ElCicco #CBR5 Review #42: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup


This work of non-fiction, first published in 1853, is Solomon Northup’s account of being kidnapped into slavery and living the punishing life of a slave in the Deep South for 12 years before his liberation. Northup was born free in New York State, married and had three children. One of Northup’s talents was playing violin. One fateful day in Saratoga, a couple of white gentlemen offered to hire Northup for their circus to play violin. Without consulting his family, Northup agreed to go with them, thinking he might be gone for a week or so. After taking Northup to Washington, they drugged him, took his papers and sold him into slavery.

This book should be a must-read for high schoolers. It answers every question I’ve ever heard students ask about subjugated peoples, whether American slaves, Jews in Germany under Hitler, or other suppressed minorities: why didn’t he fight back? Why didn’t he tell everyone who he really was (Northup was renamed Platt)? Why didn’t he run away? Why didn’t he write letters to help himself? Northup addresses these questions throughout his narrative and vividly depicts the brutality and barbarousness of slavery. He also goes into detail on the daily life of the slave and the various industries that used slave labor.

The writing is captivating. There is never a dull moment in this narrative, and the people with whom Northup toils and for whom he is a slave are presented in great detail. Northup is honest and yet compassionate, even with slave owners sometimes. For example, on his first master William Ford, he writes, ” … there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” Ford’s kindness to his slaves made him an object of derision amongst other slave owners. Master Tibeats, to whom Northup was rented out, was cruel and combative, particularly with Northup. The two actually got into a fight, with Northup getting the upper hand. This led to a tense situation in which Northup had to run to hide in the swamps — a deadly place. Later, Tibeats attempts to hang Northup. The description is horrifying. Under Master Epps, Northup experiences the backbreaking work of the cotton fields. Epps was “… a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found.” He frequently got drunk and beat his most productive slaves for nothing or, in the case of the slave Patsey, to please his wife.

The other slaves whom Northup meets seem to fall into two categories: those who had some knowledge or even experience of freedom (kidnapping free blacks to sell into slavery seems to have been a profitable if illegal activity) and those who were born into it and had no other expectation in life. The story of Eliza, whom Northup meets shortly after his abduction in Washington, is heartbreaking. Her master had kept her well as his mistress and fathered two children by her — Emmy and Randall. He had promised her and her children freedom but for some reason his property was divided and his daughter came into ownership of Eliza and the children, promptly selling them into slavery out of her resentment of Eliza’s relationship with her father. When Eliza’s children are sold away from her, it is gut wrenching. Patsey is another tragic case. She had been a favored member of her master’s household and is the most productive cotton picker on Epps’ plantation, but his attentions to her elicit the jealousy and vindictiveness of Mistress Epps. Patsey gets horrible beatings (sometimes from Northup, at Epps’ command) as a result. Hers is a life of utter misery. Patsey seems to fit the description Northup had for those born into slavery: “She was one of those, and there are very many, who fear nothing but their master’s lash, and know no further duty than to obey his voice.”

Northup’s return to freedom comes about when a Northern carpenter named Bass comes to work on Epps’ plantation. Northup eventually sees that he can trust this man and the plan develops to get Northup back to freedom by legal means. The plan was fraught with danger for both men but Northup regains his freedom and en route to New York, he and his liberators try to get justice versus the men who captured and sold him. That story, unfortunately, does not have a satisfactory result. Northrup briefly touches on his reunion with his family but his goal is to impress upon the reader the barbarity of slavery and he succeeds. As he points out, The South is a society where free men carry Bowie knives to settle disagreements, even with friends, and those who have been raised under slavery, white or black, are brutalized by it.

This book has been turned into a much acclaimed film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Northup), Michael Fassbender (Epps) and Brad Pitt (Bass). It has been winning awards at international film festivals and is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. The trailer looks amazing.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #41: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride


James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is a fictionalized account of John Brown’s life and actions in the 3-4 years preceding the raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859. The narrator is one Henry Shackleford, aka the Onion. When we meet him, he is just a small boy (maybe 10 — he isn’t sure of his own age) in the rough and tumble Kansas territory. He and his father Gus are slaves to a saloon owner named Dutch until the day John Brown’s posse comes to town to free the slaves. Gus ends up dead and Henry, now dubbed Onion and dressed in girl’s clothing, becomes John Brown’s good luck charm and rides with his men for the next few years, surviving the events at Harper’s Ferry as an eye witness to what happened in the armory there.

This is a novel with as many layers as an onion. While it is a piece of historical fiction about John Brown and his famous raid, it is also a coming of age story of Onion, an exposition on relations between blacks and whites, and an examination of how blacks related to each other under slavery. McBride is brutally honest in his depiction of these people and their relationships, and no one comes out looking completely heroic.

McBride’s characters are the driving power behind this story. He tackles some formidable historical figures while creating memorable fictional characters. Besides John Brown, we meet Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Jeb Stuart. McBride isn’t afraid to show the less dignified aspects of Brown and Douglass in particular. The scene where a drunk Douglass makes awkward passes at Onion is funny but somewhat scandalous to those who put the man on a pedestal. John Brown, while heroic, is also shown to be a somewhat disorganized and reckless man who relies on faith (and luck) more than plans to get through. More than once, Onion notes that John Brown and other abolitionists talk on behalf of slaves, assuming that they know exactly what they want, without inviting blacks to speak for themselves. In fact, when Brown travels east to fundraise among New Englanders for his campaigns, Onion notes that rarely are there blacks in the audience and that “…them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse. It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro’s life out there weren’t no different than it was out west…. It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.”

McBride’s fictional characters are really well drawn and complex. The two I found most interesting besides Onion were Pie, the mulatto slave prostitute, and Sibonia, the slave who attempted rebellion. These two women are both owned by brothel/saloon owner Abby. Pie has greater status than the “pen” slaves like Sibonia, who live outside and do backbreaking work. They can be sold at any time. Pie feels no connection to or sympathy for them and sees the work of abolitionists as dangerous to the safety of slaves such as herself. When Onion tells her that he has ridden with John Brown, she says, “That’s all I need …. Old John Brown riding here, screwing things up and whipping them pen niggers into a frenzy. They’ll wail away on every nigger in sight. If it was up to me, every nigger in that pen would be sold down the river.” Sibonia, on the other hand, feels solidarity with her fellow slaves to the point of sacrificing herself to protect them. She also has a marvelous scene in which she demonstrates to the local minister that her actions are in fact the fulfillment of the scripture that he preaches, causing the minister to leave the town in disgust over the treatment of the local slaves.

Onion’s ambivalence about abolition is most clearly stated in this part of the narrative where Onion finds himself enslaved again. “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception. Miss Abby was a slaveholder, true enough, but she was a good slaveholder. She was a lot like Dutch. She runned a lot of businesses, which meant the businesses mostly runned her.”  He goes on to say “… slavery ain’t too troublesome when you’re in the doing of it and growed used to it.” With time and a betrayal, Onion comes gradually to the cause of freedom, but even then he struggles with a desire to run away to Philadelphia and just save his own skin.

I enjoyed this novel immensely. There is a lot to discuss here and this review only scratches the surface. While the topic is heavy and some scenes, particularly once the action starts at the armory, are brutal and violent, there is also quite a bit of humor. The ending, with the final scene between Onion and John Brown was beautifully done. The author’s admiration for Brown, despite his flaws, is evident. This is a great pick for a book club.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #19: Black Venus by James MacManus


Black Venus is a fictionalized account of the relationship between French poet Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval. Baudelaire is recognized as the greatest poet of the French language whose classic work Les Fleurs du Mal was banned shortly after publication in France in 1857 due to its “obscene” content. Jeanne Duval, an immigrant from Haiti whose mother was a slave and whose father was a French plantation owner, was his lover for 20 years and the inspiration for Baudelaire’s best known work.

As the novel begins, Baudelaire is a 21-year-old “dandy” living off of his mother’s money. Baudelaire wears the latest fashions and haunts the trendy cafes with his friends, accruing debt while expressing disdain for the bourgeoisie and support for revolution. While drinking at a working class dive, he catches cabaret singer Duval’s act and is immediately attracted to her. Duval was tall, shapely, olive-skinned and had long dark hair. She was also quite independent for her time, having escaped Haiti at the age of 14 and making her way to France. A 20-year dysfunctional relationship ensued, involving  alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, debt and an obscenity trial. Baudelaire’s mother and friends blamed Duval for Baudelaire’s downward spiral, but MacManus shows Baudelaire as someone who willingly went down that path. His dark side is evident throughout the novel — vain, selfish, drawn to many vices and unrepentant about it. It is the dark side of man that is the focus of his verse and what set him apart from the romantic poets of his age.

Little is actually known about Jeanne Duval. She did not write, and accounts of her from Baudelaire’s contemporaries are unflattering (she was the whore who supplied him with opium). Duval, as depicted by MacManus, was an independent minded woman restricted by her sex, race and class. She used her talents as a singer, her own intelligence and her looks to support herself and her predilection for fine dining, gowns and jewelry. Baudelaire’s mother offered her money to stay away from him, while his publisher Poulet-Malassis offered her money to get back with him so that he would write again.

The Baudelaire/Duval relationship, as depicted by MacManus, was a train wreck and reminded me of some of the celebrity relationship disasters that you might find in today’s tabloids. They go from lust to hatred and back again. They do drugs and drink to excess and spend extravagantly. Baudelaire calls her a whore and his “black Venus,” a term that Duval detested since her skin was light. She also resented the way Baudelaire portrayed her physical body in verse and sketches — all big breasts and buttocks, with the inscription “Quaerens quem devoret” (seeking whom to devour).

Duval Baud

Neither one seems to understand what attraction it is that they have for each other, but it is undeniable and similar to their other addictions.

Duval seems to have been able to weather their break-ups better than Baudelaire. She continued to take lovers (as she had even while with Baudelaire), including Manet, who painted her portrait.

Duval Manet

MacManus’ Duval does not admire Baudelaire’s poems or understand his fascination with the slums and seamy side of Parisian city life. Given her early life as a slave in Haiti and the violence of the revolution there, plus her personal experience of poverty in Paris, this makes sense. For MacManus, Duval’s dream was to leave Paris and start life anew in the American West, where she imagined her father living. Unfortunately, her dreams were thwarted but MacManus allows her one great act of selflessness and compassion before her death from tuberculosis.

This was a pretty good book. The history is solid and the story behind the banning of Baudelaire’s verses is interesting if you are unfamiliar with it. Overall, the creation of a story for Jeanne Duval and her relationship with Baudelaire was satisfactory.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #17: Kindred by Octavia Butler


Recently, The Atlantic published a piece called “21 Books Written By and About Women That Men Would Benefit From Reading”.  Kindred was  one of them and it really is an outstanding piece of fiction. I’m not sure exactly how to categorize it — historical, since it centers on the antebellum south and the slave experience; fantasy/sci-fi since it involves a modern day African American woman time traveling back to Maryland ca. 1810. Published in 1979, Kindred is still today, as it certainly must have been then, a provocative look at the slave experience and modern judgment about it. As I read, I was reminded of another novel that I recently reviewed, Rachel Sieffert’s Lore/The Dark Room. Both novels force the reader to reconsider whether s/he would have behaved so differently if placed in the same situation (Hitler’s Germany, in the case of Lore).

In June 1976, Dana — a 26-year-old African American woman — is moving into a new home with her new husband Kevin, a white man and, like Dana, a writer. She becomes dizzy and next thing she knows, she is on a river bank in 1810 Maryland where a young boy is drowning. She saves him and is transported back to modern California after a man with a rifle sets his sights on her. It turns out that the boy, Rufus Weylin, is a slave-owner’s son and a distant grandfather of Dana’s. He somehow calls her to him whenever his life is in danger, which happens frequently. Dana travels back in time and lives in Maryland for months on end at different points in Rufus’ life, although when she returns to California, only minutes or hours have passed. Less than a month of 1976 passes as Dana passes through time periods across several decades in slave-era Maryland.

On her trips to the past, Dana experiences the worst of slave life although her particular slave life is better than most. She begins to understand how a slave mentality is forged and the lengths to which one might go to survive, to keep one’s family together, to be free. After trying to run away and receiving a severe beating, Dana reflects:

Nothing in my education or knowledge of the future helped me to escape…. What had I done wrong? Why was I still slave to a man who had repaid me for saving his life by nearly killing me. Why had I taken yet another beating. And why … why was I so frightened now — frightened sick at the thought that sooner or later, I would have to run again? …

I tried to get away from my thoughts, but they still came.

See how easily slaves are made? they said.

Dana’s relationship with Rufus is complicated to say the least. As her great-great-grandfather, he must be kept alive at least long enough to ensure that Dana’s great grandmother is born to one of Rufus’ slaves. Rufus earns some compassion from Dana, but he also is a product of his time and is often cruel, selfish and deceitful. Her relationships with other slaves are also complicated. Some resent and mistrust her because she sounds so “white” and is clearly a favorite of Rufus’. Others see the benefit of her knowledge and influence on Rufus. Dana notes the slaves’ complicated relationship with Rufus. Strangely, they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. This confused me because I felt just the same mixture of emotions for him myself. 

As Dana travels back and forth through time, she learns to pack a bag with essential items for her survival — including medicines and a knife — that she keeps tied to herself. With time, Dana grapples with the possibility that she might have to kill Rufus or herself to end the cycle. Ultimately, a piece of Dana remains behind and her modern day life is never quite the same. This made me wonder if Butler wasn’t in some way writing about the experience of being a writer — of immersing yourself in a story to the point that you are disconnected from reality and are changed in the process.

I found this book to be quite powerful and disturbing in its factual portrayal of slave life, particularly the punishments meted out to slaves. Kindred is also a very thoughtful reflection on slavery and enslavement and its impact on relationships in both the antebellum and modern periods.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #8: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is the first book I’ve read in a while which left me grinning with delight when I finished it. Not grinning because it was funny—most of the time, it was far from funny—but because it was at once both a literary feast for the senses and a profoundly moving challenge to the reader to rediscover the “true north” of our era’s flickering moral compass.

Mitchell expertly braids together novellas from six different eras of our past and future, each story interrupting and/or continuing another to flesh out how humanity arrived at the present time, and perhaps more importantly, where we are likely to end up if we continue on the same path. Like any good mystery novelist, Mitchell drops clues along the way, and like any good sci-fi writer, he intrigues us with glimpses of a chilling future based on an all too disturbing present. The themes of greed and excess, slavery and power, religion and superstition, creation and destruction creep into the reader’s mind and take hold, forcing one to examine the hard truths of our own time from the broader vantage point of both our past and the future.

There have been enough reviews of the book in Cannnonball Read, such that I don’t feel it necessary to go into the individual sub-plots of the book. Suffice it to say that Mitchell has tossed six distinct “genre,” if you will, into his sandbox, ranging from political thriller to dystopic interrogatory, from colonial history to romantic epistolary, from comedic drama to post-apocalyptic nightmare, and what absolutely amazes is Mitchell’s brilliance in stepping into and out of the individual eras he paints for us with such apparent ease. Even while I chafed a bit at the familiarity of some of the plots—The Mystery of Luisa Rey (to my mind the weakest of the stories) smacked too much of Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, for example, and Sonmi-451 borrowed rather heavily from Orwell’s Brave New World—I nonetheless thrilled to the authenticity of the language, the evocative settings, the exhilarating experience of time travel while sitting still, and all the puzzle parts just begging to be pieced together.

I especially loved the language that Mitchell invented for the tribes living after “The Fall,” which did more to reveal the state of that post-apocalyptic world than mere description ever could. The language of “Sloosha’s Crossin’” depicted a culture in decline and yet it was surprisingly metaphorical, both poignant and extremely funny, a language meant to be heard, not read, a language of both post-history and pre-history. And therein, I think, lies the genius of Mitchell, because “Sloosha’s Crossin’” tells the story of humanity’s end, but also of humanity’s beginning, and leaves it up to the reader to consider what direction that beginning should take.