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12 Oct
2017
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Book Review: “The Underground River” by Martha Conway

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Underground River by Martha ConwayMae Bedloe is the seamstress and all-around support for her more famous cousin Comfort Vertue. In 1838 they are in search of new opportunities in the theatre for Comfort who has booked them on the steamboat Moselle headed to St. Louis. After six days on board the Moselle, it sinks on the Ohio River.

While Comfort is hired to give lectures for an abolitionist, Mae ultimately finds work with a struggling acting troupe that performs on a floating theatre. Mae makes a place for herself with the troupe helping with costumes, ticket sales and other support tasks. As she takes on more assignments, and finds acceptance from members of the troupe, her confidence grows. I enjoyed the character development as Mae moves from a quiet and reserved subordinated cousin to an independent competent young woman taking risks to ferry slave babies to freedom.

The story is engrossing and a “page turner.” What a surprise when Mae boldly steps on stage putting the acting troupe in danger in order to take morally correct but illegal action. I found myself cheering Mae for her boldness and moral commitment at the same time I worried about her survival. The author, Martha Conway provides a well-researched historical context of another divisive time in our history which foreshadows the bitterly fought Civil War a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book.

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14 Oct
2014
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Book Review: “The Burning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Carl Waters

The Burning of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The title Burning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a metaphorical message of the author’s intent to destroy the negative and stereotypical portrayals of black people in the original Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Carl Waters points out in the Introduction, that although Beecher was less racist than many of her contemporaries in that she believe that black people had souls and that slavery was wrong, she believed in the superiority of white people and the inferiority of black people.  For readers of Stowe today, this view is distorted and damaging.

Waters presents his own take on the original story, expanding the role of a minor character, George Harris, who refuses to accept that he is inferior or that he must remain a slave.   The story is told from the point of view of George and his wife Eliza who are admirable and courageous characters.  They take risks almost unimaginable for the sake of their love for each other and their son.  The cruelty of George’s slave owner, Frank Harris, and viciousness of the slave catchers are vivid in Water’s descriptions bringing the reader in terrifying propinquity to the horror of slavery.

The story quickly drew me in and I journeyed beside both George and Eliza as they attempt to escape to Canada.  At no point did the pace of their story lag nor did I lose interest in supporting their journey.  At times the suspense was so high for me that I needed a break; but then I am considered a soft touch.  At times the naiveté and trust of Eliza seemed unrealistic; however, since it probably comes from her protected and sheltered life as a “house slave”, it is more believable.

Burning Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the first of a four book series.  Waters has met his goal of creating black characters of depth and confidence while exposing the inhumanity of the institution of slavery.  He has also created a book with suspense, a compelling story and descriptions that give the reader a vivid experience of the journey George and Eliza traveled.  In the end, Waters leaves the reader eager for his next book.

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15 Jan
2014
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Book Review: “The Beautiful American” by Marilyn Holdsworth

The Beautiful AmericanReviewed by Bev Scott

I was engaged in this story which begins in current time with an antique dealer, Abby, who purchases a coveted lady’s desk for herself.  The desk is not only the connection between Abby and her suitor, Nathan, but also to primary character of the second and major story line, Jasmine, a slave in the Virginia household of the future President James Monroe.  This second story unfolds when Abby finds a diary in her new desk.

The author’s descriptions are vivid and clear and carried me into the experience of Jasmine’s struggles to help with and learn her letters beside her master’s spoiled and self-centered daughter, Eliza.  Jasmine’s character develops from a naïve inexperienced young girl awed by her opportunity to move into the big house, receiving clothes, an education  to a more confident young woman enchanted with a young aspiring artist she meets in Paris where Master Monroe serves as Ambassador to France. Jasmine supports her mistress, Elizabeth Monroe, in preparations for entertainment, settles the high-spirited Eliza, keeps confidences for Elizabeth and earns a privileged place in the Monroe household.

I liked the inclusion of actual historical characters in this story.  We follow the realistic characters of James and Elizabeth Monroe, as James becomes a significant player in the politics of our new nation.  Monroe is encouraged and supported by Thomas Jefferson.  The author even brings in Napoleon and his wife Josephine while the Monroes are living in Paris.  The story is not deeply involved in the historical realities of these characters but adds spice to bring them into the story

Jasmine’s story is told primarily in her voice.  This point of view allows the author to give us an intimate view of Jasmine’s character by using the dialect of the uneducated slave. Following this dialogue can be a challenge for the reader, but Holdsworth manages to use it to convey image and character of without slowing the reader down too much.  As Jasmine is educated, including learning French, the author drops the use of the dialect.  At times it was a bit confusing when the point of view moves from the intimate first person to the observer’s voice in describing the experiences and actions of James and Elizabeth Monroe.  Since the point of view is Jasmine’s telling of the story, I wanted Jasmine to tell me more of her internal dilemmas and thoughts about her condition.  Does she worry about being surprised and perhaps raped by Gabriel, the bitter rebel slave from a nearby planation?  Did she have internal conflicts about leaving her love in France?  The story doesn’t tell us.

As a reader, I anticipated the evolving romance between Abby and Nathan as well as the outcome for Jasmine.  I would like a little more uncertainty.  The author uses the diary as the vehicle to reveal Jasmine’s story.  Yet I wonder if an uneducated slave would tell her story in a diary.  Despite the questions I have raised, Jasmine’s story as well as the opening story of Abby and Nathan kept me engaged with a quick pace and vivid descriptions in a realistic historical context.

Author website: www.marilynholdsworth.com

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