Summer Reads 2021

Summer reading was a little sketchy this year.

For one thing, I finally finished the bookstopper of a biography of The Brontës by Juliet Barker. All of the Brontes. From the birth of Patrick (paterfamilias) to the death of Charlotte in 830 meticulously researched pages. A book I’ve been reading since the fall of 2019. Worth it to me, for reasons. To you? Depends on your love of the Bronte oeuvre, I suppose. But you will have to go through Patrick’s several curacies and the sorry story of brother Bramwell to get there, and it is a wade.

I ordered The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, after watching the Amazon series based on the book. I found both somewhat unsatisfying. A major conceit of both was the concept of the Underground Railroad itself. Whitehead created an actual underground railroad, tunnels, tracks, stations and all, which seemed to promise an excursion throughout the slave states in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Instead we get a tantalizing glimpse of the phantastical railroad coming up here and there into yet another example of the horrors of slavery and its effects. Georgia is the epitome of the slave plantation; South Carolina recalls the betrayal of the Tuskegee Institute merged with a healthy slice of eugenics; North Carolina gives us the ultimate sundown town in which stray African Americans are caught and lynched in village fetes; and Indiana (why North Carolina to Indiana?) portrays the fear and loathing lurking behind episodes like the Tulsa Massacre and similar attempts to eradicate successful African American communities across the country.

Since he posits a “real” underground railroad, I would like to have seen it used more. Maybe met more people underground and heard their stories. Maybe characters who preferred the free life of the underground. Given that so little time is spent there, I don’t really understand why he created it except perhaps for its gimmick value. Which, to my mind, undermines the concept of both real and imaginary railroads.

As for the stops, I spent a little too much time trying to figure out why South Carolina was all Tuskegee, North Carolina was all sundown town, and Indiana was all burning black folk out. Just my normal waste of brain time trying to fit fiction into fact, I guess, but still. And I never did quite figure out what the trek through Tennessee with the slave catcher was all about.

Which is not to say that you should not give The Underground Railroad a read. It’s nobody’s idea of a happy place, but they do get a sendoff into the sunset, and I guess that’s what’s called hope these days.

I had had The Red Tent by Anita Diamant on my Amazon Wish List for a couple of years and finally got it this summer. It’s interesting, as feminist historical fiction goes, marred only by the fact that I can’t bring myself to believe in it.

The red tent is the special tent set aside for the women of the tribe of Laban (father of Leah and Rachel of biblical fame) for both menstruation and the birthing of babies. And while it is true that these tribes (as do many tribes still the world over) banished menstruating women to a hut set aside for them, I find it hard to believe that the hut produced the strong feminist culture that is posited in the novel. Perhaps it did – we would have to ask those women who are currently so banished if that is what happens to them. But in the ancient Middle East, it seems, all women menstruated at the same time (on the new moon) and therefore they all gathered once a month for three days to laugh and tell stories and bond. Nice work if you can get it, I couldn’t help thinking.

Perhaps I am just too old now to believe in the tales of womanly power in ancient days. I loved The Mists of Avalon when I first read it, but it too has fallen into the dusts of disbelief as have all modern renderings of the court of Henry VIII.

Still, The Red Tent does do justice, I think, to the way of life of the early tribes of Israel and the rendering of Jacob’s relationship to his father’s god and the story of wrestling with the angel ring true as they are told from the point of view of someone who only witnesses the aftereffects. All in all, I liked the book more for its portrayal of Jacob and his sons than for the feminist interpretation of the tribal women. There is little that is heroic about them. They are just men going about their manly business with little regard for their women. The tribal fathers brought down to size. About time, I say. Good job, Anita.