How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith

This is a remarkable book unlike any other than I have read as I have explored over the past two years books on racism, anti-racism, caste, mass incarceration, the realities of slavery. This book is in many ways a travelogue. But a very specific travelogue, exploring sites all over the US – and one in Africa – that illuminate our history with enslavement and its aftermath. Smith visits and talks to other visitors and guides at:

  • Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Virginia, where he takes a tour that not many others take, seeing the realities of Jefferson as a slave-owner and as the father of enslaved children;
  • Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which is the only plantation devoted to looking at life from the perspective of the enslaved;
  • Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest and one of the most brutal prisons in the United States, built on the site of a former plantation, where African-Americans represent 76% of the incarcerated population;
  • Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, the resting place of over 30,000 Confederate soldiers, where he attends a Sons of Confederate  Veterans (SCV) commemoration celebration;
  • Galveston Island, Texas, where the last enslaved people were finally informed of their freedom after the end of the Civil War and where the Juneteenth celebration was born;
  • the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan in New York City, most of which was built by enslaved persons and which housed a thriving slave auction site until 1762; and
  • Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, where 33,000 people were chained and passed through the House of Slaves and the Door of No Return to be loaded into the holds of ships for the “Middle Passage” cross-Atlantic trip to permanent enslavement in the colonies and the emerging United State; this is a place where today the local population grapples with how to teach their history to their children.

What is remarkable about this book to me is Smith’s gentle courage. He manages to talk directly, but without accusation, with those who do not see life through the same lens. We hear from organizers of the SCV celebration, the tour guides and gift shop proprietor at the prison in Angola, along with many others. He hears their stories and then gently asks them to see things from the Black American point of view.

In a beautiful epilogue, Smith talks with his grandparents. They tell of stories received from their grandparents who were enslaved. They remember their own stories of the Jim Crow south.

Smith’s prose evokes clear images of the places he visits and the people with whom he talks. This is a beautiful book. If you’re interested in dipping your toe into some of the recently published books on “our original sin” and its aftermath, this is an excellent place to begin.

— by Jeanie Smith

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell

As the author tells us in her opening Historical Note: “In the 1580s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins.  The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven.  Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”  And in her closing Author’s Note, O’Farrell writes, “This is a work of fiction, inspired by the short life of a boy who died in Stratford, Warwickshsire, in the summer of 1596.”  

But the book is so very much more.  The story is not much about this boy, Hamnet, nor about his father, who is never named in the book, only referred to, first, as “the boy,” and later “the Latin tutor,” or “the husband.”  This is a story of Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, Shakespeare’s wife.  It is about her strangeness among women of her time; about her knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants; about her fierce love for her husband and her family; about her ability to sense what is wrong under the guise of the normal; about her ability to manipulate the patriarchal system to make happen what is best for the people around her. 

The flyleaf on the book jacket describes Agnes as “a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people.”  I would disagree – While her gifts as a healer and in understanding plants and potions are undeniable, I would argue that she has a profound understanding of herself and the people with whom she lives. 

At every turn, we see a woman so in touch with herself and with her community that she is able to defy community mores and truly be her own true self. 

This is a beautifully written work, full of such descriptions of sixteenth century English life that we can feel and smell and almost touch the streets, the houses, the farms.  But again, so much more.  These relative simply sentences capture better than anything I have ever read the reality of labor:  “She feels another pain coming, driving towards her, getting closer, like thunder over a landscape.  She turns, she crouches, she pants through it, as she knows she must, holding tight to a tree root.  Even in the throes of it, when it has her in its clutches, when it drives everything from her mind but the narrow focus of when it might end, she recognises that it is getting stronger.  It means business, this pain.  It will not leave her be.  Soon it will not let her rest or gather herself.  It means to force her out of herself, to turn what is inside outside.”  

And surely, the grief that comes with the death of her son is so magnificently written that we too are overcome. 

I wish I had the words to recommend this book as highly as I’d like to.  Alas, I don’t.  But it is among the best books I have ever read, a book that holds you so tightly that you don’t want to put it down, much less begin reading another.  It is a gem.

Jeanie Smith

In The Woods, by Tana French

 

Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, is fascinating, complex and ultimately leaves its different readers with many different impressions of how we are to view the main characters and what actually happens in the story.

In literary genre circles, this book is classified as a “police procedural.”  The story takes place in and around Dublin, Ireland, where the weather, the atmosphere, the ethos of the place are almost characters in the plot.  The book is narrated by Murder Squad detective Rob Ryan who, we discover early in the book, has an unsolved mystery at the heart of his life. His memory of the incident is gone.  And he tells us, “Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery.  I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light….It was these arcana I craved, these near-invisible textures like a Braille legible only to the initiated.  They were like thoroughbreds, those two Murder detectives passing through Ballygobackwards; like trapeze artists honed to a sizzling shine.  They played for the highest stakes, and they were experts at their game.”

Rob and partner Cassie Maddox, the only person other than Rob’s parents who knows about his relationship to this old unsolved mystery, are assigned a murder case involving a 12-year-old girl from the same suburb where Rob grew up and where the old unsolved mystery took place.  Should he be investigating this new case?  His doing so is absolutely against department regulations, but he and Cassie proceed anyway.  Thus we begin a journey into the intertwining of these two stories.

We remember that Rob-the-narrator has also told us in the first line of the first chapter of the book:  “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective.  Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.  It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.”  So, is everything that follows somehow “fundamental but cracked truth”?  Are we part of a web of deception?  Is Ryan himself part of that web?

This first book in French’s “Dublin Murder Series” is a highly satisfying read, open to interpretation and re-interpretation.  Are there clues we have missed?  What is the significance of the object found in the remnant of the woods, now an archeological dig, at the end of the story?  Can we add up the brief flashbacks that Rob experiences during the course of the current investigation?

Read it yourself and see what you think.

Jeanie Smith