The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – Book Review

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin

After a romantic disappointment, Honor Bright is ready for something new, a change of scenery. As such, she has agreed to travel with her sister, Grace, when she leaves England for her wedding in Ohio. If Honor ever had any idea that she might one day go back home, her catastrophic sea sickness on the voyage over puts an end to that train of thought very quickly. Even so, that might not have been a problem if Grace had not gotten very ill after they reached America. Now Honor is all alone and mourning the death of her beloved sister, with nowhere to go but on to Grace’s fiance, a man who may not have even known that she was coming. America is very foreign to Honor: the people, the scenery, and perhaps most of all the institution of slavery. Before long, she finds herself drawn by her convictions into the world of the Underground Railroad.

The Last Runaway ended up being less about the Underground Railroad than I had thought it would be. Certainly that was an aspect of it, but I think I learned more about 19th century Quakerism and immigration to the United States than I did about the Underground Railroad. Honor herself does not know much about what was happening. She knows what she believes, but not what is really happening as people attempt to escape slavery. She also has a difficult time initially understanding the complex motivations of those around her.

Despite the fact that this was not quite what I expected, it is an interesting and enjoyable book. Chevalier brings Honor to life, her ignorance perhaps doing more to make her realistic than any amount of courage of her convictions ever could. Recommended.

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Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Black Count by Tom Reiss – Book Review

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
Published by Crown Books, an imprint of Random House

Alexandre Dumas is the author of some of the best-known works in Western literature. What little boy doesn’t have some concept of the three musketeers? Heck, The Three Musketeers has lent its name to a candy bar, and The Counte of Monte Cristo inspired the popular tv show Revenge (which I love). Dumas did not, however, create these stories from whole cloth. Instead, his novels were at least partially based on the exploits of his beloved father Alex Dumas, a man of African decent who went from slave in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) to general in the French army during the revolution.

The novelist tried to make light of the racist insults, but they must have stung. The greatest sin of all, however, was that his father, General Alex Dumas, was forgotten. The son never managed to discover the full truth about his father, or to restore his place in the history books. But he avenged his father in another way, by creating fictional worlds where no wrongdoer goes unpunished and the good people are watched over and protected by fearless, almost superhuman heroes – heroes, that is, a lot like Alex Dumas. -p. 14-15

In The Black Count, Reiss gives a full picture of Alex’s life within the context of Alexandre’s adoration of his father and the socio-political changes undergoing France. As might be expected, Reiss has much to say about race and slavery in France and its colonial possessions. Alex Dumas had the rare opportunity to arrive in France at the height of freedom for persons of color in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

With the Revolution in 1789, the dream of equality in France suddenly seemed almost limitless. Dumas was not the only black or mixed-race Frenchman to rise up.. -p. 10-11

Revolutionary France was even more egalitarian, as is evidenced by the fact that Dumas managed to rise to the rank of general; his son would be less lucky as France would become again more hostile towards people of color under Napoleon’s reign.

In addition to shedding light on race relations in 18th century France, The Black Count is also the best account of the French Revolution I have ever read. Not only are the events of the Revolution laid out clearly and concisely, Reiss also addresses the root causes, including some I’ve never heard before. I now have a better understanding of the French Revolution, as well as Napoleon’s ascendancy than I ever have before. Best of all, Reiss kept The Black Count interesting, even when getting into the nitty gritty of battle campaigns against powers hostile to Revolutionary France.

If you have even the vaguest interest in Alexandre Dumas, the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, or the history of slavery and race relations, The Black Count is a must-read. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Original Sins by Peg Kingman – Book Review

Original Sins: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom by Peg Kingman
Published by W.W. Norton & Co

After an unconventional childhood – leaving Scotland at a young age for India and the Far East – Grace is not quite at east in the quite conventional society of Philadelphia in the mid-19th century, surely her mother-in-law does not approve of her at all. Life becomes even more complicated when her old friend Anibaddh, a former slave, returns to Grace with a secret, one that will require Grace to travel south, into the heart of that institution which she most despises: slavery.

I did not realize when I first picked up “Original Sins” that it was actually the second in a series or, at least, it is connected to a book set earlier with the same main character. Luckily Kingman balances the series/stand-alone book divide well. There are enough references to past events to tip the reader off to the existence of an earlier book, but the necessary backstory is sufficiently explained, without giving away the entirety of Kingman’s first book, “Not Yet Drown’d.”

I found “Original Sins” to be absolutely captivating. Grace is certainly not the typical mid-19th century American woman, she is feminist and abolitionist in a time when all American women still gave the majority of their rights over to their husbands automatically upon marriage and slavery was still very much a given. Some will complain that Kingman’s work is more about thoughts and beliefs than about story and I would not necessarily disagree, but I also do not think that is necessarily a bad thing. Yes, Grace, and other characters, expound on their beliefs in long discourses, but it is all supported by the characterization Kingman provides and, most importantly, it was fascinating and thought-provoking.

Although “Original Sins” is certainly not for everyone, people who are intrigued by the exchange of ideas about religion, freedom, and human rights will certainly find themselves engrossed. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells
.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

Source: Publisher
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom – Audiobook Review

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy and Bahni Turpin
Published in audio by Blackstone Audio; Published in print by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Synopsis:

After both of her parents die on their crossing from Ireland to America, seven-year old Lavinia is taken on as an indentured servant by the captain of the ship on which she sailed, in order to pay for her fare. As the only white indentured servant on the plantation, Lavinia’s place is somewhat uncertain. She lives with the plantation slaves, but is educated by her master’s family and treated completely differently than is the rest of their help. Inevitably, as Lavinia grows up, her dual identity as a white and eventually free person and someone who considers herself part of a family whose other members are enslaved causes problems that may put her and those she loves in danger.

Thoughts on the story:

I don’t know if it has to do with the books I happen to pick up or what is being published at any point in time in general, but I oftentimes find myself in a morass of historical fiction, drowning in books which are all on the same topic. As such, “The Kitchen House” was very refreshing indeed. I have only read one other book with a character who is an indentured servant, and the quality of the writing and storytelling was definitely better in “The Kitchen House.” Lavinia was not the only narrator, the enslaved woman with whom she lived, Belle, also narrated some chapters, although she had a small percentage of the book as compared with Lavinia. Grissom handled the dual narrators well, however. Belle was able to show the reader things that Lavinia could not know, but was given enough depth and emotion that her narration did not seem just a cheap plot device, but actually enhanced the story being told.

Thoughts on the audio production:

I thought the narration was terrific. For more specifics, please see the review I wrote for AudioFile Magazine.

Overall:

I think this would be enjoyable either in print or in audio. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Audible
Powells: Audio/Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Audio/Print*
Amazon: Audio/Print*

Source: Audiofile Magazine, print copy from publisher
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.