaves working in the fields, and others working in a grand home.  That’s probably the image most people have of slavery in the South; but it wasn’t all like that, and it’s good to see a book showing that. We’ve got middle-class, urban families who each own two or three slaves.  We’ve also got free blacks, and slaves who are allowed to earn money by working for themselves, and hope to buy their freedom.  And we’ve got slave children, free black children and white children playing together.  Rather unrealistically, Michael tricks some of the white boys into helping him learn to read by asking them to teach him a few letters at a time.  When Dr Carter finds out, he’s OK about it, and Michael helps him with his medical work … until his baddie brother-in-law  (BBIL), who’s convinced that his sister (David’s mother) died from the shock of learning that her husband had been sleeping with their slave, finds out, and convinces the authorities that Michael’s a rebel (this is around the time of the Nat Turner Rebellion), and Michael’s flogged.

After this, Michael’s determined to escape.  He does so once, but is recaptured.  Dr Carter sells him to a slave trader gang, but one of his white erstwhile playmates helps him to escape, and he makes it to Philadelphia, then New York, then Maine, where he’s able to enter medical school.  I did say that the storylines were rather far-fetched!  But, OK, plenty of slaves did escape.  And, rather than take the surname Freeman, or the surname of a prominent Abolitionist, or indeed the surname Carter, he takes the surname Mabaya, the name of his great-grandfather, who was brought from Africa to America by slave traders: that but was excellent.

He becomes best friends with Isaac, a Jewish student who also feels that he’s treated as outsider.  They both qualify as doctors, move to Boston, become involved with the Anti-Slavery Society there, meet and marry nice young ladies, and have children.  Some well-known names feature – Oliver Wendell Holmes snr and Charles Sumner.  I’m so used to associating Sumner with the Preston Brooks incident that I’m afraid I don’t always remember all the important work he did.  However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 means that all the former slaves in Boston are living in fear of capture: some are helped by the Underground Railroad to leave for Canada.

There’s quite a lot about the Compromise of 1850, and also about medical history. Michael and Isaac are very involved in trying to prove that microbes cause cholera … and who should turn up at one of their lectures but Dr Carter, having seen the name Michael Mabaya and put two and two together.  He seems pleased that Michael’s done so well for himself, and says that he’ll buy him back from the slave trader gang and formally free him.

But then slave hunters turn up, and Michael’s taken back to Virginia.  It turns out that, unbeknownst to Dr Carter, the BBIL had bought him from the slave traders, and now plans to sell him south. The BBIL stuff is pretty stupid, but we do get an excellent depiction of a man being torn away from his wife, his children and his job, and taken back into slavery, and of the divisions within white American society over whether or not this is right.  This bit is very well done indeed.

Then one of Michael’s old pals helps him to escape (a lot of escaping goes on in this book), with the help of David.  But the BBIL turns up and, in all the kerfuffle, David is knocked over by a buggy, and badly injured.  Dr Carter is too shocked and nervy to operate, so Michael saves David’s life, whilst the BBIL’s threatening to shoot them all.  The BBIL’s a bit unhinged by events, and, in the confusion, signs a bill of sale which the Carters have hastily drawn up, selling Michael back to Dr Carter.  Dr Carter sets him free, and there’s a love-in and Michael says that he wants his father to get to know his children.

As I said, rather far-fetched!   But it does make some very good points about the horrors of slavery, about people being sold away from their families, about how people who’d escaped and forged new lives for themselves could be recaptured years later … and also about how plenty of slaves were actually the children or half-siblings of their owners.

In A Different Sin, with everyone now one big, happy family, and Dr Carter and David both regularly visiting Michael and his wife and children, we see David give up his job as a not very successful lawyer in Alexandria, and move to New York to work for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and become involved with Zach, a reporter for the Tribune.  They meet on a train: it’s amazing how many romances in books begin on trains!  Again, we meet several well-known names – Horace Greeley, Walt Whitman, Thomas Nast.  (Incidentally, Louisa M Alcott later had stories published in what was by then called Leslie’s Newspaper.)

Although the main plot is the relationship between David and Zach, it’s a Civil War novel (or whichever alternative name you prefer to use for the war between the United States and the Confederate States) and we do see military action, hospital scenes, and the Draft Riots.  Without writing an essay on the issues between the different groups of people in New York, amid rivalry for jobs and general racism, the Draft Riots, whilst New York was unique because of its “melting pot status”, say a lot about racial tensions within the cities of the Union states at the time.  We also, as I’ve said, hear about Michael’s son enlisting.

There’s a lot of factual information about the war and about political events, but the book does go too far down the road of the myth that the war was all about slavery and that Lincoln was some great civil rights hero.  It’s made clear that most white people in the Union states don’t regard black people as equals, and that a lot of them wouldn’t be fighting a war just about slavery, and the prejudice of the white soldiers against black soldiers is certainly made clear.  However, the Southern characters don’t talk about states’ rights, and the Northern characters don’t talk about the Union, and I wasn’t overly impressed with that.

Also, even after war breaks out, no-one seems very bothered that David’s a Virginian (albeit a Union sympathiser and opponent of slavery) working in the Union.  He does a lot of talking about “Rebs” and “Secesh”, so, OK, I think we can accept that he supports the Unionist cause, but he doesn’t ever seem to have an issue with the fact that his home state of Virginia’s on the other side.  I didn’t find that very realistic.  And he seems able to move between New York and Virginia remarkably freely!

It was actually more of a war novel and less of a romantic novel than I’d expected, because David and Zach are apart, and not even in touch, for much of it.  This is David’s choice.  Zach’s comfortable with who he is, but David’s convinced that it’s a sin and a “perversion”, and hates himself for it.  That doesn’t make for easy reading, but I think the author does do a good job, and certainly a very sympathetic one, of depicting his struggles with himself.  The issue is far more his struggle with himself than the views of other people, because hardly anyone else knows: most people keep asking him why he isn’t married, and – in another of the less realistic plots! – he meets a fellow war reporter who turns out to be a woman dressed up as a man because she wants an adventure/to be involved, and gets a bit involved with her.

Anyway, to get back to his time in New York,  he and Zach are caught by a mutual friend (it’s amazing how people in books, films and TV programmes never think to lock doors!), and it’s after that that he decides that he can’t cope with their relationship.  He and Zach fall out big time.  Zach has tried very hard to make him accept that it’s OK, but he can’t. So, to get away, he volunteers to be a war reporter/artist at the front – following General Meade, whom I feel I’ve “known” ever since I read North and South, in which he’s at West Point with Orry and George, when I was 11, and then General Grant in the long and eventually decisive campaign against General Lee. I’ve read both North and South and Gone With The Wind so many times that I was expecting him to be reporting on Sherman’s March, but that’s probably just me!

It does then become primarily a war novel, with a lot of detail about battle and camp life, but we do frequently see David thinking about the fact that he’s attracted to men and not attracted to women, and thinking about Zach.  Then, after a lot of blood and guts, and seeing the way the white soldiers treat the black soldiers – he saves the life of a black soldier who was about to be murdered in cold blood – the lessons of the two novels are pulled together when David sees how ridiculous it is that his society treats black people so badly and yet condemns two men for loving each other.  He goes back to New York, is reunited with Zach, and, presumably, they live happily ever after 🙂 .

But Dr Carter, who’d accepted and acknowledged Michael as his son, wouldn’t accept David’s homosexuality, and cut him off.  This all happened in rather a rush at the end, and maybe it could have been developed more fully, but, sadly, it’s – unlike some aspects of the books – very realistic.  And the ending was certainly interesting – I was expecting his experiences during the war to make David realise that life was too short not to be with the one you loved, etc, but the idea that it was seeing the way the black soldiers were treated that made him realise what was and wasn’t a sin actually worked much better.

OK, I seem to have written way too much here – 19th century American history specialist since I was 11, OK – so I shall shut up now!  But these were two very thought-provoking books, and I’m glad that I’ve read them.

 

 

 

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Standard

I downloaded this in the hope that I’d be going to Iceland this summer. The way things are, I may not be going any further than the Iceland supermarket in the precinct; but at least we’ve still got books, and this is a very good one. I’ve always associated the seal people stories with the Scottish Isles, but they’re also to be found in Iceland and other Scandinavian counties, which says something interesting about the Viking heritage of parts of the British Isles. This is based on a true story, the “Turkish Abductions” of 1627, in which Barbary pirates kidnapped and enslaved around 400 people from Iceland. It’s thought that over a million people were taken in Barbary slave raids on ships and coastal areas across Europe, from the 16th century to the 19th century. This one’s particularly remembered as the loss of 400 people out of Iceland’s total population of only 60,000 had such a big impact.

The main character, Asta Thorsteinsdottir, did exist, as did many of the other characters in the book. Her husband, Olafur Egilsson, was released so that he could go to Copenhagen to plead with the King of Denmark to ransom the captives. Only 27 of them, one of whom was Asta, returned to Iceland. That wasn’t until 1638, and this book imagines what her life may have been like in the meantime, as people were forced to try to adapt to a new way of life, their treatment dependent on who’d bought them, saw their children raised in a different culture, and, if they did go home, struggled to settle back into what was left of their old lives. It’s a historical novel, not a fantasy novel, but there are a lot of references to both the Icelandic sagas and the tales of Scheherazade, and the point is made that there are very few accounts of the time written by women.

The descriptions of both Iceland and Algeria are superb, and it’s a fascinating book (and a sensible story, not one of those lurid Orientalist things about glamorous women being carried off to sultans’ harems, like that awful film in the ’80s!) about a subject which affected much of Europe and North Africa but is rarely spoken about any more.

The pirate who led the raid was Dutch, and Asta’s fictional master in Algeria was half-Dutch, and that was quite typical of what happened. People “went native” because it gave them better opportunities. Asta was portrayed as refusing to convert from Lutheranism to Islam, but one of her friends converted and married a local man, and the son of another friend converted and became a pirate. Her eldest son was taken away as soon as they arrived. Her two younger children were bought with her, but her daughter was later sent to join the sultan’s harem in Constantinople (the Barbary states being part of the Ottoman Empire), and both she and the younger son were brought up as Muslims. They weren’t unhappy with that, having never really known anything else.  The real fate of Asta’s children isn’t actually known, but it is known that they didn’t return to Iceland with her.

They were all shown as being reasonably well-treated, despite being slaves. That obviously would depend on the whims of their individual owners, and Sally Magnusson’s chosen to depict quite a kindly owner – although there’s one horrific episode in which Asta is abducted and raped by another man, and we also hear of the ill-treatment of some of her friends.

It did stray into the realms of fairy tales in that Cilleby, Asta’s master (the name was supposed to have come from his Dutch father, but it sounded more Yorkshire than Dutch to me!), who’d bought her to be a sewing maid, kept asking for her to be brought to him every night … so that she could tell him the Icelandic sagas. A very definite nod to Scheherazade there, and we also saw how the women in the harem told each other Arabian Nights stories. “The sealwoman”, despite the title of the book, didn’t feature very much: she was an old lady who believed in the legends of people being descended from seals, but she died early on. The idea seemed to be that sealwomen had left their homes in the sea and become trapped on land, and had to adapt as best they could, and that that was what the Icelandic slaves in Algeria were doing. There was also a running theme of an elfman, one of the huldufolk (hidden people) who are said to live hidden lives in Iceland (and the Faroe Islands) but can choose to make themselves visible to humans.

The sealwoman warned Asta not be like Gudrun in Osvifrsdottir in the Laexdala saga, who got involved with two men.  It’s not very clear why she would have done that when they’d only just been abducted, TBH, but, inevitably, Asta and Cilleby became romantically involved.  But, when, eventually, the King of Denmark agreed to ransom any Icelanders who wanted to return home, Asta made the decision to go, even though it meant being parted from her children … but the chances were that she’d never see them, at least the oldest two, again anyway.  She then found it very hard to settle back into her old life, after nine years away and everything that had happened.

But she had to try to adapt and make the most of things, because that’s all you can do.  When this book was first published, people said that lessons could be drawn from it in terms of the damage that slavery does to cultures and communities, and also for refugees settling into new countries.  Now, I feel as if I’m trying to draw lessons from it about how you cope if you’re unable to go out and about as you please (obviously I am not comparing lockdown/self-isolation to slavery, but hopefully anyone reading this will know what I mean!), and what a great help stories and story-telling can be.  Sometimes, you find yourself forced to adapt to circumstances you could never have imagined, and that’s happening to all of us at the moment.  Stay safe and well xxx.  And, if you’re looking for a book to read, give this a go!

The Long Song – BBC 1

Standard

The brutality with which the Jamaican plantocracy reacted to the Christmas Rebellion/Baptist War/Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2 was so horrific that it may well have been what got Abolitionism over the line in 1833; but it’s rarely spoken about. Maybe it’s just too easy to think of Abolitionism as being about people in black bombazine singing “Amazing Grace” in assembly rooms.  And stories about slavery and uprisings are usually told from the viewpoint of the slaveowners: this is a rare example of a story in which the protagonist is a slave.  She’s called July.

My one real quibble with it is that Caroline, the main white character, comes dangerously close to caricature, or at least did early on. That’s no criticism of Hayley Atwell: she’s only playing her as she was written, and doing a very good job of it. Tamara Lawrance as July is also excellent, and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head of the house slaves, is incredible.  We all know what a great comedian and comic actor he is, but I’ve never really thought of him as a serious actor before.  And the character of Caroline does improve as the first episode goes on, to be fair.

So what’s going on? Christmas 1831.  The slave trade’s been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, but hopes that that would lead to the abolition of slavery itself across the British Empire have as yet failed to materialise, although the Abolitionist movement – notably the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823- is growing in size and influence.  There’ve been attempts to improve living and working conditions for slaves, but the Jamaican Assembly hasn’t wanted to know about them. Led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe, one of a number of slaves who’d become religious ministers/preachers, a general strike’s planned, to demand a wage and more free time.

It turns into an uprising. The uprising only lasts eleven days, being quickly put down by British and free black Maroon troops, but there are violent reprisals by the slaveowners afterwards, with hundreds of slaves being executed for very minor offences such as stealing a cow.   The brutality horrifies public opinion in Britain, and it almost certainly hastens the abolition of slavery.  The Jamaican sugar-based economy has already begun to collapse and there’ll be severe economic decline for the rest of the 19th century; and the white upper-classes will continue to dominate financially and politically until well into the 20th century.  But at least the days of slavery are over.

July is born about 18 years or so before this (it’s not clear exactly how old she is in 1831) as the result of the rape of a female slave, Kitty, by the plantation overseer. We see the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, take a fancy to her because she thinks she’s sweet and cute, and take her away from Kitty to be trained up as her maid, without a thought for the feelings of either mother or child at being separated.  It should be a heartrending and shocking moment, but, unfortunately, at that point the character of Caroline’s so pantomimish and OTT that it doesn’t quite work as it should do.

At that point, I wasn’t very impressed – but it did get better. Caroline is an interesting character.  She’s actually a very vulnerable character.  She’s the only white woman on the plantation, and, for some reason, there don’t seem to be any other relatives or friends around.  I suppose she has to seem foolish because it’s important to the story, later on, that she can’t manage the slaves herself and is dependent on July, who becomes the housekeeper – but it does all go overboard early on, with a lot of yelling and shrieking and hysterics.  The idea of the cunning slave/servant and the stupid mistress/master’s a stock storyline in sitcoms, but this isn’t a sitcom.  Anyway, as I said, it got better – the character of Caroline was working much better by the end of the first episode.

She insists on calling July “Marguerite”. Dehumanisation’s a key theme here – a child is seen as being cute, as if she’s a puppy or a kitten, and is taken away from her mother without a second thought, and then her name’s changed.  OK, it isn’t quite comparable to the famous Kunta Kinte/Toby scene, but there’s a telling scene during the rebellion in which Godfrey makes Caroline call July by her real name.

In the build-up to the rebellion, or uprising, or revolt, or war, or whichever term’s preferred, we see little acts of defiance by the slaves. July and Godfrey use a soiled bedsheet as a tablecloth at a posh dinner being given by Caroline.  Godfrey tells Caroline outright that the plantation can’t afford all the candles she wants for decoration – and she hits him for it.  The slaves throw their own Christmas party.  And then the actual rebellion.

July isn’t involved in it. Instead, she and her lover, a free black man called Nimrod, are enjoying themselves in the bedroom of the master, Caroline’s brother John.  John comes in, and shoots himself.  Caroline, not wanting to admit that her brother’s killed himself, claims that she saw Nimrod shoot him.  Nimrod is executed.  July’s sent to work in the fields – but is eventually brought back to the house as housekeeper, because Caroline can’t manage without her.

At the end of the first episode, a new plantation manager, Robert Goodwin, brings news that emancipation is coming. He seems sympathetic to the slaves, but, with two more episodes to come, it’s obviously going to get very complicated.

This is the story of a woman’s life. It’s not a story of a rebellion and emancipation … but that’s like saying that Gone With The Wind isn’t about the American Civil War/War Between The States and Reconstruction, or that War and Peace isn’t about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  It could be argued that it’s not the responsibility of Andrea Levy, the author of the book on which this is based, or of the BBC, to teach us about it.  Or is it?  If you write a book, or adapt for TV a book, about such an important and sensitive issue, then surely you are accepting some responsibility for that.  Novels, TV programmes and films reach a far wider audience than academic books do.  And this does a good job of it.  It’s not angry or aggressive.  It’s not sick-makingly preachy like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is.  Sorry, but I cannot stand that book!  It just tells the story.   Good choice by the BBC.

 

Island Beneath The Sea by Isabel Allende

Standard

The Haitian Revolution of 1791 was one of the most important events in modern history, but it’s rare to find a historical novel about it, so I was very pleased to come across this. It also covers another crucial event, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  However, Mrs Rochester strikes again – we have a mad Creole wife.  And there’s an incestuous marriage.  But, apart from those two rather OTT storylines, it’s a fascinating depiction of life in Saint- Domingue (Haiti) and later New Orleans, seen from the viewpoints of various different people.

I don’t think I’d realised just how complicated society was in colonial Saint-Domingue. And, by all accounts (well, Google and Wikipedia), the “casta” system of race and class still holds quite strong in Haiti today.   In 1791, slaves, black and mulatto, made up 87% of the population.  87%!  The rest of the population consisted of grands blancs, the well-to-do, upper-crust whites, many of them in favour of independence because of concerns about Revolutionary France’s attitudes towards both slavery and trade, the less well-off petits blancs, and affranchis – free “people of colour”, mainly but not all of mixed descent.  To complicate matters further, there was a hierarchy amongst mixed race people, based on relative percentages of black and white blood.  And there was some support amongst affranchis and slaves for a British takeover, seen as preferable to independence under the grands blancs.

The main character in this book is Tete (short for Zarite), a young slavewoman, taken away at an early age from her mother, a black teenage girl who’d been raped by a white sailor on a slaveship. She becomes the personal maid to the wife of Toulouse Valmorain, a French plantation owner, and nursemaid to their son.  Valmorain’s Creole wife is “mad”.  What is it with this idea of Creole women in the West Indies being mad?  Is it all about Mrs Rochester, or does the idea go beyond that?  It’s years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I thought I remembered there being something in it, maybe in a foreword or an afterword, suggesting that the idea of Creole women going “mad” was actually fairly commonplace.  However, when I tried Googling “Creole women mad”, I got a zillion hits but they were all about Mrs Rochester!

Anyway, seeing as Madame Valmorain is largely out of the picture, Toulouse forces Tete to become his mistress. They have two children.  The first one is taken away and handed over to Valmorain’s friends, a wealthy free mulatta courtesan with whom Tete had once lived as a child, and her white husband.  Another couple also feature in the story – again, a white man and a mulatta woman, but in that case the man will not marry his lover or legally acknowledge their children.  So we’ve got three very different relationships, all involving white men and mixed race women.  Other characters include a slave man who becomes Tete’s lover, and an elderly free black woman who’s involved in voodoo – voodoo plays quite a significant part in the book.

Syncretic religions are fascinating, and obviously voodoo is very important in Haitiain culture. (The spelling “voodoo” is actually now avoided in Haiti, because there are so many misconceptions about it, and “vodou” is preferred.)  A voodoo/vodou ceremony took place just before the 1791 rebellion began.

Once the rebellion’s begun, Tete, aided by her lover – although he later leaves her in order to play a full part in the rebellion -, helps Valmorain, their child, and his child by his wife to escape from the plantation. She’s become very attached to Valmorain’s son and heir, and he regards her as his mother.  He’s also very close to her daughter, his half-sister. They all survive.

It’s pretty accurate as to what actually happened. (Excuse the change of tense – it’s easier to write the historical stuff in the past tense and the book’s storyline in the present tense, for some reason!).  Hundreds of thousands of slaves joined the rebellion.  Plantations were destroyed.  Many white people were raped and or murdered.  Civil war broke out: white people killed black people in revenge.

At this point, the rebels were looking for an end to slavery, not for independence from France.  The authorities in France – Revolutionary France, of course – then granted civil and political rights to free men of colour, and abolished slavery in some areas … whereupon the grands blancs decided that maybe a British takeover was the best bet.  Britain then got stuck in.  So did Spain.  Then, in 1794, Robespierre’s government abolished slavery in France and French colonies, and granted civil and political rights to black men in the colonies.  That’s pretty impressive – the bad things that Robespierre did tend to overshadow the good, and he deserves a lot of credit for that particular decision.  Napoleon later reversed it, and slavery in the remaining French colonies then lasted until 1848.

To cut a long story short, there were years of fighting, involving the Haitian “rebels”, Napoleonic France, Britain and Spain; there was a mass epidemic of yellow fever; there was horrific violence; thousands of people died … and Haitian independence was eventually declared in 1804, but followed by the mass rape and murder of white French people. The Haitian economy, further hindered by an 1825 agreement to pay reparations to French ex-slaveholders, has never really recovered.

We don’t actually see all that in the book, though, because Valmorain, Tete and the two children leave for New Orleans. That’s pretty true to life: many white people did leave for continental America, and many of them took their slaves with them.  The relationship between Tete and Valmorain is very complicated, and complicated further by the closeness between her and his young son.  Even though he becomes violent and abusive towards her, she doesn’t try to leave him. Their parting only comes when he remarries, and his new wife doesn’t want her or her daughter around.  Tete eventually meets another man, finds happiness with him, and is able to force Valmorain to free her as a reward for saving his life back in Saint-Domingue.  So her story does end happily.  The “island beneath the sea” of the title is death.  In the early chapters, many of the slaves long to reach the island beneath the sea.  By the end, Tete rejoices in her life.

But there’s the question of what’s going to happen to her daughter, and the answer seems to be placage, the system whereby a white man and a black or mixed race woman would enter into a relationship which was a formal union, with a legal contract, but not a legal marriage. It happened in many places, but is generally associated with New Orleans.  Rosette, the daughter, is presented at one of the famous quadroon balls (there is some historical debate about these quadroon balls), so that she can try to attract a suitable man … but there’s then a very odd storyline in which she and her half-brother, Valmorain’s son by his first wife (the Mrs Rochester one), get married.  She then dies in prison after hitting Valmorain’s second wife. I’m not sure what Isabel Allende was getting at with that, TBH.  Placage would have accurately reflected the life of an attractive quadroon woman in New Orleans in the early 19th century.  Marriage to a half-brother, and marriage between a quadroon woman and a white man in general, didn’t, to put it mildly.

These latter stages of the book take place against the background of the Louisiana Purchase – a reminder of what a shock the people living there must have got when they found out that Napoleon had just blithely sold them to the United States, and also a reminder that the Haitian Revolution indirectly led to the acquisition by the young United States of a huge tract of territory, changing the course of American history as well as Haiti’s own history.

Haiti changed the world. That’s been forgotten, to a large extent.  In many ways, it was absolutely inspirational – the majority slave population threw off their shackles, literally in some cases, defeated their oppressors and took control.  That is very, very rare in world history.  White people were shown that they weren’t naturally superior, whatever they may have thought before.

However, whilst that should have struck a huge blow for racial equality, it did the opposite – fear of slave revolts, especially in places like South Carolina where slaves formed the majority of the population, led to a hardening of attitudes over race and slavery, especially as so many white people from Haiti, like Toulouse Valmorain, settled in slaveholding parts of the United States (or areas which would become the United States).  It gets a mention in Gone With The Wind, by Grandma Fontaine, just by the way.  Any overthrowing of the authorities by slaves would have attracted a negative reaction, but the horrific violence committed by both sides made it far worse.

And the other huge effect it had was being arguably the main reason for the Louisiana Purchase. It’s hard to think that a megalomaniac like Napoleon didn’t fancy the idea of ruling a trans-Atlantic empire, and it seems to’ve been events in Haiti which made him decide that it would actually be more trouble than it was worth.  The Louisiana Purchase consisted of (I’ve copied this bit from Wikipedia because I couldn’t be bothered typing it all out!) “land that forms Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahome, Kansas, and Nebraska; the portion of Minnesota west of the Mississippi River; a large portion of North Dakota; a large portion of South Dakota; the northeastern section of New Mexico; the northern portion of Texas; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (plus New Orleans); and small portions of land within the present Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan”.  If France had tried to hang on to that, how would American history have panned out?  Possibly very differently indeed.

So that’s two huge events in world history, covered in one book. And all the blurbs make it sound as if the book’s all about Tete, but it’s not – and I mean that in a good way, because it means that we get to view events through the eyes of a number of different people.  I think I could have done without the incestuous marriage storyline, which I found rather distasteful and completely unrealistic, but, other than that, it was a very interesting book.  Recommended 🙂 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

Standard

This book made a lot of promising starts, but, frustratingly, jumped away from every scenario just as things were getting interesting!   It wasn’t just starts: sometimes it jumped into a plotline in the middle, leaving you wishing you’d got the background in more detail.  And I think the author must have read Jane Eyre just before reading it, because one of the storylines was distinctly Mrs Rochester-esque.  It wasn’t a bad read, although the Mrs R.-ish “madness” storyline really had no place in a book written in the 21st century, but Maria Duenas could have made several really good novels out of the material, rather than a single bitty and, by the end, slightly bonkers, one.

Our hero, Mario, has emigrated from Spain – with a complicated background involving the Basque country, Mallorca and illegitimacy – to Mexico, and, arriving as a young man with nothing, made a fortune from silver mining. It would have been fascinating to have heard how he did this, but we don’t.  We only meet him as a middle-aged man who’s borrowed a load of money to buy machinery from the United States, unluckily just as the Civil War/War Between The States was breaking out.  The guy he’d been dealing with has been killed at Bull Run/Manassas, and the machinery’s been requisitioned by the US government, leaving our man in deep doo-doo.

Mexico, 1861, then. Surely the scene is set (if we ignore the title!) for a novel about the French and Austrian intervention.  Bring on Archduke Maximilian!   Er, no.  We’re out of Mexico before the French have even invaded, never mind the Habsburgs getting stuck in.  And we’re off to Cuba – the glamorous Paris of the Antilles, where it’s all happening.  And where the slave trade is still legal: it wasn’t abolished there until 1867, and slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1886.  Mario then gets embroiled (in a business sense only) with his son’s fiancée’s auntie.  Again, there’s a back story, this time about how she “had” to marry someone unsuitable, but it’s never really gone into.  There are some wonderful descriptions of life in Havana, about its relationship with Spain and how that’s viewed by different groups – Cuba was to rebel against Spanish rule in 1868 – and about the effects of slavery, and it really gets interesting when the dodgy auntie tries to con Mario into getting involved with the slave trade, and he refuses.

But, just as the reader’s really getting into it, we’re off again!   Mario and the auntie’s husband play a high-stake game of billiards, and Mario wins the vineyard in Andalusia (well, the title was a bit of a giveaway there) which the auntie’s husband has recently inherited from a cousin.  Goodbye Havana, next stop Jerez!

And so we now get on to the fascinating tale of the importance of sherry to the Spanish economy in the 19th century – making up around 20% of total exports, most of them to Britain.  I was saying only recently, after a visit to Marsala and reading up on how the Marsala wine trade was developed by a Scouser and a Yorkshireman, a year after I went to Porto and read up on how the port wine trade was developed by a man from Ashton-underl-Lyne, that someone really needs to write a book about the effect on European history of British boozing!  Seriously, it has had a huge impact on the history of Portugal, the history of Sicily and, to some extent, the history of Andalusia.

And, yet again, a fascinating back story that we don’t hear enough about. The auntie’s husband came from a rather complicated background involving various cousins and friends who all expected to marry each other but didn’t.  One of them has ended up as the Mother Abbess as a convent.  One of them has married an Englishman and is trying to con her dangerous stepson, who keeps kidnapping people – cue a dramatic rescue by our hero and his Indian (“Indian” is the acceptable term when talking about the indigenous peoples of Latin America) servant.  The auntie’s husband thinks he killed one of his cousins by mistake, except that it turns out that it was someone else who killed him by mistake.  Our hero agrees, in order to con the cousin’s stepson, to pose as the cousin who’s recently died and left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped, and a doctor who was going to marry the one who ended up in the convent gets involved.  Er, yes.  I said it was rather complicated, didn’t I?!

Oh, and he can’t flog the vineyard until a full year’s passed since the death of the cousin who left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband. And the one who’s married to the Englishman has got the needle because she thought she’d inherit it.  And the sister in the convent’s fallen out with them all because she wanted to marry the Englishman.  Well, she wanted to marry the doctor as well.  Presumably either or, not both.  It would have made a great story if we’d followed them all from when they were children and these complicated relationships were being formed, but, as it is, it’s all rather confusing.  Then the son’s fiancée’s auntie turns up, along with her slavewoman.  The slavewoman gets involved with the Indian servant, and they eventually live happily ever after.  And the son decides to dump the fiancée, which is irrelevant because neither of them are really involved in any of it – and it’s all complicated enough as it is, and really rather bonkers by this point.

It then transpires that the English husband is mad, and that he comes from a family of mad people. I really, really hate it when people put storylines like this in modern books.  It’s quite understandable that someone like Charlotte Bronte should have written a storyline about someone being “mad.  Gothic-type novels are full of “mad” people.  And that whole idea about “the taint of hereditary madness” – it was a huge thing, and a huge tragedy because it meant that people with mental health issues were shoved away out of sight for fear that the family name be tainted.  But for someone to write a storyline like this in the 21st century – no, no, no.  I appreciate that attitudes vary between countries and cultures, but I wouldn’t really expect to be finding a storyline like this in any book written within the last thirty years or so.  Can we please, please get past this?  Can we not talk about people being “mad”?  Can we please get past this idea about the taint of madness within families? Can we please stop stigmatising people like this?

I think that, in this case, what the husband actually had was early onset dementia. OK, that term would not have been used in the 1860s, but there are still far better ways of putting it than Maria Duenas did.  But I said it was Mrs Rochester-esque, didn’t I?  I don’t actually know how well-known Jane Eyre is in Spain, but I think it’s one of those books that’s well-known worldwide.  The part set in Cuba was really good, and the background story about the complicated family past in Jerez could have been really good had it been gone into properly.  But it all got very strange at the end.  No Grace Poole, but the “mad” husband gets packed off to stay at the convent where his sister-in-law, the one who’d once hoped to marry him (when she wasn’t hoping to marry their doctor pal) was Mother Abbess … whereupon he sets the place on fire, and kills himself, conveniently leaving the way clear for his wife to marry our hero Mario.  They then live happily ever after on the vineyard.

I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve made this all sound rather silly. It wasn’t really.  Some parts of it were very … well, promising rather than good, because they weren’t developed properly.  If the book had been longer, and if the focus had been on either Mario or the vineyard family (both Andalusian and Cuban branches) and the background stories had been developed properly, it could have been very good.  As it was, it was rather frustrating.  By the end, it read like something that an over-enthusiastic teenager with an over-active imagination, desperate to pack in as much drama as possible, might have written.  Promising … but the promises were never really fulfilled.