Author: Eric Foner
Title: Gateway to Freedom
Narrator: J.D. Jackson
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2015)
Other books read by the same author: The Fiery Trial
The Underground Railroad was the metaphorical name for the system of routes and safe houses that enslaved Black Americans used to escape slavery and find some modicum of safety in free states of the North and in Canada. I expected the book would primarily detail the journeys of people using the Underground Railroad, but that was not the case. Instead it focused on the work of abolitionists, both free Black and white, who organized the Underground Railroad, as well as the work of Black people who emancipated themselves and then worked to help others.
It focuses specifically on activity in New York City, so some of the most famous abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, are only mentioned tangentially where their stories intersect with the city. This history of the Underground Railroad is particularly focused on how abolitionism, antislavery, and freeing the enslaved was affected by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The book is an interesting prism on how many different people – often ordinary and uncelebrated – worked to help free thousands of people from the bonds of slavery from the 1830s to 1860s.
Author: Pam Jenoff
Title: The Lost Girls of Paris
Narrator: Elizabeth Knowelden, Henrietta Meire, and Candace Thaxton
Publication Info: Harlequin Audio (2019)
This novel is set during the final years of World War II and immediately after the war, and tells a story inspired by the true-life experiences of women serving as agent’s in Britain’s Special Operations Executive. The novel alternates perspectives among three different protagonists. Marie is a young woman recruited as an agent who is sent to work undercover in France not long before the D-Day invasions and has to overcome her inexperience and frequent changes of circumstance. Eleanor is the severe leader of the women’s division in France, but her strictness is due to her desire to keep her agents safe both from the enemy and from the government leaders who have no faith in woman doing espionage.
The final protagonist is Grace, a young widowed American who finds a suitcase in Grand Central Terminal and impulsively takes a dozen photographs of women who prove to be SOE agents. Grace’s growing obsession with trying to find out who the women are and return the photos where they belong doesn’t make much sense and is a drag on the book. Marie’s story is the most thrilling as she’s actively working in France carrying out missions she wasn’t trained for and hoping to avoid capture. But Eleanor’s story turns out to be the most profound as it deals with betrayal and personal tragedy.
The book has a better premise than execution, but it was nevertheless an entertaining read.
Author: John U. Bacon
Title: The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
Narrator: Johnny Heller
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
As a Bostonian, we hear about the Great Halifax Explosion every year when the Province of Nova Scotia delivers a giant Christmas tree to Boston Common. The annual gift symbolizes the gratitude they have for the people of Massachusetts being among the first to respond with relief after the devastating explosion of December 5, 1917. Bacon’s work is a comprehensive history of Halifax during the first World War, the explosion, and its aftermath.
Bacon does a great job of finding the stories of the people who lived in the Richmond neighborhood of Halifax that was flattened by the blast. Many of them had come to work in the port’s bustling economy, and some served in the military in Europe. Bacon also breaks down the many errors that lead to French munitions ship SS Mont Blanc colliding with Norwegian charter ship SS Imo, many of them exacerbated by wartime conditions. For example, in peacetime a ship carrying explosives flew a red flag as a warning but this was discontinued as it made ships a target for German u-boats.
Bacon also tells stories of the day of the explosion for dozens of Haligonians. Some of them contain graphic detail such as the man who survived by landing on something soft only to discover it was a pile of human corpses. But Bacon chiefly recognizes the heroism and self-sacrifice of many individuals and groups who helped in relief efforts and performed small acts of kindness. This includes the great support that came from the United States and Bacon marks this response as changing the relationship between the two countries from one of hostility to one of amity.
The explosion remains to this day the largest human-made accidental blast in history.
Author: Toni Morrison
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2006 [originally published 1987]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:
Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, is probably her most famous and also the first of her works set in the 19th century and dealing with the effects of slavery. Set in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, it focuses on a freed woman named Sethe who shares a house with her youngest daughter, Denver. Because the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first-born daughter, Sethe’s two sons left home early and Denver’s life is one of social isolation.
Things change with the arrival of Paul D., a man who was enslaved on the same plantation with Sethe. He begins a (somewhat awkward) sexual relationship with Sethe, encourages Denver to leave the house for social activities, and seemingly drives away the ghost haunting the house. But things change again with the arrival of young woman named Beloved. Sethe believes she is the embodiment of her dead child because “BELOVED” was all she could afford to carve on her tombstone. Beloved affects all the residents of the household in different, negative ways.
Beloved is a ghost story, whether or not you believe that Beloved is actually a ghost, because it deals with the haunting trauma and pain of slavery. The novel frequently flashes back to Sethe’s life on the Sweet Home plantation, her relationship with her husband Halle, and the abuse they suffered. The book is a characters study of sorts as well, as several of the characters – both in the main timeline and in flashback – take turns reflecting on their life, relationships, and suffering.
Beloved has always been a challenging book for me to read. But I also I believe it is purposefully unsettling to provoke thought on slavery and its painful legacy and generational trauma.
Author: Matthew Stover
Title: Revenge of the Sith
Publication Info: Century (2005)
Continuing reading Star Wars novelizations with my daughter, we come to one of the best novels drawn from a rather mediocre movie. Stover has a highly literary style and inserts into scenes from the film the thoughts of the characters and has them remembering key moments in flashback. The book is very character-driven and features frequent changes in point of view. Villains like Count Dooku and General Grievous are interesting and even scary in ways that they aren’t in the movie. There are also many revealing conversations. While it makes for an engaging novel with great storytelling, I should note that it would translate into a far too long and dialogue-heavy movie. (I still contend in hindsight that the prequels would be vastly improved by ditching The Phantom Menace and developing the plot and character points of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith over three films).
Author: Stephen Puleo
Title: Voyage of mercy : the USS Jamestown, the Irish famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission
Narrator: Sean Patrick Hopkins
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:
Voyage of Mercy is a history of a United States mission to deliver food to the starving people of Ireland during the Great Hunger. Approved by Congress, the military ship U.S.S. Jamestown sailed from Boston to Queenstown (Cobh) to deliver the good in the spring of 1847. A naval ship was chosen to the unavailability of merchant vessels and the U.S.S. Constitution was even considered for the journey.
According to Puleo, the Jamestown mission was the first example of foreign aid and serves as a model of international disaster relief efforts. The book focuses on two key characters. Robert Bennet Forbes, an experienced merchant ship captain from the Boston area (born in Jamaica Plain and buried in Forest Hills cemetery, and I coincidentally passed his former home-become-museum in Milton on the day I finished this book), captained the Jamestown and was recognized for his good character and generosity. Father Theobald Matthew of County Cork, a noted temperance leader, organized the relief operations on the Irish side.
The book is good but if it has flaws it is Puleo’s tendency to be about the goodness of the people behind the relief effort. Nevertheless, despite the success of the mission it did face challenges that later international relief efforts also suffered from. Distribution of the food stuffs was controversial as to whether it should be retained in County Cork or throughout Ireland. There was also the issue of the limits of charitable contributions to address deep, structural problems, in this case the colonial exploitation of Ireland by the United Kingdom. I couldn’t help seeing parallels in the indifference and cruelty of the British government’s response to the potato famine to the current day response of the Republican Party to the Covid Pandemic in the United States.
This is a good and well-researched history, although I feel that Puleo stretched it out where a shorter book may have been sufficient. Also, while I don’t know where my Sullivan family ancestors originated, it is a common name in County Cork, so I could very well owe my existence to mission of the U.S.S. Jamestown.
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Narrator: January LaVoy
Publication Info: Hachette Book Group, 2019
Set in the early 20th century, this story is told by the young January Scaller. Her mother is presumed dead and her father works for the New England Archaeological Society (an old boys club type of place) traveling the world to collect new items for their collections. January escapes into books and then later discovers doorways that lead her into new universes (it’s all a rather obvious metaphor of books as portals).
Through the doorways and support from some friends (and a large dog named Bad) after her father is also assumed to be dead she is able to learn the sinister secret of the New England Archaeological Society and her guardian Mr. Locke (what a metaphorical name in a book about doors!). She also uncovers her family history and her place in the world, or more accurately her place in the multiverse. The book is an interesting enough concept, and I certainly wanted to read to the end to find out what happened, but it didn’t really grab me either.
Author: Maeve Higgins
Title: Maeve in America
Narrator: Maeve Higgins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2018
I’m familiar with Irish-born comedian and writer Maeve Higgins from her podcast series Maeve in America where she interviewed fellow immigrants to the United States about their experiences. I expected this book with the same title expanded upon the podcast, but in fact the book is a collection of personal essays on various topics.
Immigration is covered with Higgins reflecting on her own immigration experience contrasted with Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island in 1892 (both Higgins and Moore came from the same place, Cobh in County Cork). Higgins also writes about the experience of making the podcast when her producer wanted more humor and celebrities, not something she could provide when visiting the fortified US border on Mexico and talking with immigrants struggling in their lives in the country.
Higgins also writes about experiences swimming with dolphins, working with the comedy scene in Iraq, reflections on her body image and preference for the single life, and the way her family uses humor. Higgins is an insightful, reflective, and yes, funny, writer and I enjoyed hearing her essays.
Author: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Title: This is How You Lose the Time War
Narrator: Cynthia Farrell and Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, 
This novella features letters exchanged by a pair of agents – Red and Blue – on opposite sides of a war where they each travel through time to manipulate events in a way to harm the opposing side. The initially snarky and boastful letters soften over time as Red and Blue realize they are falling in love. The novel relies on poetic language and experimental writing styles (the authors wrote their sections of the book in response to one another much like the characters). Call me a philistine, but for all that creativity, I still found the book to be rather boring.
Author: Margarita Montimore
Title: Oona Out of Order
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
On the last day of 1982, Oona Lockhart is ready to celebrate at the stroke of midnight the new year and her 19th birthday. Instead she finds herself in her 51-year-old body in 2015, the first time jump in her life in which she will live each year of her life out of order. Only her mother and personal assistant/friend Kenzie know her secret.
Oona has the advantage of never having to worry about money thanks to being able to know the best investments and sports bets to make. But she’s faced with the challenge of having to maintain and create relationships with little knowledge of what happened the year before, and coming of age in a body that can be vastly different ages.
I like the conceit of the book and how Oona faces the challenges of living her life. She’s never able to figure out how this is happening to her, nor is she able to change the future even when she knows what is going to happen. There’s a twist in the story that I only thought possible just before it was revealed, but you might figure it out earlier. I believe the narrative covers only 7 years spread out over 4 decades. I think it would’ve been interesting if more of Oona’s years were included in the novel. It would make the book longer, but I found it to be a page-turner so I’d probably keep reading.