The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

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As most people know by now, the protagonist of this popular, award-winning novel is Cora, a young slave on the Randall plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia. After experiencing the brutality of Cora’s life there, the reader might think Cora would jump at the idea of escape, but we understand her reluctance when we see how recaptured slaves are tortured. Eventually, though, a slave newly arrived from Virginia persuades Cora to run away with him. He’s made contact with the underground railroad, which contrary to popular wisdom extends into Georgia.

Of course, the real underground railroad did not reach Georgia, so we quickly learn that the author is going to play fast and loose with the truth. Depicting the railroad as real trains running through real tunnels under the ground is only the most famous of the fantasies in this book. Among other things, skyscrapers and the Tuskegee Airmen appear a hundred years early, and the dreams of the American Colonization Society are imagined as having been made into law in North Carolina.

I realise this is fiction and recognise the metaphorical weight of these unreal elements.

Still, I wish the author had added an afterword separating what was real from what was false. It is disturbing that some readers will take much of this as fact. Even worse, given so much that is exaggerated or false, other readers will question the book’s brutal depiction of slavery. There are plenty of people in the U.S. who believe the false narrative that slaves were treated well and were happy in their work. While this is powerfully refuted by the book, especially the part on the plantation, it won’t help if people decide that it, too, is exaggerated.

Many in my book club disagreed with me, asserting that it was fiction so we shouldn’t have any expectation that it would conform with reality. Some also disagreed with me about Cora herself. I didn’t feel as though she came alive as a character. She seemed to me a cipher, deliberately empty so that the reader could imagine ourselves into that space, while they found her distinctly individual and realistic.

If I thought that Cora and all of the other characters could have been more fleshed out, I have nothing but admiration for Whitehead’s world-building. He brought each place and its culture to life such that they still linger in my memory. From the first page to the last, Cora’s life depends on her ability to suss out each new environment she enters, uncovering its secrets, identifying the dangers and guessing who can be trusted. As I traveled with her, I understood a tiny bit better what it must feel like, even today, to walk the streets—and drive the highways—as a person of color. Such an expansion of empathy is one of the greatest gifts of fiction, as I’ve said before.

I thought the book powerful and gruesome. Although I appreciated it more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, I find myself pondering many of its ideas. I think about the alternate forms of communication among the powerless and the fierce hold of an obsession. I think about the great cost of one person’s push for freedom and the stories that we would like to tell about ourselves. I think about the blood and injustice upon which this country was founded.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Fear of the Dark, by Walter Mosely

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Mosely’s fans know that his many novels, including the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries, are rousing adventures that navigate the liminal areas that lie in the shadow of good and evil, guilt and innocence. While we race along with the narrator, trying to avoid danger and death while figuring out just what is going on and what to do about it, we are testing our own moral code.

This addition to the Fearless Jones collection is narrated by Fearless’s friend Paris Minton, bookstore owner and ferocious reader. Most of Paris’s problems follow visits from his cousin Ulysses “Useless” Grant, a petty crook who spreads trouble in his wake. Although Paris turns Useless away at the door, refusing to help him, trouble comes in the door anyway. Luckily Paris can turn to his friend Fearless—a man Paris says is “outside the law” and “stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met.”

For me, the great joy and value of fiction—all fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, genre or literary, ebook or audio, text or graphic novel—is the chance to live someone else’s life. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the biology behind our deep-rooted desire for virtual adventures: stories are how we learn about the world and test our abilities. Most of all, to my mind, they increase our empathy by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and by forcing us to fill in the gaps with our own emotions and experiences.

Walter Mosely’s novels let me encounter the world as a black man, an especially difficult and valuable stretch for me. This particular book is set in Los Angeles of the 1950s: not the easiest time to be a black man in this country. Without disrupting the flow of the story or preaching, Mosely gently reminds us of just how different life was and is for a black man than for someone, say, like me.

The most explicit moment comes when Paris comes upon a white man lying dead on the bookstore floor. He calls Fearless for help, and he brings a friend to help dispose of the body. Paris says:

There I was, in a truck with desperate men. I was a desperate man. It was hard to believe that a milquetoast coward like myself could be involved in such a clandestine and dangerous operation. But the reasons were as clear as the quarter moon shining through the windshield.

All three of us were living according to black people’s law. The minute I came upon that white boy’s body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice. Not even that—I was guilty. There was no jury that would exonerate me. There was no court of appeals that would hear my cries of innocence.

I wasn’t a brave man like Fearless or a born criminal like Van Cleave, but we all belonged in that truck together. We had been put there by a long and unremitting history. My guilt was my skin, and where that brought me had nothing to do with choice or justice or the whole library of books I had read.

This is not empty polemic. It is a necessary explanation of why Paris doesn’t just call the police when he finds a dead body on his property. It is why this quiet man gets drawn into the dangerous currents of the criminal underworld.

Being such a big reader explains Paris’s voice being a little more florid than today’s readers might be accustomed to. One area where I particularly noticed his voice was in the descriptions of every character, even the most minor walk-on extra. As David Corbett points out in a recent blog post, “the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference.”

In this story Mosely mixes it up. He makes use of faces, posture, clothing and behavior to bring his characters memorably to life. Here are some examples:

Jessa was wearing an orange sundress that had little white buttons all the way down the front. The collar had a little dirt on it. Her red purse was scuffed.

Mona was a beautiful young woman. She was Negro and she was brown, but the brown mixed with gray everywhere in her appearance. Her skin was touched by it; her eyes sometimes shone with lunar possibilities. Even her hair seemed to be lightened by the midtone color.

Rinaldo had copper skin and slicked-back hair that did not seem straightened. He was missing one tooth and stood and walked in a hunched-over posture that he blamed on forty years leaning over pool tables.

Cleetus Rome, an elderly white man, . . . was old and toothless. He smelled something like dust or maybe even loam and he always bought magazines from me that had swimsuit models on the covers.

I was especially interested in the different ways Mosely describes skin color. He never falls back on the overused “coffee” or “mocha” but instead imagines the particular tone of a character’s skin.

As a writer and as a person I am learning a lot from this book. Even after providing an exciting read, it continues to reward further study.

Have you read a mystery or thriller that transported you to another world?

The Courage for Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen

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I’ve been looking to the past for ideas and inspiration about dealing with fascism and totalitarian regimes. I started with books by Dorothy Day, one of my greatest heroes, a woman who truly lived her ideals. From there, I’m moving on to the books that inspired her, by writers such as Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, and Ignazio Silone.

Then Jeremy distracted me with this volume of letters. Of course, I loved reading the descriptions and commentary on his own and others’ works. Merton especially loved the work of writers from Latin America, and there are many here to whom he’s written and whose work I’ll want to look up.

But what fascinated me was a theme that has come up a few times recently. As Christine M. Bochen, the editor of this volume, says in her Introduction, “Merton sensed in writers a hope for the future of mankind. Merton believed, as the title of this volume suggests, that the courage for truth was their special gift.”

In November I attended a writing conference which ended with a workshop led by Donald Maass. He asked us, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”

Don’t laugh. Novels have led to social change. Think of how To Kill a Mockingbird contributed to the Civil Rights Movement or The Handmaid’s Tale to the Women’s Movement. Oliver Twist drew attention to child poverty and All Quiet on the Western Front to the reality of war. Poetry, too, has been a powerful weapon, whether written or sung.

I have for some time been clear about my purpose for writing. I can’t do much that will affect those in power. But I can tell stories, as I did in Innocent, my memoir of my time on welfare. Many people have told me that reading Innocent changed their view of welfare recipients. What I’ve learned in my lifetime is that big social changes happen when the minds and hearts of the people are swayed. And stories are the way to do that.

In fact, reading any fiction opens your heart and mind to the lives of others. Studies such as the ones described in this article have shown the neurobiological basis for how reading builds empathy. The same areas of the brain are used when we read about a character’s experiences as when we experience something in real life. It only makes sense. When we read a novel, we see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once we experience what life is like for them, once it has become our life too, our intolerance and prejudices fade.

In a letter to José Coromel Urtecho dated 15 March 1964, Merton writes:

. . . the poets remain almost the only ones who have anything to say . . . They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker, and it is this courage that is most necessary today. A courage not to rebel, for rebellion itself tends to substitute another and louder noise from the noise that already deafens everyone, but an independence, a personal and spiritual liberty which is above noise and outside it and which can unite men in a solidarity which noise and terror cannot penetrate.

Of course, Merton recognises that there are risks involved when you take on the power structure. Still, in a letter to Boris Pasternak dated 23 October 1958, he says: “Both works (Dr. Zhivago and Vladimir Soloviev’s Meaning of Love) remind us to fight our way out of complacency and realize that all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.”

What novel or poem can you think of that has contributed to social change?

The Constitution of the United States of America

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One of my book clubs chose to read the U.S. Constitution a few months ago, inspired by Khizr Khan’s speech at the 2016 Democratic convention. This week seemed to be an appropriate time to look at it again. Regardless of your political leanings, if you are a U.S. citizen this is the foundational document and primary source for your country’s government.

I realise that one can spend years learning about all the interpretations and rulings that have added layer after layer to this short document. Some book club members read additional books to expand their understanding, but I wanted to start fresh here.

Some of us had read the Constitution back in our schooldays; others never had. I think we were all surprised by how much we’d forgotten or perhaps not noticed in the first place.

Of course, this week all eyes are on Article I, Section 9: the emoluments clause intended to ensure that our elected officials are not bribed by “any King, Prince, or foreign State.” We expect our elected officials to put the good of the country before their personal gain. You could argue that this possibility is already covered by the treason clause (Article III, Section 3), since accepting a bribe would also be putting another country’s interest before that of the U.S. and therefore giving them “Aid and Comfort.” Still, I’m glad it is spelled out.

The sentence just before that in Section 9 amused me: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” A few years ago I visited Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire, England, home of George Washington’s ancestors. One of the guides told me that a few days earlier a contingent of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members had toured the house. These women had assured the guide that they were the aristocracy of the U.S. I said no, that was just their personal fantasy, and that I was sure they were not representative of the DAR as a whole. I added that my mother, who had been invited to join, had refused. Despite her interest and pride in her family history, she thought it was un-American to think yourself special because your family had been here since the revolution.

I was also surprised that there were only two casual mentions of Native Americans in the document. This was another headslap moment, though, because I certainly knew about tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations are considered “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. is different from that of a foreign nation. There are limitations on tribal nations’ sovereignty just as there are limitations on the sovereignty of states and the federal government.

Whatever else I’d forgotten, I remember the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. I come back often to the first of them which assures freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and rights of assembly and petition. This one seems in most danger today.

Other amendments provide a curious glimpse into the country’s history, such as Amendment III against housing soldiers in people’s homes without their consent (except in case of war and then only according to law). This is not something most of us worry about today, but it was a big issue for the colonists.

And the U.S.’s shame is spelled out here as well. Why would amendments be needed to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color (Amendment XV) or gender (Amendment XIX)? Surely Amendment XIV should have been enough since it guarantees the civil rights of “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” and says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Thus we are reminded that there was a time not that long ago when people of color and women were not actually considered “persons”.

I’m glad my book club pushed me to reread the Constitution and reacquaint myself with this country’s first principles.

Have you read the Constitution recently?

Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. His fears for his son’s physical safety took on new resonance in the outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and too many others.

Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

Golden’s book has a different focus than Coates’s. It is not a letter written to her then-teen-aged son. Rather it is a combination of interviews, essays and journal entries that document her search to discover how on a practical level she can keep her son—and all our sons—safe.

How much should she worry about his taking on the walk and fashions of the street? Should she and her husband move out of Washington, D.C., to a suburb? Should she take Michael out of public school and send him to boarding school? What should she tell him so he can protect himself? How to couch it so as to scare him enough but not too much, this child she has worked so hard to make feel loved and safe and secure?

You can imagine how Golden’s thoughts and fears hit home with me, since I have two sons, at that time barely out of their teens. I worried about them, knowing how dangerous the streets are for young men, whether from other young men looking to assert themselves or from those who assume a teen-aged boy must be a troublemaker.

Walking in our neighborhood, they had been bullied by police who assumed they must be about to commit a crime. But they weren’t handcuffed or arrested. They weren’t shot. I knew already, before reading this book or any other, that insulting and infuriating as those incidents were, they were nothing—nothing—compared to what could, maybe would have happened if their skin had been a darker color. They and I are well aware that we walk with privilege, unearned and unwelcome.

I urge everyone to read this powerful book. Golden’s call to action is more vital than ever. She says:

There was a transcendent moment in our history when we faced bulldogs, water cannons, jail cells, firebombs, assassinations, sacrifice, so that our children could be full citizens. What will we do so that they can live?

They are my children too. And yours. They are the future.

What will you do?

The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

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It’s been a few years since I read this novel by the incredible Marita Golden. In her work she consistently takes on issues so delicate that most are afraid to discuss them at all. Golden approaches them with intelligence and humanity, forcing us to envision and inhabit lives that may be different from our own. To me this is what make literature one of the highest callings: that it nurtures our empathy.

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison.

As Teresa’s grandmother (and Lena’s mother) Ma Adele says, “‘She’ll need you to love her, love her to the bone.’” But Lena isn’t at all sure she’s ready to do that. She bitterly resents the losses that her mother’s actions caused and misses the father who left them shortly before events spun out of control. Ryland has been too absorbed in his own grief to be much of a father to Teresa, leaving her to Ma Adele’s steadfast care.

All of these characters have a turn, as the story moves between Teresa’s first-person point of view and the third-person point of view of the others, particularly Lena. Their actions and memories balance Teresa’s and add context and depth.

Through this “chorus of voices” as Golden describes it in the Reader’s Guide, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. This theme is what brought me back to this book, now when it seems as though our society may finally be ready to confront the massive racial inequality in the U.S. prison system.

I’ve learned so much from Marita Golden’s workshops. Her skill is evident on every page. Look at how Ma Adele is introduced. About to leave for work, Teresa stops to see her grandmother, entering a bedroom full of plants and flowers. “Some days I heard her behind her door conversing with the plants. She had names the cactus Butch and the azaleas that hung from the ceiling Aretha.” From this we get a picture of Ma Adele as nurturing and having a sense of humor.

Further we find that she is still in bed reading the newspaper, signaling an active intellectual involvement in the world. “The TV remote control, a paperback mystery, an aged, tattered leather phone book, knitting needles, a ball of yarn, and a stack of bills littered my grandmother’s bed.” We are reminded that Ma Adele is perhaps tired, spending much of her time in bed, a woman asked in her old age to raise another child.

Among the litter on the bed is a stack of letters from Lena. Teresa says, “Each time I looked at my grandmother’s face I saw the shadow and the promise of my mother and myself.” By now we know how complicated her emotions are about this seemingly commonplace observation.

This is just one example. The story takes us deep into the history of these individuals and their experience as a family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

I hope with all my heart that we can learn to live inside the lives of others and, seeing the world as they do, make better choices. Stories such as these help us get there.

What novel have you read that illuminated a life different from your own?

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

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Did you think that the days of extreme poverty in the U.S. were over? Did you think there was a safety net in place? Think again.

After over 20 years of poverty research, Kathryn Edin began to see an entirely new level of despair: families in the U.S. getting by with almost no cash income. Luke Shaefer, an expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, didn’t believe her. He decided to prove Edin was wrong, using the World Bank’s poverty threshold as his upper limit. After crunching the numbers, however, he found that in 2011, “1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month.”

How could this happen in a country so prosperous? We hear a lot about income inequality these days, but not about this kind of extreme poverty. Through stories of individual families backed by solid research, the authors detail the reasons why this kind of poverty has been increasing since 1996, “and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”

1996: you remember. That was the year welfare reform destroyed the safety net. No longer was there any guarantee for those whose severe poverty qualified them for assistance. And what federal money remained was changed to go to the states as block grants with wide leeway on how they could spend it; it didn’t actually have to go to poor people. As documented in this book, people are so routinely denied—often being told there is no more money—that most poor people don’t bother applying. Many don’t even know there is a benefit for which they qualify. The authors call the commentators who in 1996 foresaw the coming catastrophe “remarkably prescient”, but those of us who’d been poor saw it all too clearly; we knew how fragile and under siege our benefits had always been.

The other factor, of course, is the ever-worsening lack of jobs. Even if they can get a job—as everyone interviewed has done in the past—the pay is so low, the hours unreliable, the benefits non-existent, that it is not enough to lift them out of poverty. And that’s not even considering the ways that bosses take advantage of their employees, since it’s a buyer’s market for them.

How is it even possible to manage without a cash income? You can only use food stamps for actual food, not soap or kids’ shoes or rent or light. We meet many families in this book, each with their own strategies. Their stories are told with the calm of a social scientist, tempered by compassion. You cannot help but be moved by the stories of people like Modonna Harris standing in line for hours to apply for benefits only to be turned away. “Everyone knows you have to get here by at least 7:30, a full hour before the office opens.” We learn about her background, her search for work, everything that led her to this point.

The authors see this work experience as a cause for hope: those they interview have worked in the past and are desperate to work again. I found the same thing when I was on welfare 40 years ago. In the final chapter Edin and Shaefer lay out a roadmap for getting people back to work and helping those who cannot work.

My only disagreement with them is their blithe statement that “reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer.” I agree that in addition to money, Aid to families with Dependent Children (AFDC) dispensed stigma and isolation. As a former AFDC recipient, I experienced both and the hopelessness that comes with them. However, I would take that stigma and isolation a thousand times over to spare my children what happened to the children we get to know in this book: chronic malnourishment, abuse by sexual predators in overcrowded households, the temptation for a tenth-grade girl when a teacher offers her food in exchange for sex. I would make the same decision I made all those years ago when I said to myself: the kids come first.

Of course, I know there’s no going back to AFDC, even though it would be better than what we have now. The voting public has been too blinded by politicians determined to demonize the poor—such a handy target! so powerless to fight back. They have also been blinded by their own comfortable lifestyle, not recognising the privilege that got them there, or, for those in a lower income bracket, their fear of falling into poverty themselves.

I do endorse the authors’ proposed solutions. However, it will take a huge groundswell of public opinion to overcome our society’s bias against helping the poor. It will take all of us speaking out.

I hope you are moved. I hope you read this book. I hope you act.