Friday, May 30, 2014

May 2014 Book Reports

1. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Greatest Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Bob: To say that I was not adequately prepared for the force of this book upon my heart would be a gross understatement. I have not had such a powerful reaction to the written word since my last reading of Les Misérables. This remarkable book should be read over and over again, simply to remind us of our own infallibility and the unquenchable desire of the human heart for freedom. 

Isabel Wilkerson weaves a marvelous story, derived from interviews with over 1200 persons, of the Great Migration of Black African Americans out of the Southern United States from the years of World War I through the 1960s and beyond. To do this, she focuses on three people born in the Jim Crow era of the Southern caste system. 

In the early chapters, I found it remarkable that she could report the events of these lives without apparent prejudice. As a white man born in the Western United States, I had no frame of reference for the plight of the Blacks in the South. As a man who had lived in the South for 15 years, the Jim Crow heritage had escaped my understanding. The author’s dispassionate approach, while describing events that elicited great passion, drew me in as no similar type of text has ever done. It is a remarkable gift she possesses that allows the reader to have a broken heart on his own, not being pressured into it. 

Wilkerson sprinkles over the strands of the three lives she is following, experiences from her own family life and the history of Black American migration within the United States, moving from decade to decade and event to event, much the way a television mini-series might do. I found myself scanning ahead to see how Dr. Foster was doing in Los Angeles, to the exclusion of stories about the other two main figures: Ida Mae and George. But, I returned quickly, once I knew the Doctor was going to make it. 

As I viewed this internal national migration, my heart was turned to migrants in my own heritage, people mostly from England, but also other ancestors who had migrated across the United States from New England. I thought about their own good-byes to people they knew they would never see again in this life. I thought about the heart-ache that would inevitably be connected with that moment and the scars upon the hearts of fathers and, more particularly, upon  mothers at these times of permanent separation. (Same! Well said, Dad.)

With each account of a lynching or beating or raping by whites on blacks, I grew more astonished at the stamina and resilience of the blacks and more heartsick for the whites – who, as the author points out, will one day have to stand before God to account for their actions. 

We are not out of the woods yet, when it comes to this black/white problem in America. But, compared to the early days of the Migration, we have come a long way. Perhaps we are seeing some slippage in our own country as we see prejudices creeping back into our social fabric. It is not necessarily a prejudice of color as it is of political correctness – a type of political correctness that threatens to establish another version of the caste system, where rules are invented “on the fly.” Heaven help the person who is either for or against abortion or same-sex marriage, or who dares to find fault with or praise the welfare system. Such expressions of opinion are rapidly heading toward cultural, if not actual, lynchings that will ruin lives and families just as the literal lynchings of Blacks caused their race to seek for a new place to live. 

If this happens, and it appears it will, sooner rather than later, we will see like-minded people pack up and go to places where they know they can live freely. It is always the quest for freedom that stirs these types of migrations. Those who remember the days of bondage will, as the Blacks from the South who moved north and west, be stronger for that battle. Those who come from less-arduous circumstances, or who are born into this freedom, will be weaker and decline over time. 

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book was the account of the passing of each of the three main characters. These three, coming from the Jim Crow South, die in diverse circumstances according to the way they approached life in their new surroundings; but each died with something in common, respect for their roots, for the land they came from, for the land where their ancestors had toiled for nearly 300 years before the Migration, and for the customs and cooking of the Black South. This respect, so deep-seeded and entrenched, went with them to the North and the West. Out of that respect came music and literature and dancing and fashion that transformed America and is still transforming it today. 

When I finished, I came to realize that we are better as a nation because of that Migration. Those of us who travel in the South today realize that there is still a deep chasm between Black and White. For example, why is it that all the people who service airliners are black and all the pilots are white? And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Because of this book I will never look at my life, my chances for education and privilege, or my ability to breathe the air of freedom the same way ever again.  Because of this book I will be more anxious to find ways to help others enjoy these same gifts.

Nicole: This really is a remarkable book. Non-fiction can be pretty dry, but Wilkerson did a fantastic job of telling these three stories of individual migrants against the backdrop of the bigger history. I listened to Robin Miles read it (my second book read by her - she can pretty much read me all the books from now on), which gave the stories another layer for me. I loved what she did with dialogue. White people simply can't speak the way black people do.

One of my favorite phrases from The Warmth of Other Suns was "contrived intimacy," which is how Wilkerson described the relationship between blacks and whites in the south prior to the migration. That sums it up nicely. She also mentioned that this migration, which was epic in scale, yet it had no leader. It just happened. Starting right after World War I and ending in the early 1970s, the black population in the United States went from being predominantly Southern to Northern and Western. There was no One Thing that put it in the hearts of all these people, they each came to the same conclusion in different ways. Despite what early studies suggested, most of the migrants who stayed in the north were more educated than the ones they left in the south. They were also of a different generation, one without firsthand knowledge of the Civil War. Somehow they knew they deserved better and they were brave enough to leave everything they'd known to go find it. I also thought of my own ancestors here - crossing an ocean, never to see their families again in this life. What courage!

Of the three stories, I was most hooked to Dr. Robert Foster in the beginning. (And I knew he'd be the one Dad liked the most.) I loved all of his good qualities, especially his work ethic and knowing that it wouldn't be for nothing if he worked as hard as he could and tried to be the best he could be. Toward the end, though, when he let his family slip away from him and he was such a perfectionist and a gambler, I lost a little of the respect for him that had built up. I liked George's story, but his personal life was such a mess... He worked on a train once he got to New York and I liked how he would tell black passengers that they didn't have to give up their seats once they hit the South. He'd watch people closely to see who he could trust with that information. When Robin Miles read one man's reaction to George's suggestion that he stay put when the conductor instructed them to move, "Boy! What the hell do you think you're talking about?!" I laughed out loud. In the last quarter of the book, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was my favorite. Ms. Wilkerson takes Ida Mae back to Mississippi when Ida Mae is an old woman. The Gladneys made their home in Chicago back in the 1930s and this trip with Wilkerson is in the late 1990s. Ida Mae insists that Wilkerson stop the car near a cotton field that is ready for the picking. Ida Mae bends over and picks cotton for the first time in 60 years (she and her husband were share croppers before they migrated north) and she does it because she wants to. That's where I lost it. Something about that was so deeply touching.

I'm with Dad - I'll never be the same. I'm not sure what to do about it yet, but I'll never be the same after reading The Warmth of Other Suns.

2. The Heaven Tree by Edith Pargeter
My Goodreads account thinks that I'm INTO Medieval English stories, so I'm getting a bunch of recommendations for that style of book. Even though I was all set with King Arthur by last month, this book intrigued me. It's the first of a trilogy written by a woman, who, when it was published in 1960, was writing under the male name Ellis Peters. Ms. Pargeter/Mr. Peters had two other popular series, The Brother Cadfael Chronicles and The Inspector Felse Mysteries. This woman does not mess around. I hope she had a whole team of little intern researchers because...DANG! The detail on the architecture of a Medieval church alone would have taken at least a semester by itself. And she had the clothes and the political situation between the monarchies of England and Wales with the church and pope thrown in. 
So! The Heaven Tree takes place during about 1200 in a border shire in England very near Wales. Harry Telvace and his "foster brother," Adam Boteler, both teenagers, are returning from a monastery where they have been learning their trade, masonry. I know nothing about masonry, but this sounds different from anything I pictured - it was architecture, sculpture, contractor, all rolled into one guy. Harry is a noble, Adam is not. Adam's family is referred to as being one of Harry's father's "villeins." Villager? Guy who works for the nobleman and not himself? Person who will be hanged for a crime that, if committed by a nobleman, would get a spanking? All those things. Somehow Harry has a bleeding heart for the poor (could it be growing up attached to Adam?) even though his father is pretty ruthless and his mother is a scary cougar. Harry decides to warn a couple of villeins that they are about to get broken up by his father instead of married like they want, and Adam comes with him. Their errand accomplished, they find a doe in the woods who is wounded but not dead. They're on someone else's land, but neither of the boys can bear to see the animal suffer, so Adam slits the doe's throat. Next thing they know, the nobleman land owner is right on them and they've been caught red handed poaching deer. Adam will get his hand chopped off (after his beating) for this and Harry will get a whipping. Harry weeps at his mother's feet and makes a fool of himself to his father begging them to spare Adam's hand. Nope - it's the law. 

Harry and Adam make a run for it and try to enlist the help of the monks in the monastery where they were apprenticed. No dice. They end up stowing away in the back of a wagon filled with fabric bolts heading to London. They are helped by a 10 year-old girl (again with the 10 year-old love interest) named Gilleis (Jill-eh?) who is the daughter of the fabric guy, Master Otley. Harry and Adam appeal to Otley and Harry shows him a little angel statuette that he carved (and then stole from the monastery - ha!). Otley tells them to go to France to learn to be master masons, which they do.

All kinds of stuff happens - they sing in the streets, meet Madonna Benedetta (the kind-hearted former prostitute, naturally), Harry gets thrown in jail (or gaol). All good fun. After nine years, an English nobleman named Isambard sees their work and enlists Harry to build a church near his castle at Parfois. Dream job! They make some crazy oaths to each other ("I promise to finish the church no matter what happens. Even if you decide to murder me, wait until after I finish building the church." "I promise that even if I feel like cutting out your heart and showing it to you while you yet live, I'll let you finish building the church first."). Isambard falls in love with Benedetta, but she's in love with someone else. Benedetta is easy, though, so she'll go ahead and live with him until her true love calls for her, which he won't because he's in love with someone else. Whew! Glad we settled all that.

Isambard is a BAD GUY. Like, shiver in your boots bad. Harry is an artist and more honorable than the best knight. The church he builds is simple, but magnificent. One particular sculpture/drawing is of the heaven tree. The flowers on the tree are only in bud. Benedetta says of the tree, "But they never ripen. We're promised that they will in the world to come, if we study to deserve. But they never ripen here." That's deep, right? Everything is religion and choosing between right and wrong, no matter the law, and how that affects the spirit. At one point Harry has to break the law in a BIG way in order to do the right thing. He gets put in chains and locked in a cell for it. He marvels that he isn't staying awake regretting doing what he did because he lost his wife (Gilleis) and his freedom for it and he will be put to death after he finishes the church. But! He sleeps like a baby and his conscience is clear. Exactly! When we're right with God, everything else falls away. Harry is content and engaged because he is right with God. Isambard is miserable because he only follows the letter of the law.

There are some odd moments that I don't know what to do with (mostly with Harry's mom), but otherwise this was fantastic! It's out of print (what else), so I had to get it from a random book seller on Amazon. My heart was racing for hours after I finished it. So intense. (Really, it would be a great movie. I've cast it in my head already. Now I just need millions and millions of dollars and people who know what they're doing to make it for me.)

3. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
We liked Kate DiCamillo's writing so much, that Bridget and I wanted to read another one of her books. Because of Winn-Dixie is about a little girl in Florida who finds a crazy dog at the Winn-Dixie (Bridget didn't know that is a super market chain in the south) and takes him home with her. Because of Winn-Dixie (which is what she names him in a burst of creativity when the store manager asks what the dog's name is), Opal (the girl) makes all kinds of new friends. The friends are old and young and wise and kind of stupid. Everybody is loveable in some way or another.  

This was a little more difficult reading for Bridget - no pictures this time. There were several places where we laughed at the same time. My favorite character was Sweetie Pie - I especially liked reading her dialogue. Opal's mama has left her and that's pretty heavy stuff for a seven year-old. Bridget asked some good questions, though, and it was nice to be able to answer them for the first time instead of her getting Crazytown ideas from someone/somewhere else.

We've had the movie for a few weeks now, but we keep having to put off our mini book club meeting to watch it. (We started a book club last summer with three other neighborhood girls and their moms. We choose a book every month, the mothers and daughters read it together, then we meet and talk about it. It's been a fun incentive for the girls to remember what they've read. We were only going to do it for the summer, but it was so fun we kept doing it the whole year.) Anyone seen the movie? It looks cute.


Jill said...

I was emotional just reading the reviews of the first book. I know what I'll be reading next. Thanks for sharing!

Katy said...

OH, Nicole! And Dad! I just finished reading this book yesterday! I loved it, and I kind of had the same feelings about the characters as far as being more engrossed in Dr. Foster's story, but loving Ida Mae the most at the end. I found this book really interesting because I live in the South now, but grew up in Idaho and Utah, where there are relatively few African Americans, they just didn't go there during the migration and what's to draw them there now? The only exposure I remember is watching The Cosby Show, and their family was just like ours (and bless Bill Cosby for that! I bet that show did a lot for black kids, watching Dr. Huxtable and thinking, "Hey, I can do that, too!" ).So when we moved here I had no preconceived ideas of how to treat them, how they would act, ect. I have always treated them the same as I would treat anyone. However, I do know older folks who have lived here their whole lives who still haven't gotten over their old ways. I have more to say, but this comment is getting very long.