The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer is a stellar debut novel for Ta-Nehisi Coates. While he has had an illustrious career in journalism, this is his first foray into fiction and he has hit a home-run! Coates’ writing style is stunningly eloquent, creating passages that transport the reader into the images and scenes created by his masterfully selected language. This is a gorgeously written piece of literature!

The story revolves around the life of Hiram Walker, one of the ‘Tasked’ on a plantation in Virginia called Lockless, owned and run by the ‘Quality’ Walker family. Once a thriving operation, the land is dying and the plantation and the ways of the gentry are facing a slow death.  We meet Hiram at a young age after his mother has been sold into bondage. He finds safe haven with a cantankerous woman in the slave village and it is during this time that he realizes that, even unschooled, he has an extremely unusual capacity to remember things. This talent brings him to the attention of the plantation owner, Howell Walker, who also happens to be Hiram’s birth father. Recognizing the tremendous gift that the boy has, Walker Sr brings the boy up to the main house to be educated and to be his white son Maynard’s servant.

This is the beginning of a journey that will take Hiram through oppressive suffering toward a future that will enable him to become a soldier in the underground war between the Quality and the Tasked. He will begin to unearth the memory of his mother, buried deep within him, that will allow his gift of ‘conduction’ to emerge, a gift that will help him to understand that freedom without love and family is bondage in its own way.

The story is based on the real life experiences of William and Peter Still, African-American brothers who were able to purchase their freedom from slavery and went on to become active abolitionists and conductors on the Underground Railroad. Fleeing For Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railway and The Underground Railroad Records are compilations of experiences of  the slaves and conductors who worked on the secret network and reflect the perils, tactics, and emotional struggles faced by the freedom seekers and fighters.

A warning to the reader: the inhumanity depicted in this story is almost beyond belief and yet multitudes of blacks have this savagery imprinted into their DNA through the generations that lived and continue to live in a country still much defined by its roots of slavery. 

— Nancy C.

The voices of strong women

Call Your Daughter Home is a Historical Fiction novel set in 1920’s South Carolina in an area which recently suffered a devastating boll weevil infestation leaving cotton crops decimated. Only 50 years since the Civil War, and still a few years away from The Depression, author Deb Spera shows how these issues influence the lives of three women with vastly different backgrounds.

Reeta, a first generation freed slave, Annie, a rich business owner and Gertrude, a poor mother of four girls, each take turns narrating the story. Their voices are strong and distinct, allowing them to share their different points of view as women living during this uncertain time as well as illustrate how the men in their lives greatly influence their experiences. Despite their differences in social status, these three women find strength, loyalty and a degree of friendship in each other.

The book has a slower pace and while the plot was somewhat predictable, readers will find the ending quite satisfying. The inclusion of interesting and varied secondary characters strengthens the story and provides readers with an interesting read that focuses on these three women whose love for their children, despite their differing experiences and hardships, push them onward.

– Laurie P.

If Beale Street Could Talk

They’re here. All those great big, beautiful Oscar-winning movies are (mostly) out on DVD and available at WPL.

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born and Green Book are the really hot ones. You might be lucky enough to snag a FastView copy, otherwise you’ll have to take your place in the rather lengthy holds lists.

Here’s one that didn’t garner quite the same level of attention but which I’m eager to see: If Beale Street Could Talk (it won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Regina King). I read some great reviews and wanted to see this film at the theatre, but somehow never did. Just take a look at the trailer, don’t you agree it looks beautiful?

Then I discovered it’s based on a novel by American author James Baldwin, so now I’m immersed in the book as I await my turn for the movie. (BTW, I’ve found reading the book beforehand — if there is one — really enhances the movie-watching experience.)

I can’t praise the book highly enough. Set in New York City, it’s a tender love story between 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny and so much more. Tish discovers she is pregnant, and the scene where Tish tells Fonny’s family, now that’s memorable. I just can’t wait to see that in the movie! When Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and thrown in jail, Tish and her family — Fonny’s family isn’t much use — work tirelessly to get him released from an openly racist system.

A lot of themes come into If Beale Street Could Talk. Race and racism and injustice, certainly, but also the universal themes such as hope vs. despair and staying strong and resilient in the face of adversity because, after all, what other choice is there?

N.B.  It was a great thrill for me to discover the writer James Baldwin (1924-1987). Within the first half page of the book, less than that really, I knew he was the real deal, a REAL writer. His writing is spare and clean with nothing extraneous added, yet so genuine. I know I will be reading more of James Baldwin.

— Penny D.

On the Come Up

After devouring and waxing poetic about Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, I was among the eager fans awaiting On The Come Up. It’s a coming-of-age story about a Black teenage girl named Bri who finds her calling, the power of her own voice and, ultimately, discovers who she wants to be.

I easily connected with Thomas’ writing style. It’s powerful, engaging and authentic as she shows Bri and her family’s struggles to make ends meet and deal with their complicated past. Through her dialogue, she reveals the bonds between the characters and adds humorous bits, delightful nerdy references and some solid banter.

I loved that Bri is so different compared to Starr (the main character of The Hate U Give). She is brash, headstrong, outspoken and occasionally makes poor choices but its through those choices, and their consequences, that we see Bri find out who she wants to be. She is flawed but passionate and once she focuses on what’s important to her, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Angie Thomas need not worry about Sophomoric Writer Blues. On The Come Up is a wonderful, thought-provoking read about self-discovery and while many readers may not connect with Bri’s hip hop world, Thomas has written a story about relatable issues (loss, friendship, the messiness of family, standing up for yourself) and allows her readers to take a look at the world through Bri’s eyes and walk in her Timberlands for at least a few hundred pages.

— Laurie P.