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.

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.

People Kill People

An Outlook Into Gun Control

An elderly man purchases a gun. His mental health is not called into question. He takes excellent care of his gun until the day he shoots an intruder. When he sells the gun, no questions are asked about the buyer’s history. No questions are asked about their knowledge of weapons use. In Arizona, you don’t have to be a licensed dealer to sell a gun. And there are no laws requiring a background check for the buyer.

Since 2014, gun related deaths have increased significantly in the United States and mass shootings are becoming more widespread. In her author’s note, Ellen Hopkins explains that she wrote her novel People Kill People as a way to understand why someone would resort to pulling the trigger. Why do people hate? Why do people fear? Why do human beings go out and kill each other?

Using inspirations from the news, Hopkins developed six young characters that all have different life experiences and different points of view. Each of them has a reason to be angry. Anyone of them could be capable of gun violence.

Camilla is a young mother married to Rand. She is a stay at home mom to her three-year-old son but dreams of returning to the nightlife with other girls her age. She prefers to live in the moment rather than be saddled down with responsibly. Her rash actions often complicate her marriage.

Rand is married to Camilla. He works long hours and is studying to enter into the police force. In contrast to his wife, he doesn’t like to party. In childhood he suffered a trauma that he keeps hidden from his family. Despite his best efforts to keep it buried deep down, the memories rise up in unexpected ways.

Ashlynn grew up in a house full of violence. Her mother tried her best to shield her from it but the memories of her father’s brutality haunt her all the same.

Noelle was once an honour student with a world of opportunities ahead of her. She was the good girl, the responsible teen. A random act of gun violence left her injured and prone to seizures, taking away her promising future.

Silas wears steel-toed shoes just in case he’s in a fight. As his mother puts it – some people are just born angry. His temperament only worsened with his parent’s divorce.

Daniel is the product of an affair between a successful, married corporate attorney and a young Honduran housekeeper. His mother was deported when he was young and Daniel was sent to live with his father and step-mother. After his father passes, his step-mother raises him but with great resentment.

Author Ellen Hopkins brilliantly develops these characters as their stories start to intertwine. The decisions made by one character can affect all of the others, even if they don’t realize it. The story becomes so intermixed it’s easy to see how one action can cause a cascading effect until there is a powder keg just waiting to explode.

People Kill People is not without controversy. It contains violent actions and some very racist points of view. It is never gratuitous; however, it is always done to illustrate a point. It fits with the unstable upbringing of certain characters. Gun control is a widely debated subject in North America and People Kill People will make for very lively discussions in book clubs.

— Lesley L.

The Hate U Give

When I discovered The Hate U Give during its release last year, I thought to myself, “This book is going to resonate with readers and become very popular.” After 85 weeks on the NYT Bestseller List, millions of copies sold, and a movie adaptation released in theatres this week, it has become more than popular; it’s mainstream. Why? Because there are so many people around the world (and not just teens) who, like the book’s narrator, are experiencing varying forms of a political awakening.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a story of many stories. It’s a story about 16-year old Starr Carter struggling to exist between two worlds: her predominantly black neighbourhood of Garden Heights and the predominantly white suburban prep school she attends. It’s a story of her childhood best friend Khalil being brutally shot by a police officer unarmed. It’s a story of grief. It’s a story about systemic injustice. It’s a story about the realities of racism in America that persists today. It’s a story about finding your voice. And it’s a story about a community that struggles to come together against these injustices while trying to restrain their fury towards each other.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Its subject is timely, complex, and rendering. I loved how much the book focused on Starr and her family. Unlike many YA books where parents are either dead or absentee, Starr’s parents and extended family were not only consistently present but fleshed out. We not only know Momma and Daddy, but Starr’s older half-brother Seven, Uncle Carlos, Nana, and her younger brother Sekani. All of these relationships are dynamic and create a fully imagined community. Sure, Starr has a boyfriend and friends from school, but they stand on the periphery in the story. In the darkest and most tragic of circumstances, Starr’s loving family not only supported her, but empowered her too.

While this book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement it unapologetically tackles the question of what racism looks like in America today. Many may suggest that racism is a term of the past but this book argues otherwise. Racism may not have public lynchings or signs that segregate white Americans from African Americans like it was under the laws of Jim Crow, but the segregation that separates Starr’s communities allows the persistence of endemic oppression of African Americans to continue. Racism can look like Starr’s dad being ordered to lay down with his hands behind his back for having a loud conversation with his next-door neighbour Mr. Lewis. Or it can be more invisible such as Hailey unfollowing Starr’s Tumblr account because she didn’t want to see “gross images” of Emmett Till on her dashboard. While this book doesn’t attempt to solve the problem of racism (that’s way too big a task) it does paint a complex picture of what racism looks like in America in 2017. Its picture has heavy strokes of blatant racism, tones of invisible racism, white privilege, systemic oppression, and even reverse-racism in the background.

While this book has a tragic beginning, it ends on an impassioned and empowering note. As Starr is politically awakened, she is empowered to use her voice to stand up for her community. In these perilous times we live in, Starr sets a great example of becoming an advocate even when the system always fails you. And that’s why in the Parthenon of young adult literature, Starr will continue to shine on and off the page.

— Eleni Z.