Review 1403: Washington Black

Best of Ten!
Washington Black is a twelve-year-old field slave on the Barbados plantation of Faith in 1830 when a new master arrives. Masters are to be feared, but it soon becomes clear that the new master is cruel and thinks nothing of the death of a slave.

Washington and his protector, the old woman named Kit, are alarmed when one evening they are summoned to the master’s house. They are expected to wait table while the master entertains his brother, Christopher, although they have no training. After the dinner, the brother asks for Washington to wait on him personally.

Christopher, or Titch, as he asks to be called, is a man with a scientific mind. He is working on an airship he calls Cloud Cutter, which he plans to launch from a mountain at the top of the plantation. Once Titch sees how exactly Washington draws, he begins to involve him in his experiments.

The master is away when Titch’s cousin Philip arrives. He brings some news that disturbs the plans of both Titch and the master. Then a terrible event occurs. Because Washington is present for it, he knows it means his death. Titch knows it, too, and the two flee the plantation in the Cloud Cutter.

Washington’s life becomes one of adventure overshadowed by fear. Although during the novel he travels to the Arctic, Upper Canada, England, and eventually Morocco, for years he fears being recaptured.

This novel is part adventure story, but it has the more serious aim of exploring the bonds between the exploiter and the exploited. Titch is a mystery to Wash, a seemingly compassionate man who yet abandons him in the Arctic. For years, Wash believes him to be dead, but then he hears he is alive. This sends him on more journeys to try to find and understand his mentor.

I thought this novel was fascinating, especially the descriptions of sea creatures when Wash begins studying them in Upper Canada. Later on, he begins to build the world’s first public aquarium.

I liked Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, but I was really caught up in the story of Wash’s life. This novel applies to my Man Booker Prize project, but I would have read it anyway.

Related Posts

Half-Blood Blues

The Known World

The Good Lord Bird

Review 1302: Crow Lake

Cover for Crow LakeBest of Ten!
Kate Morrison grew up in a farming community in far northern Ontario. She is reticent about her personal life, which frustrates the man in her life, Daniel Crane. Both are zoologists, and Kate can track her interest all the way back to the times she spent as a young girl watching insects and other wildlife in the ponds near her home with her older brother, Matt.

Kate finds it difficult to discuss her family, mostly because of her estrangement from that beloved brother. Crow Lake relates the events that led up to that estrangement from the time her parents died.

When Kate is seven, both her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. When their relatives plan to split up the four children, Luke, at 18 the oldest, decides to give up his scholarship to a teaching college to raise the two girls, Kate and Bo, aged one. He intends that Matt, the real intellect in the family, will go to the college the next year.

This sacrifice on Luke’s part makes Matt angry. Still, the biggest struggle is that the family get by at all, despite the help of the neighbors. Although their father had a good income, he gave most of his money away to struggling family members.

Aside from the troubles in the Morrison household, there are hints of tragic events at the neighboring Pye farm. These events will eventually affect the Morrisons in unexpected ways.

A visit back to the family to celebrate the birthday of Matt’s son, Simon, sends Kate’s thoughts repeatedly back to the events of her seventh and eighth years. In some ways, she is forced to face facts that she’s been avoiding.

Crow Lake is truly the kind of book that creates a world for its readers to explore. It is loaded with atmosphere and tension as Lawson explores the origins of family resentments and feelings pushed firmly below ground. This is a powerful book, completely absorbing. I was sorry for it to end.

Related Posts

Family Furnishings

Suzanne

The Death of Bees

Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

Related Posts

The Blazing World

How to Be Both

The View from Castle Rock

Day 1175: Anne of Avonlea

Cover for Anne of AvonleaA while back, some bloggers were having an Anne of Green Gables reading challenge. That led me to reread Anne of Green Gables, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it held up for adults. Other bloggers went ahead and read the entire series.

I don’t think I read the entire series when I was a girl, but I know I read up through the time when Anne married Gilbert, so I’m guessing I read three or four books back then. When I ran across a copy of Anne of Avonlea, the second book in the series, I decided to give it a try as an adult.

In this book, Anne is sixteen and just about to begin her career as a schoolteacher in Avonlea. Most of her old friends are also teachers at nearby schools. The novel follows her adventures during the next two years as she teaches, makes new friends, and begins to grow up a little. She and Marilla also take on the upbringing of two six-year-old distant cousins of Marilla, Davey and Dora.

I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this book as much. The dreamy, romantic Anne, with all her comments about fairies and so on isn’t as convincing as an older girl. The novel relies for humor mostly on the comments of Anne’s students and the misbehavior of Davey. I found the first a little cloying, and I couldn’t help comparing the second to a similar situation in A Girl of the Limberlost, which is handled much better. I have to admit to not developing any feelings for any of these children, whereas Anne as a child was very sympathetic.

Finally, there’s not much of a sense of plot to this novel. It is almost as if, in these transitional years, Montgomery didn’t know what to do with Anne. The most dramatic events center around her friend, Miss Lavendar Lewis, but they are predictable. I think this is a book that adolescent or pre-adolescent girls might love, but it holds little attraction for me.

Related Posts

Anne of Green Gables

The Secret Garden

The Book Thief

Day 1167: My Darling Detective

Cover for My Darling DetectiveBest of Five!
My Darling Detective is an absolutely charming book. It is not a conventional mystery novel, despite its title. Instead, it focuses more on the characters’ everyday lives.

In 1970’s Halifax, Jacob Rigolet is attending an auction, bidding for his employer on a photograph from World War II, when a woman runs in and splashes the photo with a bottle of ink. To Jake’s horror, the woman is his mother, who is supposed to be safely tucked up at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital.

Jake’s fianceé, Martha Crauchet, is a detective who has caught a cold case that she thinks may be related to this incident. Back in 1945, the year Jake was born, Detective Robert Emil was suspected of murdering and assaulting some Jewish citizens of Halifax. A woman who identified him as being near the victim at the time of the murder disappeared. The connection Martha sees is that Emil also attacked Jake’s mother during the same time period, the same day Jake was born, in fact. Alert Martha also realizes that Bernard Rigolet could not possibly be Jake’s father, as he had been deployed to Europe for a year when Jake was born and in fact died in Germany two days after his birth.

Nora Rigolet’s breakdown is also a mystery. Long a respected librarian at the Halifax Free Library, she was committed after an incident in which she appeared to believe the war had just ended. In the midst of this breakdown, she set up a display in the library of photos by the same photographer whose work she tried to deface three years later at the auction. This photo, called “Death on a Leipzig Balcony,” actually shows Bernard Rigolet in battle one day before he was killed.

As Martha and her two partners, Hodgson and Tides, gather evidence against ex-Detective Emil, Martha tries to get to know Nora, to uncover the events surrounding Jake’s birth. This novel is said to be an homage to film noir, but it’s not really noirish. The charm of this novel lies in the relationship between Martha and Jake, with their honest and funny discussions, their love of the radio program Detective Levy Detects, and the details of their everyday lives.

This is a charming and likable novel, with amusing dialogue. I understand that Norman is known for his novels set in the Maritimes, and I will be seeking out more.

Related Posts

Quiet Neighbors

By the Pricking of My Thumbs

The Long Way Home

Day 1047: The Beggar Maid

beggar-maidLike Olive Kitteridge and a few other books I’ve read the last few years, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a novel constructed from short stories. It tells the story of Rose and of her relationships with other people in her life.

The stories about her childhood and adolescence are mostly about her complex relationship with her stepmother, Flo. Rose feels she can never please Flo, but at the same time she finds Flo rude and vulgar. These early stories also portray an environment of ignorance and poverty, her stories about school particularly shocking.

“The Beggar Maid” is what Rose’s first boyfriend Patrick calls her. But as Rose marries Patrick, who moves them to Vancouver to run one of his father’s department stores, Rose slowly learns that both of them have overestimated Patrick’s own gentility. Rose has thought she was marrying a scholar not a department store heir. As she is attracted more and more to the bohemian crowd in Vancouver, it becomes more obvious how unsuited the two are.

Munro’s stories are insightful about people, and as I believe Rose is Munro’s alter ego, unsparing in looking at herself. Her prose is, as always, spare and beautiful.

Related Posts

Family Furnishings

The View from Castle Rock

Olive Kitteridge

Day 1043: A Great Reckoning

Cover for A Great ReckoningA Great Reckoning is the latest in Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache mystery series. Gamache has found retirement too unchallenging, so he has taken the position as head of the Sureté Academy. He has noticed that cadets graduating from the academy are ill-trained and thuggish and realizes that the corruption he eradicated from the Sureté itself has infected the academy.

He fires many of the professors but decides to keep the second in command, Serge Leduc, where he can see him. He also invites his ex-friend and enemy, Michel Brèbeuf, to join the faculty as an example of failed corruption.

While going through a box in Three Pines, someone finds an old orienteering map that had been walled up in the cabin that became the bistro. It has several mysteries about it. Gamache makes copies of the map for four of the cadets and challenges them to solve the mysteries of the map.

Then Leduc is found dead, shot in the temple with his own gun in his rooms at the school. Although Gamache cannot be on the case, he notices that Leduc had a copy of the map in the drawer of his bed table.

Gamache’s first instinct is to protect the four cadets, who were among Leduc’s inner circle. So, he takes them to Three Pines and has them continue to work on the puzzle of the map.

Meanwhile, Deputy Commissioner Gélinas of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been brought in to the case as an independent observer. He shortly decides that Gamache himself is guilty of murder.

Although I always find these mysteries complex and like the characters, I think I’m beginning to tire of this series. We’re in a rut with the main characters of the village. We hear the same jokes and repeat the scenes when strangers realize this village houses both a famous poet and a famous painter. And why do murder mysteries always resort to that hoary plot of the main character being accused of murder?

But for this novel explicitly, there is a key plot point that stretches credibility. I won’t say what it is except that it is something Leduc has been doing with the cadets. It’s as if Penny tried to imagine the most horrible, while not obvious, thing she could think of without thinking it through. Let’s say that there’s no way Leduc could have been doing this for years without someone dying. Even though he is called a stupid sadist, even he would know it and not risk it.

Finally, just a small point, but with this cover, the series has lost its award, bestowed by me, for most beautiful book covers for a series. The cover is all right, but it doesn’t meet the standards of the previous covers.

Related Posts

The Nature of the Beast

The Long Way Home

How the Light Gets In