Posts Tagged slavery

book review: Learning to See and The Eulogist

When it’s done well, historical fiction transports you to a particular time, place and setting through the eyes of its characters. The best historical fiction makes me want to learn more about the period or the characters. I try to refrain from googling while reading a book but if I’m itching to look something up, I know the author succeeded in transporting me to another time. That’s one of my favorite genres. Two compelling novels came out recently which center around independent and unconventional women, one real and one fictional.


Learning to See focuses on Dorothea Lange and her photography in the 1930s. I’m familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs but not much else. In this thoroughly researched novel, author Elise Hooper brings readers into Lange’s world. Told from Lange’s point-of-view, the novel follows her burgeoning career as a photographer at a time when women weren’t pursuing careers, they were focusing on raising children. After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Lange finds work at a photography shop. She soon opens her own portrait studio and amasses clients. She’s friends with a group of photographers and artists which includes Ansel Adams. She marries rather volatile artist Maynard Dixon. They travel to Arizona so that Dixon can work on some painting. Lange notes: “Our first few days were spent examining the terrain, so different from everything I’d ever known: wide sweeps of empty desert, soaring sky, endless clouds. It felt timeless, nothing like the city. The simple geometry of the landscape’s lines and bold shouts of color left me awed. During each sunrise and sunset, under a sky bruised with purples and rippling with flames, the desert was reborn. The air thrummed with possibility.” Lange is an independent, strong woman determined to use her skills to benefit others in a deeper manner than merely taking pretty portraits. Navigating her way as a working mother, wife and professional photographer, Lange faces many challenges including her husband’s alcoholism and affairs. When her marriage and the nation’s economy begin to decline, she decides to take a position with the government taking pictures of the country’s disenfranchised, the photographs she’s known for today. She photographs migrant workers and Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Hooper effectively allows readers the opportunity to see the time period through Lange’s lens.

Learning to See by Elise Hooper. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-291035-6

RATING: ****/5*


This wasn’t on my radar but the title and cover intrigued me so I started reading it one day and became completely absorbed by it. After immigrating to the United States from Ireland, three siblings forge their path in antebellum Cincinnati in The Eulogist. James establishes a successful candle-making business, free spirit Erasmus becomes a traveling preacher and independent, open-minded Olivia challenges a conventional life. These dissimilar siblings function like the id (Erasmus), ego (Olivia) and superego (James). I became completely charmed by Olivia, by her loyalty, curiosity and determination. She attends lectures by feminists and abolitionists and questions women’s expected roles during that time: “That summer of 1829, culture and curiosity came over the city like the quickening of a maiden’s heart. Cincinnati was overrun by fanatics and intellectuals trying to make their case: Caldwell’s discourse on phrenology; Miss Fanny Wright on slavery and marriage; Dr. Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen battling the fundamental relationship between godliness and goodliness.” She’s not particularly interested in marriage [“I have never been one to pine for marriage, nor did motherhood enchant me. As I saw it, marriage was a function of economic dependence, and wrongly, too, since women rarely had money of their own.”] or starting a family. She does end up marrying a doctor who she falls in love with after spending time with him performing autopsies and doing research on corpses. When he dies, Olivia returns with his body to Kentucky to find her brother-in-law heavily involved in slavery. She’s determined to save a young black woman who has been living fairly free in Ohio from being returned as her brother-in-law’s property. She enlists the assistance of both her brothers. Through detailed descriptions and strong character development, I found myself completely engrossed. Taking place in the decades preceding the Civil War, slavery was illegal in Ohio, the first state created from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio was active in the Underground Railroad.  I recently found a family tree my grandmother created which traces several generations in Ohio and I’d like to conduct research someday to see if any of my ancestors had any involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The Eulogist by Terry Gamble. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283991-6

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

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The Last Runaway: book review

last runaway

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Publisher: Dutton (January 2013). Historical fiction. Hardcover. 303 pages. ISBN: 978-0525952992.

When I first started reading The Last Runaway, it seemed strange that Honor Bright chose to accompany her sister from England to Ohio. Why would she emigrate from England without any set plan of her own? Who was living in Ohio at this time? What was going on there? Her sister’s betrothed to another Quaker from their small town. Apparently lots of Quakers moved to Ohio from North Carolina in opposition to slavery. That’s one thing I learned from the novel.

After a horrific voyage, Honor sister falls ill with yellow fever and dies on their voyage from New York to Ohio. Not knowing what else to do, Honor continues on to Faithwell as planned, making a short stopover in Wellington at the insistence of a kind woman named Belle who puts Honor to work in her milliner shop once she discovers Honor’s quilting skills. We find out much more about the colorful, outspoken Belle as her friendship with Honor gradually grows. Belle’s brother, Donovan, is a slave hunter. The two siblings couldn’t be more dissimilar. He startled and intrigued Honor when he stopped the man who’d offered to give Honor a ride to search his carriage for runaway slaves. As Honor settles in her new home, author Tracy Chevalier reveals the Underground Railroad which traversed through Ohio as slaves sought freedom far north in Canada. Many Quakers became a vital part of the Underground Railroad movement. She fails to provide complete details but gives bits and pieces as seen through Honor’s association with the movement. As Honor learns about the Underground Railroad in Ohio and near Oberlin, so too does the reader.

In Faithwell, Honor quickly realizes she can’t stay with her sister’s intended, Adam Cox, and must find her own way—which means marrying a Quaker. Honor discovers the vast differences between England and the Midwest—not merely the landscape but the customs and the people. Much more rugged, dirty, open. Fewer gardens and manners. Outspoken people. Different customs and foods. American quilting seems a bit inferior. They applique while Honor makes quilts using paper templates. Honor’s attachment and dedication to quilting serves as a focal point throughout the novel. Certain quilts hold special meaning to her. She travels to the States with a signature quilt made by those in her village. Chevalier takes great care to provide detail about quilting at this time.

The novel would’ve been stronger with more information about the Quaker traditions. Why did they need a certain number of quilts before getting married? Why do Quakers dress so plainly?

“Honor left the barn at dusk to walk across the yard to the house, her eyes wide and dry, her throat stopped with a feeling as if she had swallowed a ball and it had got stuck there. She felt so confused by the gap between what she thought and what was expected of her that she could not speak. Perhaps it was better not to, until she was more sure of what she wanted to say. That way her words could not be twisted and flung back at her. Silence was a powerful tool at Meeting, clearing the way to God. Perhaps now it would allow Honor to be heard.”

Honor soon marries a kind farmer named Jack Haymaker. Unfortunately her new mother-in-law isn’t the easiest woman to get along with and the more comfortable Honor grows in her new home, the more she tests her family and her voice. Honor stumbles into her activism with the Underground Railroad. One day she happens upon a runaway slave hiding outside when she’s sick. Being a good Quaker, she knows she’s to help this person in need. She knows it’s the right thing to do. She helps that person and ends up being scolded by both Donovan, the slave hunter, and her own husband. She’s quite confused knowing that the Quakers are opposed to slavery. Through her own research in town she starts to leave food out for the slaves passing through until her husband finally confronts her and tells her that she jeopardizing her family. He tells her it’s against the law to assist runaway slaves. Once she’s pregnant she must stop doing so. Honor refuses based on her Quaker principles and runs away to Belle’s. Eventually she returns and takes an oath of silence as her husband won’t let her do what she feels in her soul is the right thing to do and she feels he’s only preventing her from helping those in need due to money. It’s a rather awkward time for the couple and Honor’s not sure if their marriage will survive.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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