The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

sealwoman.jpgTitle: The Sealwoman’s Gift

Author: Sally Magnusson

Genre: Literary, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette/Two Roads

Published: 13th February 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A woman’s story lost from history – in 1627 Icelandic islanders were abducted and sold into slavery in Algiers; but what happened to the women and children and, specifically, to the pastor’s wife?

‘A remarkable feat of imagination… I enjoyed and admired it in equal measure’ Sarah Perry, author of THE ESSEX SERPENT

In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.

THE SEALWOMAN’S GIFT is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.

Icelandic history has been brought to extraordinary life..An accomplished and intelligent novel’ Yrsa Siguroardottir, author of WHY DID YOU LIE?

~*~

1627, Iceland. A remote island is ravaged by Barbary pirates, and 400 Icelanders were taken captive, and transported to Algiers, at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, to be sold into slavery to sultans and council members and their families, and into harems or to whomever can pay the right price. Families are ripped apart, children taken from their parents. Many die in the coming days and weeks from fevers and diseases they’ve been isolated from on their island. Ásta is separated from her eldest. Egill, and her husband, Ólafur, and it will be almost a decade before she is reunited with her husband. Her younger children, Marta and Jón are able to stay with her – though the slave master’s whims must be met swiftly, and without questioning. As Ásta and her fellow enslaved Icelanders await a ransom payment, they do their best, and what they can to survive. Ásta finds solace in the Icelandic sagas she heard as a child, and eventually, the tales of Scheherazade and the Arabian nights. Time passes, and she begins to question where she came from, and who she is as she uses the Icelandic sagas to tame her master and calm herself. hoping one day for freedom, a freedom that could come with a price she may never forgive herself for paying.

The clash of Icelandic and Arabic culture and religion are a shock to Ásta, who watches as the other enslaved women who survived the journey and initial few days and weeks take on their new culture to fit in and survive, and as her children take on the religion of the enslavers and have their entire identity reshaped. It is a story about slavery, yes. It takes an instance of slavery that I had previously not known about. The image most people have of slavery is linked to colonisation, and The American Civil War – but there are many stories of slavery, of the worldwide slave trade that are not always spoken about. Like other slave masters, Cilleby tries to justify the actions of the Barbary pirates by saying it had been done to other groups before, suggesting that throughout human history, all groups at one stage or another have tried to enslave each other for their own purposes and power. I found this to be quite interesting, and it embarked on a journey for Ásta of survival and love for her children, and a longing to be home. It speaks to the pain of being ripped away from all you know, from home and family, and displaced in an alien world that does not feel so welcoming to you. The raw feelings of Ásta’s isolation come through explicitly and clearly for the reader, as does her horror at the way the other women she came over with so willingly take to the life they’ve been forced into, take to marrying those who buy them and converting to Islam because it means freedom from being a slave – her horror at turning her back on her own religion and her own family is apparent, and is executed effectively.

Whilst the history of the enslaved Icelander’s becomes the backbone to this story, at the heart is the role of women and their voices, lost in the original sources. Ásta’s name is found in a record of the ransom, but not referred to in the Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egillsson: Captured by Barbary Pirates in 1627, and its translation that the author has referred to. Using the sources available to her and a little creative licence based on these sources, Sally Magnusson has raised Ásta’s voice, and made her the primary story teller through, dipping in and out of other perspectives of the slave owners and Ólafur to tell a well-rounded story about the times and the complexities of human nature. Through Ásta, the life of a slave is revealed, though it is the life of a female slave, unable to participate in certain areas. The trepidation and fear she feels in her new life reverberates throughout, and as she loses herself and loses hope in her own faith and family is eloquently dealt with, and sensitively shown. Each element of the story has been carefully thought out, researched and written to give scope to each of the characters, and reveal their flaws and their positives. They are human, and they show human emotions and are subject to how they feel at the time, and not how people tell them to act or feel. I found this to be very effective and it ensured a story with a decent pace. The settings of Iceland and Algiers are excellent contrasts, the cold and hot, the barren and the lively, and the feeling of home and the different ways each are a home to the characters. Though it shows very strict gender roles. Ásta’s attempts to move out of what is demanded of her but at the same time, use it to her advantage, were written with great detail and interest.

Understanding that slavery has many layers and has affected many countries at different times is something that this book highlights, using an example not often heard about. In the author’s note, Sally mentions that slave trade as happening all over the world at the time of the 1627 raid on the coast of Iceland, that it wasn’t an isolated incident. Telling the diverse stories of slaves and the slave trade shows how vast it was across the entire world, not just the stories and histories we hear about and are taught.

I found it hard to find a favourite part as each section was all so different and each had something I enjoyed about it, though Ásta’s chapters were ones I always looked forward to, and what she did in circumstances she had no control over. It was a great story, and one that shows a different side to the history of slavery and the power of traditional stories and storytelling.

Booktopia

2017 Pultizer Prize Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

undergroud railroad.jpg

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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