Posts Tagged ‘Slavery’

Book Review: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy (2008) is the latest novel by one of my favorite writers Toni Morrison.  Having read all of Morrison’s novels – except Paradise which I struggled through twice and still haven’t completed – I found it different from the rest of Morrison’s oeuvre, but I can’t put my finger on what.  I thought it may be the historic setting, but that’s true of Beloved and Jazz as well.   I thought it may be that it lacked magical realism, but then I remember there’s a man who returns from the grave to haunt his house and a girl with a very realistic imaginary friend.  Maybe it’s because it’s fairly accessible to read, but Love and Song of Solomon are relatively straightforward as well.  Besides A Mercy is deceptively complex and would reward a rereading should I find the time to do so.

Not knowing what A Mercy is not about, I can tell you it is about a set of people living in colonial America in the 1680’s.  They are European, Native American, and African and share in common themes of uprootedness and slavery (both real and emotional).  They are joined together on the plantation of Jacob Vaark, a trader and a reluctant slaveholder, although presented as more of collector of orphans.  The novel focuses on the women on the plantation: Vaark’s wife Rebekka haunted by the death of her children, an Indian small pox survivor named Lina, a mysterious survivor of a shipwreck named Sorrow, and an African slave Florens who was given to Vaark by her mother to repay her mother’s master’s debt.  Florens is the central character in search of love and rootedness which finds eventually with the unamed blacksmith.  Ironically, the only self-possesed character, the blacksmith is a free African man.

This is a good novel, definitely worth reading and re-reading.

A mercy / Toni Morrison.
Publisher: New York : Knopf, c2008.
ISBN: 9780307264237 : hc $23.95
0307264238 : hc $23.95
Description: 167 p. : map ; 25 cm.

Book Review: Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006) by Simon Schama (author of the excellent Dead Certainties) tells the story of people who found liberty at the time of American Revolution, but not from the Americans.  Enslaved blacks served in British regiments trading their loyalty to the king for promises of freedom (which makes this book an excellent companion to the Octavian Nothing novels).  After the war, freed blacks attempt to establish their own colonies first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone.  These efforts struggle against elements of the British government and commerce as well as internal divisions.

Schama’s work introduces a number of fascinating characters including, many of whom I previously knew little or nothing about

  • Colonel Tye — African-American Loyalist guerilla leader who had many military successes against the Continentals.
  • William Wilberforce — Member of Parliament and abolitionist who headed the effort that lead to the end of the slave trade in Britain.
  • James Ramsey — minister and abolitionist who was a prominent leader in bringing an end to the slave trade.
  • Granville Sharp — one of the earliest voices in England to take up the cause of abolition and attempt to have slavery ended by legal means.
  • Olaudah Equiano — freed blackman who became a prominent writer and speaker for abolition in Britain.
  • John Clarkson — an abolotionist along with his brother Thomas.  John acted nobly as an agent for the Sierra Leone company trying to get promises made to the black settlers fulfilled.
  • Thomas Peters – escaped slave who recruited fellow Loyalist blacks from Nova Scotia to found Sierra Leone and is remembered as a founding father of that nation.

This well-written narrative really brings alive an overlooked period in history.  I enjoyed listening to Schama himself narrate the audiobook in his lively, lilting voice. This is also the first time I’ve listened to a book as a downloadable audio file from the Boston Public Library.

Rough crossings [electronic resource] : Britain, the slaves, and the American Revolution / Simon Schama.Publisher:[New York, N.Y.] : HarperAudio, 2006.
ISBN:0061171522 (sound recording : OverDrive Audio Book) 9780061137020
Notes: Downloadable audio file.
Title from: Title details screen.
Abridged.
Duration: 11:52:30.

Book Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves (2008) by M.T. Anderson continues and completes the young adult Revolutionary War saga.  I read the first volume, The Pox Party, earlier this year and it was by far one of my favorite books of the year so far.  This volume picks up with Octavian escaping a death sentence and with his tutor Dr. Trefusis make it into besieged Boston.  There he is a violinist performing to entertain the British regulars.  Octavian yearns for something more and answers the call of Virginia governor Lord Dunmore who has created a Royal Ethiopian regiment for slaves of rebellious masters willing to take up arms to put down the rebellion in exchange for their freedom.

The majority of the book is in the form of Octavian’s diary (interspersed with a few letters written by other actors in this drama).  He describes the hope and optimism of slaves gaining freedom and learning to fight.  His reunion and developing relationship with the older, wiser slave Pro Bono. He tells the stories of his fellow slaves and how they made their escape.  He describes in grim detail the loss of Norfolk and the plague of smallpox the decimates the regiment.  Eventually Octavian’s spirit is all but crushed and he comes to the conclusion that Dunmore has no desire to free slaves other than for tactical purposes.

I have to admit that this book dragged at times.  There was too much verisimilitude in a day-to-day diary of the mundane life of a foot soldier.  I also admit that with the reality of Octavian’s life already established in the previous volume that it loses the unique science fiction edge and reads more like a straight-forward historical novel.  The novel does follow real historical events and recreates them in an admirable way.  Yet, and it may just be due to flashbacks of working at Colonial Williamsburg, I had trouble getting into this book.  If you enjoyed the first volume as I did, I would definitely recommend completing Octavian’s story.

Author Anderson, M. T.
Title The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, traitor to the nation. v. #2 The kingdom on the waves / taken from accounts by his own hand and other sundry sources ; collected by M.T. Anderson of Boston.
Publication Info. Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2008.
Edition 1st ed.
Description 561 p. : maps ; 24 cm.

Book Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party (2006) by M.T. Anderson begins like a science fiction story, reminiscent of The Baroque Cycle. Young Octavian lives with his mother Cassiopeia and a crowd of Natural Philosophers who go by numbers instead of names. Octavian and his mother are royalty, and although they are far from home, they live in luxury with fine foods and clothing, a classical education, and sophisticated society.

HONKING HUGE SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

In time it is revealed that Octavian and his mother are slaves living in Boston in the 1760’s-70’s and while treated well materially, Octavian is also something of a lab rat, under constant observation by the scientists of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. This goes right down to Octavian having his excrement weighed after every bowel movement to study the efficiency of his digestive system. Over the course of the novel Octavian grows more aware of the uniqueness and injustice of his situation. Octavian’s coming-of-age is coupled with the College falling on hard times and the start of the Revolution. The central paradox of the novel is that the American’s who are fighting for freedom are doings so while defending their right to withhold freedom from others.

The title refers to an event in the central chapters where in Spring of 1775 the College scientists gather a party of 40 people, both blacks and whites, on a remote farm and inoculate them against smallpox. It is literally a party with dancing and entertainment until the guests begin to fall ill from the inoculation. As everything with the College of Lucidity it is also a scientific experiment to compare the effects of the pox on peoples of European and African descent, and becomes the subject of a scholarly paper. Finally, it is also an attempt by the slave masters to keep their servants indisposed and away from the cities as they fear the British will incite the slaves to fight against the colonists.

The majority of the book is written in first person as Octavian’s memoirs mixed with letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings that offer other character’s perspectives. It’s classified as a Young Adult book, although I think the 18th-century style language would prove challenging for a teenage reader. I know I would have found this book difficult as a teen as I didn’t learn much of the history until I went to college and become acquainted with the language until I worked at Colonial Williamsburg. But perhaps I underestimate today’s young adults who can enjoy reading a gripping story and perhaps reread it later in life for other perspectives.

I enjoyed this book immensely and it is a front runner for my list of favorite books for 2008. I look forward to reading the second volume The Kingdom on the Waves set for release on October 14, 2008.

Favorite Passages

Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. — p. 156

‘Tis time to shake off the yoke of oppression. ‘Tis not enough for royal tyrants to reduce us to slavery — they raise up our slaves to lord it over us.

We shall break all their backs. We shall show them chaos and rebellion. There shall be retribution. [Clepp Asquith, Esq]. — p. 262

Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006.

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