River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

Cover of River Sing Me Home on a blue throw blanket.

The official abolitions of slavery across the “New World” rarely marked the end of enslavement. Enslavers sought to maintain their grip on power and their supply of labor. They enacted or expanded practices like chain gang labor, sharecropping, “apprenticeships,” or just refusing to acknowledge slavery ended. But despite the disparity in power, the formerly enslaved resisted and rebelled in all manner of ways. In River Sing Me Home, Eleanor Shearer brings light to some of those stories.

River Sing Me Home opens with escape. Rachel is fleeing from the Barbados plantation where she had spent her life in bondage. It is August 1834 and the day before, the master of the plantation announced the abolition of slavery. In its place, the formerly enslaved would stay on the plantation and labor for another six years as “apprentices” – remaining bound to the land, free in name only. Rachel isn’t quite sure what freedom really means, but she knows this isn’t it.

Over the years, Rachel gave birth to eight children. One was stillborn, two more died in early childhood, and her enslaver sold the other five away from her. She has no idea where they ended up or if they’re even alive, but until she finds them or learns what happened, she knows she cannot be free. 

It’s a dangerous journey. If she is caught by the plantation owner, she faces terrible punishment. White landowners could shoot her, capture her, and re-enslave her. The elements and the sea could do her in. The chance to find her babies, however, is worth all the risks she can imagine and even those she can’t.

River Sing Me Home covers a lot of ground relatively quickly, both literally and figuratively. Rachel’s journey takes her across Barbados, down to British Guiana, and then across to Trinidad in a year. The prose is succinct and straightforward, even though the issues are deep and complex. Shearer introduces us to Maroon colonies, free Black business owners, Indigenous survivors of colonialism, and the enslaved who endured plantation life and how all of these different groups intersected and interacted. She ties in real slave rebellions and revolts, and the difficult calculus those involved had to make for themselves.

Shearer does not hide from the violence of slavery, but neither does she make it a central focus. She trusts that we know about the beatings, the floggings, the rapes and so while they’re present, she generally does not describe them in detail. At first, I was a little surprised by this, but as the book continued, I really appreciated the focus on how people survived and continued to find hope, love, and purpose despite all they endured. Shearer doesn’t wallow in suffering; she acknowledges it, recognizes its effects, and then shows it is only a piece of a person and a people, not their entirety.

Rachel’s journey is one undertaken by so many across the Americas in slavery’s aftermath. Though fictional, it is based on the story of a real Mother Rachel, who walked across Antigua in search of her children after slavery’s end. It is also based on the author’s family, who hail from the Caribbean, and her own research and fieldwork.

Overall, River Sing Me Home is a strong novel that continues to deepen our understanding of slavery and its aftermath. In a time when certain powers are trying to strip that understanding away from us, these stories are even more important. 

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A Girl is a Body of Water

by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Promise me you will pass on the story of the first woman – in whatever form you wish.  It was given to me by women in captivity.  They lived an awful state of migration, my grandmothers.  Telling origin stories was their act of resistance.  I only added on a bit here and a bit there.  Stories are critical, Kirabo,”she added thoughtfully.  “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

Stories and women are deeply entwined themes in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s A Girl is a Body of Water.  Throughout the novel, we follow Kirabo, who is a twelve-year-old girl at the beginning, as she comes of age during Idi Amin’s dictatorial regime in Uganda during the 1970s.  Kirabo is the storyteller of her family, but she is also desperately searching for her mother and her mother’s story. 

Kirabo lives with her grandparents and a slew of aunts, uncles, and cousins on her grandfather’s farm.  She has no idea who her mother is and her father, whom she calls by his first name, Tom, only periodically comes around to visit her before heading back to the city. Her grandfather is wealthy and well-respected landowner in their village. Kirabo’s family surrounds her with love.  Yet she longs to learn about her mother, about whom no one will speak. This doesn’t help her control what she calls her “second self,” a mischievous spirit that lives within her and periodically takes over her body, causing her to fly and roam without really remembering what happened. 

Kirabo sneaks off to visit Nsuuta, a blind woman who lives at the edge of town, anxious to rid herself of this curse.  It must be done in secret, for there is some kind of unspoken history between Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother.  Kirabo doesn’t know what transpired between the two, but she knows her grandmother wouldn’t approve of Kirabo going to Nsuuta.  Though Kirabo hates to disappoint or betray her grandmother, she is desperate for answers. Nsuuta seems to be the only one willing to give them.

Nsuuta tells Kirabo that her second self is really a special gift, a remnant of what she calls the “original state” of women, before men shrank them and began to control them.  Kirabo has a gift, not a curse, and she should hold on to it and treasure it. But Kirabo has other plans for her future.

Throughout the story, we meet all sorts and experience a wide range of experiences with Kirabo as she learns to navigate what it means to be a woman.  She learns about mwenkanonkano, a Uganda-rooted feminism while trying to watch out for kweluma. Nsuuta explained kweluma as:

            “when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite.  It is a form of relief.  If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.”

Oppression is not limited to sex and gender.  At one point, the story jumps back in time to Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother’s childhood and young adulthood.  They navigated similar issues as Kirabo, but with British colonialism in the background, chipping away at Uganda’s “original self.”

Makumbi’s writing is beautiful.  There were so many passages where a particular paragraph or sentence jumped out at me.  I should also mention that there are a number of phrases and sentences written in Luganda without translation.  By and large, you can figure out what’s going on from context clues, or if you have a phone/computer handy, you can look it up.  I personally enjoy having non-English language bits reflecting the author’s background or the setting of the book, but I know that’s sometimes frustrating.  I also discovered, once I finished the book, that there’s a cast of characters at the end, which might have been helpful in a few places. 

A Girl is a Body of Water also gave some insights into Ugandan history, about which I know very little.  At one point, Kirabo’s aunt complains about Amin’s dictates on how women dress.  Later, Kirabo lives through the uprising that ousts the dictator.  Some of the parts about colonization makes you realize just how bizarre things are that we Westerners take for granted.  There’s a great segment about time and the ridiculousness of starting the day in the middle of the night, rather than at sunrise, or gauging months and seasons by an arbitrary calendar, rather than following the natural world.  At the same time, Kirabo and her boyfriend also get into debates about whether certain traditions regarding women’s sexuality should be extolled for increasing women’s pleasure or thrown out as a form of genital mutilation.  

Overall, I really enjoyed A Girl is a Body of Water.  The only thing that clanged for me was Kirabo’s dilemma with her second self. I thought it would take up the entire novel and I was kind of surprised by its resolution.  The overarching themes of the importance of story, of understanding others, and trying to understand ourselves, wrapped in beautiful language and touches of humor, however, make this an outstanding book. 

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When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

The cover of When Women Were Dragons, with toy dragons set around it.

For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative” – with this dedication, When Women Were Dragons hooked me.  And it kept me so all the way through.  There are myriad themes in this book, which I’ll get to.  But at its heart, this is a book about rage and women experiencing and living that rage. 

You will tell people that you did not raise me to be an angry woman, and that statement will be correct.  I was never allowed to be angry, was I? My ability to discover and understand the power of my own raging was a thing denied to me.  Until, at last, I learned to stop denying myself.”

So writes a housewife from Nebraska, shortly before she dragoned in 1898, according to the opening document of the novel.  An ordinary housewife, married to an abusive and terrible man, spontaneously transformed into a dragon and flew away.  Sporadic dragonings happened throughout history, but authorities quickly squashed any news or evidence regarding it.  Until April 25, 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, mostly wives and mothers, all transformed into dragons throughout that day.  Homes physically destroyed, families ripped apart, and a number of men eaten or immolated by dragon fire – it was a day that could not possibly be forgotten.

That didn’t mean people wouldn’t try.  Our narrator, Alex Green, was a young girl when her aunt dragoned, leaving behind a baby girl of her own.  Alex’s parents took the girl in and quickly set to work convincing Alex that her cousin Beatrice was her sister and always had been. Alex was not to ask questions or say anything about the dragons (who had flown off and disappeared) or her aunt (who didn’t exist, after all) or anything related to either topic.  But Alex remembered.

At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (infamous for its persecution of suspected Communists, giving us the likes of Joe McCarthy) sought to silence any attempt by scientists to explore the phenomenon in any greater depth.  Since the Mass Dragoning was too large to ignore, the government issued a brief, sanitized overview of the event, and then worked hard to make sure that everyone just let it drift in the fogs of history, out of sight, out of mind.  But there remained scientists determined to learn the truth.

The book follows Alex’s personal journey towards understanding, interspersed with testimony by the lead scientist hauled in front of HUAC. Barnhill does a great job of weaving in the cultural pressures to keep anything related to the feminine as quiet and hushed as possible. 

Dragoning is dangerous precisely because it is both closely tied to the feminine while also displaying emotions that are deemed distinctly unfeminine.  Rage is at the heart of dragoning, it seems.  Women’s rage over being kept in the home, of having little to no recourse against violent husbands or boyfriends, of being told that their sexuality should be limited to “wifely duties,” of constantly being told to take up less space, less, time, less sound.  A dragon is not less.  She is large.  She is strong.  She is powerful.  She can gobble up or incinerate those who would harm her.  She can come and go as she pleases.  She does not conform. 

In addition to these meditations on women’s circumscribed emotions and options in the 50s, dragoning serves as a metaphor for LGBTAQ+ experiences.  Many of the women who dragon saw it as a way to fully embrace their true selves.  The research papers sprinkled in make mention of dragons who people had previously seen as men.  Other individuals nearly dragoned, but in the end stayed human for a variety of reasons. Dragoning is both hugely public and intensely personal.

There was only one thing that kind of clanged for me in this book.  The dragons themselves.  By which I mean, the abilities and properties of being a dragon in this world wasn’t clear to me.  They seemed to be able to do and be whatever was most convenient for the moment.  While most dragons flew to remote places on Earth, some went into space, exploring the galaxy, apparently being able to fly well past the speed of light.  Maybe it’s all the sci-fi I’ve imbibed over my life, but for some reason, that irked me.  However, it is a very very very tiny thing in the grand scheme of an excellent book.  So to paraphrase the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 “just repeat to yourself it’s just a [book], I should really just relax!”

“You brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened.  This, my friends, is an impossibility.  While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance.  Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been…

            “Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous.

So do I. 

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Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes

Book Pandora's Jar next to a red vase

While I’m mostly reading fiction at this point (a side effect of grad school), I sometimes venture back into non-fiction. This week’s book is one such example and I loved it: Natalie Haynes’ fantastic exploration of women of Greek mythology, Pandora’s Jar.  With each chapter focused on a different woman, such as Medusa, Penelope, and of course, the eponymous Pandora, Haynes provides an excellent analysis of ancient texts and modern takes of characters who are all too often pushed to the margins.

I read at least parts of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid back in high school (which has somehow become a long time ago), but I was never that interested in it.  Of course, the broad outlines of the stories seeped into my consciousness from an early age, as had much of the lore of Greek mythology.  (Though perhaps the first real introduction I had to Hercules was watching the abysmal Hercules Against the Moon Men as a hilarious episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.) I therefore had a passing familiarity with the women described, but a strong desire to learn more. 

Haynes delivers in spades.  Her analysis and use of sources (ancient texts, vases, poems, artwork, etc.) helps us see these women not as “villains, victims, wives and monsters,” but “people.” Pandora’s Jar does not just situate these women in their ancient context; Haynes also shows how popular culture – from Clash of the Titans to Troy, from operas to episodes of the original Star Trek, and more – also influence how we interpret, understand, and interact with these characters.  Even better, she brings a sharp sense of humor that makes it a joy to read. It also helps us remember that people wrote ancient texts, and they included their own innuendos, exaggerations, prejudices, personal interests, and more.  Their own times influenced them, as did the stories they knew, the sources they relied on.  As Haynes reminds us in the intro:

“Every myth contains multiple timelines within itself: the time in which it is set, the time it is first told, and every retelling afterwards.  Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us.”

For a long time, our re-tellings of these myths have centered on men (both as the subjects and the ones doing the telling).  The women of these stories faded into the margins or became the reason for our suffering.  The title of the book already points us to the issue.  Nearly all of us, I’m sure, are familiar with Pandora’s Box.  Pandora has a box and told never to open it.  But her curiosity gets the better of her and finally she gives in and takes a peek.  As a result, she releases all sorts of evil into the world.  She is only able to close it in time to keep one thing – hope.  Much like the story of Eve, life was fine for humanity until a woman gave into temptation, becoming the source of all evil, pain, and suffering.  

So if we all know this, why is the book called Pandora’s Jar instead of Pandora’s Box?  Because, as Haynes lays out for us, it was never a box until relatively recently – the sixteenth century.  Ancient art and writings depicted Pandora with a jar.  And not just any jar – a very delicate, easily tippable jar.

In the earliest writings about her, Zeus creates Pandora to be a punishment to humanity in response to Prometheus’ gift of fire to us (and a trick on Zeus regarding sacrificial meat).  Zeus and the other gods create her directly, give her certain gifts to make her irresistible to men and then give her a jar that she brings to her husband, to whom she is directly delivered by Hermes.  So now, instead of just writing her off as the root of evil, we’re faced with the question of whether she even has any autonomy, the role of free will (especially in the face of very powerful and very touchy gods), and the nature of hope.

There’s a great deal more, but obviously, that’s what the book is for, not the review.  Each of the women discussed become much more complex, as does our relationship to these stories.  Regardless of your feelings about the classics (love, hate, or indifference), this is a fascinating book, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll likely enjoy doing so too!  Then go check out her book A Thousand Ships.

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Pandora’s Jar

All The Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter

All the Murmuring Bones with a shell, sea monster, and dolphin around it.

I’m a big fan of authors taking old epics and myths and retelling the with an emphasis on women characters (like Circe by Madeline Miller, The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec, and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – I’ll be reviewing another of her books here soon!).  A.G. Slatter’s All The Murmuring Bones is a gothic fairy tale full of Celtic mythological creatures. Selkies, kelpies, wights, and more, roam the land-and sea-scape.

“One for the house, one for the church, and one for the sea.” So goes the creed for the O’Malley family.  Generations ago, the O’Malleys struck a deal with the merpeople.  The mer would protect the O’Malley family’s ships and fortunes at sea. In return, the O’Malleys would sacrifice a child each generation.  For a long time, the deal was beneficial to the family (even if not for those sacrificed) and the O’Malley clan grew in fortune, status, and power.  But the desire to keep that power in the family led to fewer births and fewer children for the sea.  Soon, ships began sinking and fortunes began shrinking. 

Enter young Miren O’Malley, the only child raised at the old family manor of Hob’s Hallow after her parents left her there with her grandparents. Determine to revive the family’s legacy, Miren’s grandmother has plans for Miren.  But Miren’s cleverness and independence is a strong match for her grandmother and she refuses to be a pawn.  There are whispers of another home where she might find some answers.  Yet the land is full of perils – as is the water. 

This was a really fun and fascinating tale.  I wasn’t that familiar with a lot of the mythology from this region, so I enjoyed learning more. Slatter did an excellent job of blending them in as part of every-day life for the people who lived there.  Ghouls are just another thing you need to avoid on the road, like a pothole.  The first born children of the O’Malley clan must be branded so the mer do not kill them.  A dead body might tell you how they died. Just the way life goes! In addition to the fairy tale we’re reading, Miren weaves in her own fairy tales and stories with which she grew up, so you get a lot of story for one book. 

I feel like this would be even better to read in the fall, curled up under a blanket, listening to the wind make skeletal branches dance outside your window, casting shadows upon your walls and tapping eerily on the panes. But regardless of when you decide to read it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy All the Murmuring Bones!

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All the Murmuring Bones