2017 Pultizer Prize Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th April, 2017 (latest edition), Trade paperback 9th August 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 306

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and a NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER FOR FICTION 2016

2017 Pultizer Prize Winner

‘Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime’ Guardian
‘Luminous, furious, wildly inventive’ Observer
‘Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read this year’ Stylist
‘Dazzling’ New York Review of Books

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

~*~

In the antebellum South, Cora hasn’t seen much beyond the cotton plantation she is enslaved at in Georgia. An outcast as a slave and amongst slaves, Cora’s impending womanhood heralds an uncertain and painful future – one that she longs to escape but doesn’t know how. Until Caesar tells her about the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses set up during the nineteenth century to help slaves escape to free states. Assisted by abolitionists along the way to navigate the route and keep hidden from the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Running for her life and freedom after killing a white boy who tried to stop her, Cora must take on new identities and try to blend – working with a system that at each point, brings disadvantage and bondage of different kinds, and faced with the ignorance that breeds racism in the antebellum South.

Separated at one stage from Caesar, Cora must continue alone, and rely on fellow escaped slaves, freemen and abolitionists, all working to abolish slavery in America, in the decades leading up to the Civil War of 1861-1865. In a penultimate confrontation at a community of former slaves and abolitionists, tragedy strikes and Cora must use all the strength she has left to cross over into the free states, and begin to venture into a life she has control over, but that is still scarred by the shackles and chains of slavery.

Before reading this book, I knew a little bit about the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad, and slavery from a university history course on the American Civil War. It did not go into too much depth from memory, so Colson Whitehead’s novel helped to bring these stories to life more for me. As I read Cora’s story, I found it engaging, and at the same time horrifying: it was a story that gripped me on a human level, horrified at the way Cora had been treated, and as soon as she had some hope, it was ripped away too quickly. As the key character, all events and characters are seen through her eyes, and her judgement, but as she travels the Underground Railroad and encounters a variety of people in all walks of life, it felt that Colson Whitehead was showing the breadth and depth of how different people reacted to slavery, and how they felt about it. This made Cora’s story more powerful as she worked out who she could put her trust in and when, and in her dealings with Ridgeway when he caught up with her.

Using this historical backdrop, Whitehead has created a world of authenticity with a darkness to it that can’t be escaped or denied when discussing slavery and the antebellum South in the nineteenth century. Whitehead’s story mingles literary fiction and historical fiction, with a nice balance of character and plot throughout, interspersing Cora’s story with perspectives of her mother, Caesar and an abolitionist’s wife who nursed her back to health when she got sick. Cora travels through states that are determined to drive out the black population entirely, and states who seem to deal with black people but still treat them like second class citizens, or worse. The dehumanising language of slurs and “it” to refer to runaway slaves are shocking – but necessary. They set the tone for the characters and the setting of the novel as well.

Colson Whitehead has sewn the threads of this novel together eloquently, and by evoking a sense of place for each stop along the Underground Railroad, a sense of self in Cora and utilising speech patterns that fit the characters and places, has created a novel that must be read to understand the other side of the story to slavery and the Underground Railroad: the hopelessness felt by slaves, and the way they were mercilessly pursued and viewed as property in many places.

By shocking readers with the raw brutality of this period in time, Colson Whitehead’s novel will hopefully open up a dialogue and allow these issues to be explored further.

Sydney Writer’s Festival Appearances and links:

Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad (Conversation)

Saturday 27th May 8.30-9.30PM

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/colson-whitehead-the-underground-railroad/

Pulitzer Prize Winners Colson Whitehead and Hisham Matar

https://www.swf.org.au/stories/pulitzer-prize-winners-colson-whitehead-and-hisham-matar/

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Stars Across the Ocean by Kimberley Freeman

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Title: Stars Across the Ocean

Author: Kimberley Freeman

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th April 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 450

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The powerful new novel from Kimberley Freeman.

A rich and satisfying story of two women with indomitable spirits and the high costs they have to pay for being strong-minded, from the author of the bestselling LIGHTHOUSE BAY and EMBER ISLAND.

1874: Only days before she is to leave the foundling home where she grew up, Agnes Resolute discovers that, as a baby, she had been abandoned with a small token of her mother: a unicorn button.

Agnes always believed her mother had been too poor to keep her, but after working as a laundress in the home she recognises the button as belonging to Genevieve Breckby, the beautiful and headstrong daughter of a local noble family. Agnes had seen Genevieve once, in the local village, and had never forgotten her.

Despite having no money, Agnes will risk everything in a quest that will take her from the bleak moors of northern England to the harsh streets of London, then on to Paris and Ceylon. As Agnes follows her mother’s trail, she makes choices that could cost her dearly. Finally, in Australia, she tracks Genevieve down. But is Genevieve capable of being the mother Agnes hopes she will be?

~*~

aww2017-badgeStars Across the Ocean opens in the present, in first person. Victoria, or Tori as she prefers, has travelled from Australia to England to assist her ailing mother, who following an accident at work, is recovering in a rehabilitation centre. Tori is sent by her mother to her office to recover some work she has, and in the process, Tori finds a letter from about 1855: To My Child, Whom I Could Not Keep. And so begins Tori’s adventure into the past, via this letter, which abruptly ends and transitions from the first person perspective of Tori in the present and the letter, to 1874, third person, and Agnes.

Agnes Resolute is a foundling child of Perdita Hall in Hatby, Yorkshire. She has lived there for nineteen years, since her abandonment as a baby, with only a unicorn button the only clue to her past. Putting together her memories of a young woman named Genevieve from Breckby Hall, and a connection to the button, Agnes sets off on a journey to London, where she becomes the companion to Marianna Breckby, Genevieve’s sister and someone whom Agnes hopes, can help her find Genevieve.

Her time in London is cut short as she travels to Paris, where Genevieve’s son, Marianna’s nephew, Julius, finds her and listens to her story, and decides to help her find out about her family, telling her a few secrets of his own that make her question their relationship and what they might mean to each other. From Paris, Agnes travels alone to Ceylon to find Genevieve, and instead, finds a former lover, whose stories about Genevieve lead Agnes to Melbourne, Australia and the theatres. It is here that Agnes hopes to find Genevieve and have her questions answered,

Throughout the novel, it flicks back to the present as Tori struggles to put the letter together, with several sections missing, and whilst she is trying to solve the mystery of the letter, she is also struggling with her own demons back home in Australia, the lack of contact with her husband, and her ailing mother, who seems to need constant care.

It is a story about a young woman finding her place in the world, and reuniting with a mother who wanted her despite her family, and finding an unexpected love in the process. The romance was done exceptionally well, because the characters were given a chance to be their own people first and foremost; Agnes was allowed to be her own woman for a time, and find answers to questions she had had for years. It was a small part of the novel, but at the same time, a nice addition to a story that became about knowing who you are and not accepting what other people expected of you. There are two endings to this – the ending to Agnes’ story and the ending to Tori’s story. One was satisfying in many ways, and the other was a little abrupt, though realistic in relation to the plot. However, this second ending still left me wanting to know more, and wanting to know what else Tori and her mother would find out.

A delightful historical fiction story set in Victorian London, with a heroine who in some ways, fits into the gender expectations of the time but is still her own person and refuses to be tied down – the kind of character who can spread her wings when she wants to, and come home when she needs to. It is a lovely tale, and I hope to read it again soon.

A great read for lovers of historical fiction, and anyone who has read and enjoyed authors such as Kate Forsyth.

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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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Title: See What I Have Done

Author: Sarah Schmidt

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 28th March, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 328

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A deeply atmospheric novel by a startling new Aussie talent; an incredibly unique look inside the mind of Lizzie Borden, famously accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892.

‘Eerie and compelling, Sarah Schmidt breathes such life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family, she makes it impossible to look away.’ – Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

‘He was still bleeding. I yelled, “Someone’s killed Father.” I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. I looked at Father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. “Daddy,” I had said. “I’m giving this to you because I love you.” He had smiled and kissed my forehead.

A long time ago now.’

On 4 August 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. During the inquest into the deaths, Lizzie Borden was arrested and charged with the murder of her father and her stepmother.

Through the eyes of Lizzie’s sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, the enigmatic stranger Benjamin and the beguiling Lizzie herself, we return to what happened that day in Fall River.

Lizzie Borden took an axe. Or did she?

~*~

aww2017-badgeSee What I Have Done brings the mystery of Fall River, and the deaths of Andrew and Abby Borden to life. Living together in the Second Street house with Lizzie, the youngest daughter, and the maid Bridget. Emma has since moved out, and a fourth narrator to this tale, Benjamin, who has links to Uncle John, the first Mrs Borden’s brother (Emma and Lizzie’s biological mother), arrives the day before the murders, on the 3rd of August 1892. The next day, Andrew and Abby were dead. And this is where See What I Have Done begins, going between the perspectives of Lizzie, Emma, Benjamin and Bridget on the day of the murder and the day before, and then the days and weeks following, where one character recounts the trial as they recall it, and the events that lead to the conclusion of the case, and leaving a murderer to go free, and live out their lives.

What Sarah Schmidt does in See What I Have Done through the other three perspectives is to present alternative suspects to Lizzie. Throughout the book, each character’s motives are shown through memories and flashbacks as they navigate the day before, the day of and the days after the murders, hinting that it really could have been anybody who had been in the house, and interrogates the life that Lizzie may have lived with her father and stepmother. The loss of her pigeons is what I felt finally made Lizzie lose herself, and may have led to why she murdered her parents.

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A mixture of historical fiction, literary fiction and crime fiction, See What I Have Done evokes an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue and transports the reader to the late nineteenth century in America, and into a family where secrets are kept, and tensions felt deeply by all. Because the novel is told in first person, the reader gains insight into the minds of Lizzie, Emma, Benjamin and Bridget, and we see in Lizzie and through Bridget and Emma’s perceptions of her a woman who is childlike, who perhaps has not let herself mature, or who hasn’t been allowed to be mature – this is part of the mystery, why Lizzie became who she was. Perhaps losing her mother at a young age contributed, perhaps her sister’s protection became a factor. Whatever the reason, Lizzie is shown as someone who needs protection and understanding, to whom some things might not make sense.

Out of all the narrators, Emma was the only one who was not a suspect, whereas the others had motives and could be seen as unreliable narrators – in presenting them as so – where we only see their perspective and understanding, and these narrators hide things from everyone – Sarah Schmidt has crafted a novel that presents a puzzle to the reader. It is successful in that it made me question what is known about the case, what is known from popular culture and other stories. In suggesting there may have been other suspects, another killer, Schmidt paints Lizzie the killer as an ambiguous one at times, but at others, having people question her innocence.

A novel of mystery, intrigue and literary quality, See What I Have Done sets up a story inspired by events that are yet to be solved, and gives Lizzie, Emma, their maid, Bridget and the stranger, Benjamin, a voice, and motives to kill, apart from Emma. It is a story that can stay with you long after finishing it. It is engrossing, and authentic. Reading it, I could clearly see the nineteenth century setting, hear the way they may have spoken and felt immersed in their daily life. And not only see and hear, but smell, taste and feel. It is an astounding debut novel and one that I do want to revisit, but maybe I’ll let Lizzie rest for now.

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Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet by Jennifer Gall

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Title: Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet.

Author: Jennifer Gall

Genre: Non-fiction. History, Biography

Publisher: NLA Publishing

Published: 1st March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 208

Price: $44.99

Synopsis: ROSE ISABELLA PATERSON gave birth to a boy, Barty, in 1864. That child became the famous balladeer, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson. Barty was the first of seven children who lived on Illalong station, a property near the New South Wales township of Binalong, where Rose spent most of her married life.
In this book, we enter into the rustic world of late nineteenth-century pioneers, where women endured continuous cycles of pregnancy, childbirth and recovery, and the constraints of strict social codes. Rose faced the isolation of Illalong – ‘this poor old prison of a habitation’ – with resolute determination and an incisive wit. Her candid letters, written throughout the 1870s and 1880s, to her younger sister, Nora Murray-Prior, reveal a woman who found comfort in the shared confidences of correspondence and who did not lack for opinions on women’s rights, health and education. Here we see a devoted sister, a loyal wife battling domestic drudgery with scarce resources, and an affectionate mother whose parenting approach embraced ‘a little judicious neglect & occasional scrubbing’.

‘Looking for Rose’ recreates the world of Rose Paterson and, within the rhythm of her life, the bush childhood of ‘Banjo’ Paterson, which ultimately found a place in some of Australia’s best-known verses.

DR JENNIFER GALL is Assistant Curator, Documents and Artefacts, at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University School of Music. Her publications include ‘In Bligh’s Hand: Surviving the Mutiny on the Bounty’, published by the National Library of Australia, for which she won the 2011 Barbara Ramsden Award.

~*~

aww2017-badgeLooking For Rose Paterson brings the domestic world of women on the land in the mid to late nineteenth century, colonial era Australia, and in particular, the life of the mother of one of Australia’s much-loved poets. Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson’s (or Barty as his mother called him) mother Rose raised the generation of children that would go on to see the Federation of Australia, suffrage, and the early stages of the women’s rights movement, and the First World War. As Rose was a part of the generation that preceded this, Jennifer Gall’s book focuses on the trials she faced living the pastoral life, having a large brood of children, and the importance that society at the time placed on the role of women in the household, bringing up children and at times, seeing to the education of boys and girls, with a little more importance placed on the birth and education of sons who could provide for the family and take care of female relatives and younger sisters who were still children themselves if both parents were dead.

Rose was not however, the meek and mild stereotype that some accounts and stories make women of this time out to be. She fulfilled the roles of mother, caregiver and wife as was expected, yet she also maintained a close relationship with her sister, strived to teach her children to be humble as well as self-sufficient and accomplished at various things – which usually meant music, housework, and maybe some language skills, reading and writing for the girls, so they could run a household of their own, and instilled a desire to write in her son, Barty – known to us these days as Banjo Paterson.

Each chapter begins with the reproduction of a painting depicting nineteenth century pastoral life, and a quote from Banjo Paterson’s poetry. Throughout, Jennifer Gall has reproduced some letters that Rose wrote to her sister Nora, as well as other images and artefacts from the time period to illustrate to the reader what Rose’s life would have been like, and the advice that would have been available to mothers and women.

The story of Rose Paterson is one that until now was unknown to me. I suppose, like the stories of many women of her generation, it was one that may not have been seen as important to the history of Australia. Indeed, we celebrate many male stories from colonial times and the first part of the twentieth century, but apart from the suffrage movement and women’s involvement in the First World War, some stories are still hidden and we need to continue mining away to find the gems, such as this story of Rose Paterson. In a time when women’s voices were often not listened to, Rose played an integral role in bringing up her son, Barty to become the poet we know today.

Reading Rose’s story brought me back to thinking about Jackie French’s Matilda Saga, and the way she has brought the lives of these women to life, white, Indigenous, rich, poor and sometimes, of various nationalities throughout the books. Rose Paterson is a figure whose story is worthy of being told, allowing insight into a world predominantly seen through the written word of men and their world views. A world where boys and girls were faced with different expectations and futures, and a world that only a generation later, would see the beginnings of Federation, and suffrage for women, moving into the twentieth century where women became more vocal, and fought for their rights. It makes me wonder: with Rose as strong as she was – what would she have made of that world, and would she have been for or against suffrage? If she had met a girl like Jackie French’s Matilda O’Halloran, what would she have thought?

An intriguing book, and one to be treasured, so we never forget these hidden voices of which there are so many. It is both informative and entertaining, and gives deeper insight into the world of women of this era and the ways so many found to step outside of the confines of a gendered world, even if only in a small way.

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Stasi Wolf by David Young

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Title: Stasi Wolf (Karin Müller #2)

Author: David Young

Genre: Historical/Crime and Mystery

Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre/Allen and Unwin

Published: 22nd February 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 416

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: How do you solve a murder when you can’t ask any questions?

East Germany, 1975. Karin Müller, sidelined from the murder squad in Berlin, jumps at the chance to be sent south to Halle-Neustadt, where a pair of infant twins have gone missing.

But Müller soon finds her problems have followed her. Halle-Neustadt is a new town – the pride of the communist state – and she and her team are forbidden by the Stasi from publicising the disappearances, lest they tarnish the town’s flawless image.

Meanwhile, in the eerily nameless streets and tower blocks, a child snatcher lurks, and the clock is ticking to rescue the twins alive…

~*~

Set during the height of the Cold War and East Germany, under the control of the Stasi and communist influence, Stasi Wolf is the second in the Karin Müller series. Oberleutnant Müller, a member of the People’s Police, is sent to Halle-Neustadt to investigate the disappearance of infant twins. Forbidden by the Stasi to publicise the disappearance so the flawless image of Halle-Neustadt remains intact, Karin and her team run into a series of problems and roadblocks that prevent them from completing the job in a timely manner. As the months pass, the child snatcher hides in plain sight amongst the nameless streets, and a much larger mystery is lurking in the shadows of the missing twins.

The world of Stasi Wolf shows East Germany thirty years after the end of World War Two, under Soviet and Communist control. It is a world that Karin Müller has grown up in, and as a member of the People’s Police, struggles against doing what is right for the nation, what the Stasi demand, and working to resolve cases of missing children, at times having to use subversive methods to get by the watchful eye of the Stasi, especially Malkus, the Stasi officer in charge of Halle-Neustadt, vetting every move Karin and her team make in the search for the missing babies. It is a story full of twists and turns, that shows hints of the past at times, and these hints are slipped in effectively and in a way that keeps the reader guessing.

The development of Karin’s character is excellent too – from the hints at what happen to her during her training, to her family dynamic and the scenes that give the reader a glimpse into her past, and what made her the person she is in the novel, and the way she uses these past experiences to subvert the orders she is given. Her ability to find a way to bypass the orders shows that she is creative and innovative – as much as she can be in a Communist run state.

I thought that the suspense and pace of this book were well written. The scenes that flicked back and forth in first person held much mystery, and added to the thickening plot and case that Karin was investigating. Another nice surprise was the side story of Karin’s relationship with the doctor, Emil. It didn’t take over the rest of the story, and was effective, and tied in nicely with the eventual conclusion of the story. It is a gripping story that ensnared me and captured my attention, wanting to know what happened next, and what kind of person would kidnap twins, and why.

David Young has captured the characters well, and the hints he leaves about some of the characters creating a well-thought out sense of mystery, and his backdrop of the Stasi controlled East Germany ensured a story that had many twists and turns, and complex and flawed characters, in a world where knowing who to trust was hard. It was a great novel, and I hope the series will continue.

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