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Catching Up pt. 3: A Natural History of the Senses, The Housemaid, North and South, The Book of the City of Ladies, Epileptic

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In A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman draws from a number of sources and memories in a meandering rumination about the senses through which we understand the world and interpret our own human experience. It is particularly hard to communicate the specificity of different physical sensations, but Ackerman writes about smells, touch, and the like so effectively that these mercurial interpretations manifest concretely and jump straight off the page, making the reading experience, well, sensual. The book is filled with interesting trivia, such as that smell was likely the first sense developed in the primordial oceans by the earliest living organisms, and I enjoyed the recounting she did of an interview with a professional “nose”, or perfume mixologist. Clearly I was most won over by the chapter on smell, as it sticks most strongly in my memory. However, I became increasingly annoyed with Ackerman and her frequent, bizarrely specific and lengthy descriptors. They often distracted from her main point and felt unfocused, a feeling intensified by the book’s format of short, thematically arranged but otherwise non-sequitor chapters. Also, while not generally opposed to heavy reliance on anecdote, hers felt obnoxiously self-referential and pompous. So, while the subject matter was fascinating, I didn’t really get along with Ackerman very well and will likely avoid her other writing.

One day, an older woman labeled a “witch” and disowned by her grown children finds a dead infant abandoned behind her hut in rural Ghana. Word spreads quickly through her village and suddenly everyone is arguing about who is to blame, with men vilifying the imagined neglectful mother and the women bemoaning the sad arrogance of undependable men. But as the true story of what happened is told through the perspectives of a number of women, it becomes clear that this child’s death is not the fault of one or another sex, but a society in which exploitation is quickly becoming a dominant means of attaining wealth. It begins when a young housemaid travels from her village to Accra to work for a wealthy older woman whose deceased husband’s family believes that her money rightfully belongs to them. The housemaid gets caught up in a plot of inheritance to win back the money for the husband’s family, but does not realize that her employer, though happy and confident in her independence, is not free of the sexual demands of the businessmen who remain in a class above her and so is not easy to manipulate. Nor does she understand that her own family’s motives may not be good for her, personally. The final telling of what happens to her baby is tragic but it is the fault of no individual: instead, it is the result of greed and an caustic individualism. A very worthy novella that counts toward Kinna’s Africa Challenge.

I’d been wanting to read North and South forever, but passed up the North and South read-a-long because it overlapped with my trip to Kenya and then promptly forgot about it. Even though I coincidentally ended up reading it at the same time as the read-a-long, I guess it’s still good that I wasn’t signed up because I didn’t have regular internet access nor the time to participate in the discussions, but anyway. I had huge expectations for this book, and while I enjoyed it, it fell just a little flat for me. It’s hard not to compare Gaskell to her contemporaries: not as much nuance as Austen, not as righteous as Dickens, less detailed than both. Perhaps such comparisons are unfair, but some combination of Austen and Dickens is what I thought I was going to get. Margaret, who moves from an idyllic country village to a busy, crowded industrial town, falls in love with the rugged Mr. Thornton (about whom I agree with Iris is a much more worthy love interest than most of Austen’s suitors ;)). There, she befriends some of the working poor that she’d previously been so judgmental about, and sides with them in a strike against factory-owner Thornton. Thornton, a proud, self-made man, learns through Margaret to sympathize with those less successful than he in “working their way up” while Margaret reconciles herself to the reality that the country isn’t exactly paradise for the poor, either. Culture clash, class, and the industrial boom frame this troubled love story, and I appreciate how direct Gaskell was in dealing with such themes. However, there was a bit too much compromise and neatness in the way it all wrapped up for my taste. Still liked it, though, so will try more of Gaskell.

This was (ahem) the FIRST book listed for The Year of Feminist Classics challenge* and yes, I only got to it last month. This book was written by Christine de Pizan, the only (?) professional female writer in late fourteenth century Europe. It is impressive not only that she was able to support her family with her writing at this time, but that she was able to do so while unequivocally challenging the most common anti-woman sentiments of her day. Here, she imagines a scenario in which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice come to her aid embodied as three strong and lovely women to help her construct a city of positive history and mythology in which she will collect and house all the world’s most virtuous ladies. They do so first by debunking myths such as that women are natural liars, that they lack conviction and are emotionally weak, that they are selfish and are intellectually inferior to men. Much as Mary Wollstonecraft would do almost four hundred years later in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, de Pizan argues that it is the way in which society brings girls up differently from boys that makes these stereotypes appear true and universal, but that given an equal education, girls would show as much aptitude as boys and in the same subjects (she does, however, fall very short of actually advocating for this). While her argumentation rested on reworking mythology, and this is not an acceptable form of debate nowadays, it was then–and since I was unfamiliar with so many of the stories, I kind of got a kick out of ’em despite the fact that it became very, very tedious reading. All the stuff about being a good, chaste wife etc. was irritating to my modern sensibilities, too, but I get that then she was reacting against the fact that women were only thought to be about their bodies, rooted in materiality with no spiritual or mental inner lives and value. I wouldn’t call this book relevant for feminists today, but I still enjoyed it as a feminist for the times when de Pizan utilized her stinging sense of humor and because it really made me consider context. It’s interesting to see that some ideas which are completely regressive and sexist now were once a step AWAY from an oppression that we still know, but in a completely different transformative phase. Of course, not all reactions against oppression are “progressive”, nor can that word be applied evenly across cultures and eras, which raises a lot of important questions about what constitutes progress in any given situation.

Epileptic is the deeply troubling autobiographical story by David B., formerly Pierre-Francois Beauchard, whose life has largely been shaped by his brother’s epilepsy and his family’s never-ending search for a cure. Epilepsy was little understood in 1960’s France when Jean-Christophe had his first seizure, and one of the most horrific aspects to this family history is how cruelly Jean-Christophe was treated by children and adults alike, alienating him, his siblings, and his parents from the community as punishment for exposing them to the symptoms of his illness. Their parents move Pierre-Francois, Jean-Christophe, and their sister in and out of various new-agey macrobiotic communes, inspiring hope in an unrelenting succession of mystical mentors and spiritual healers who are ultimately as lost as they are. While his parents experience increasing guilt after every failure to “fix” their eldest son and his sister becomes despondent with depression, David B. pours himself into his illustrations, picturing epic uphill battles that signify his struggle against his brother’s sickness. His thick, bold-lined drawings are appropriately claustrophobic and disconcerting, adding a fantastical element to this tragedy. David B. is always honest, refusing to leave out the ugliest bits of his history and the resentment he sometimes felt toward his brother, whose disease he could never measure up to. Dark and moving; beautiful work and intensely raw.

*I think it’s time I admitted to myself and everyone else that I’m not going to catch up on The Feminists Classics challenge this fall like I wanted to. In fact, there’s only a few books from this year’s selection that I haven’t read, but even excluding re-reads, it just isn’t going to happen. Truth be told, I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of a Very Bad Thing that happened earlier this month in the life of myself and my friends and have had difficulty concentrating on books, so I know that if I don’t allow myself to read at whim I won’t be doing much reading at all, and I don’t want that. Sincerest apologies for committing to it and then only reading one book and not participating in any of the conversations**…hopefully I will get to all the others at a later date, as they all remain interesting to me. I still plan to host the last read when the time comes, but all reading projects and such will otherwise be put on hold or ignored.

**Hello, guilt.

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Catching Up, Part 2

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In A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian Islamic feminist scholar in America, details the events of her childhood shaped primarily by the events of the 1952 revolution and her academic experience at a British college. I learned a lot of valuable history from this memoir, which is especially interesting and pertinent given what’s happening in Egypt today. I was especially interested in Ahmed’s college experience and the dawning of her interest in colonialism and post-colonial theory and feminism. This memoir was incredibly insightful, but I didn’t feel I got to know its author in any personal sense and this put me off a bit. I’m keeping an eye out for Ahmed’s more straightforward non-fiction work, particularly Women and Gender in Islam, which I think I’ll get along with a little better.

World of Wonders concludes the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (here’s what I thought of the first two books in the series, Fifth Business and The Manticore). This trilogy is completely brilliant, and introduced me to one of my new favorite authors who, luckily for me, was fairly prolific. World of Wonders shines a spotlight on the most mysterious of the trilogy’s characters, Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster). Paul grew up in a religiously oppressive household with a “mad” mother and was abducted by a member of a traveling circus as a child. There, he learns some of life’s hardest lessons, and when he’s able to leave the circus and move into the world of theater, he learns to hone his skills of manipulation and becomes the world’s leading illusionist. This story is told through a series of conversations with Dunstan Ramsay and Liesl (both characters from the first two books) and a film crew which has hired Eisengrim to portray a famous, deceased magician in a documentary for the BBC. By asking him to provide “subtext” for the film, they are able to tease out the history of a very complex and secretive character who, in many ways, provides the key to understanding the events of the trilogy at large. In some ways, I admit, I might have liked Eisengrim’s past to remain a mystery, as I don’t think anything could have really matched what I’d imagined that history to be. But Davies presented the story with the same subtle but invigorating philosophical approach that I’ve come to expect from him, and did it beautifully. Though Fifth Business remains my favorite book of the three, World of Wonders made a fitting end to a very captivating and original series.

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives is a collection of short stories, essays, poems, and photographs exploring the self-expression of African American women. I read this book in one sitting, and loved it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about the importance of reclaiming black women’s history in the United States and the whitewashing of feminism. There’s also some really great writing about black women’s friendships, artist and activist communities, the radical act of love and the true meaning of solidarity. The image of woman, and black woman in particular, has long been tarnished with the worry and discomfort of an insecure and prejudiced society; for this reason, it is important that black women’s voices are not ignored, that their self-image and creativity is recognized and validated. And anyway, you really can’t go wrong with any collection that includes writing by both bell hooks and Audre Lorde 🙂

I had so much fun reading Nymphomania: A History. The history of nymphomania, I learned, is a history of western anxiety about women’s sexuality; the arbitrary meaning of the word nymphomania is flexible, and able to encompass the particular concerns of different generations with distinct ideas about women, sex, how much sex is too much for women, and what kinds of sex are appropriate for women to enjoy. It was horrifying to learn about how women’s sex drives were pathologized in the Victorian era, and…(UM, I THINK A TRIGGER WARNING MIGHT BE APPROPRIATE HERE)…”treated” with cauterization, bleedings of the uterus by leeches, and institutionalization. EEEEEK. It was interesting to see how women’s sexual behavior was, and is, deemed appropriate or not based on their class status and race, and how these ideas have been changed, but not been done away with, by the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century. I only wish that the book was a little longer. Each section felt brief, and I would have liked more detail. There were also some big chronological gaps between the different sections that could have been filled. Ultimately, though, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

I read both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello a few years ago, and kind of hated them both, mostly on account of plot events. I held out hope for Disgrace, based on the fact that it seems to be most people’s favorite Coetzee, but wasn’t much happier with it. Mostly because I had no sympathy for the disgraced protagonist, David Lurie, at all. He’s a South African college professor who has a terribly coercive “affair” with one of his students, refuses to “reform his character,” and is fired (good). He goes to live with his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside, but their already tense relationship becomes even more strained when three men break into their home, beat him up, and rape Lucy. He is frustrated by how she deals with the emotional aftermath of the rape, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to change her life and move somewhere he considers safer. In so doing, a host of racial South African power dynamics come into play in Lucy’s community and each must deal with their “disgrace” in their own way. There’s an interesting story here, I know, but as I said…I really hated David Lurie and that completely influenced my reading of this book. There were moments when I was able to appreciate Coetzee’s writing style, but I was bothered by the content of the writing itself. I’m ready to say that J.M. Coetzee just isn’t for me.

And with that…I am leaving town for a few weeks tomorrow. This means I probably won’t be posting for a while, and when I get back, you can expect a few more catch up posts. I can’t wait to get back into posting and commenting on other people’s blogs regularly, but am equally excited for a little vacation 🙂 I hope all your summers are off to a great start, and I’ll read y’all soon!

Quite Early One Morning, by Dylan Thomas

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I don’t think that Quite Early One Morning is a book I would normally choose for myself, but I was craving more short stories and Dylan Thomas is one of my boyfriend’s favorite authors, so that made me curious about him. I don’t know that I’d call the pieces in this book “short stories”, exactly; they are like short stories, memories, essays, and poetry all at once. Most of the pieces included in the book were well known in Thomas’ time, the 40’s and early 50’s, because they were read and broadcast over the radio in both the UK and the US. And they are beautiful.

The book is comprised of two distinct sections: the first is made up of autobiographical meanderings through Thomas’s childhood in Wales. The docks, the towns, the people–all described just perfectly and magically, with rumbling, spitting language– that I really felt I had a sense of the place. Thomas’s writing is strongly imbued with its own rhythm, and I was tempted to read aloud to feel the physicality and movement of his words. I didn’t at the time because I read most of it on an airplane and didn’t want to cause any disturbance, but I might go back at some point and try it.

The second part contains some of Thomas’s thoughts about older Welsh poets and their literary contributions. Though I wasn’t quite as interested in this part as I was in the first, Dylan Thomas’ writing kept me happy and engaged.

I would love to track down some recordings of his radio broadcasts so that I could hear these pieces read in his own voice. Though it certainly shines through the written word, I imagine there’s no real substitute for hearing it aloud.

If you’d like, you can read the title story (incidentally, my favorite in this collection) here, to give you an idea of his work. Enjoy!

Written by Emily Jane

December 26, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray

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I, Rigoberta Menchu is essentially a collection of interviews with Rigoberta Menchu about her activism and the culture that she has worked so hard to preserve and liberate, conducted over the course of one week. Menchu is a Quiche Indian woman from Guatemala who has been organizing for cultural preservation, labor rights, and against military occupation in her community and those of indigenous peoples in Guatemala since she was only a child. She was twenty-three at the time of the interviews, and in 1992 she was winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Quiche Indians, and many other Indian communities in Latin America, have little contact with the rest of the world. They face terrible discrimination and oppression, and struggle to maintain their ways of life. They shun the education received in traditional schools, which favors a version of history that is biased against them and promotes modernism. Chapters devoted to explaining various Indian values and rituals–birthing ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, death rituals–provide breaks in the narrative of Menchu’s social justice work and life struggle and, without revealing too much (for much of their beliefs and customs are secret, as they view secrecy as one of their main methods of self-preservation), provide valuable insight into a culture that most outside of it know little to nothing about.

These sections also provide a much needed break from reading about the many horrifying tragedies that Rigoberta Mench has endured while channeling her grief into productive community organizing throughout the Guatemalan Civil War and after.

Rigoberta Menchu recalls helping her mother work on the fincas (plantations, coffee and cotton) for almost nothing, under inhumane conditions, while breastfeeding and caring for her other small children. It was around this time, when she was about eight, that she remembers forming a consciousness of the exploitation her people faced at the hands of landowners. Not only were they barely paid, they were charged for the few things they needed to do their job and often returned home in debt. They were treated like animals, and women were often sexually abused on the job. Two of her younger brothers died on the fincas from malnutrition; another was choked with pesticides by a helicopter which dropped them while workers were still in the fields.

In 1967 powerful landowners, with the help of the Guatemalan government, kicked Rigoberta and her people off their land and claimed it as their own. This would not be the first time. As appointed community leaders, her parents helped to get their community organized against the land-grab. Her father enlisted the help of the unions, and put them off for a few years. But he was taken advantage of by people who knew the law better than he, and whom he could not communicate with as he couldn’t speak Spanish. He was manipulated into signing contracts without informed consent, tortured by the landowners’ bodyguards, and imprisoned. He was in and out of jail as a political prisoner, for “compromising the sovereignty of the state”, for the rest of his life.

Disguised as a fight against communism, the Guatemalan government continued to occupy Indian villages and rape, torture, and massacre their inhabitants. But the Indians put up their best fight. Rigoberta, her mother, and her siblings were not discouraged by the imprisonment, torture, and eventually the death of her father; they were determined to defend themselves and their community indefinitely, even if they must sacrifice their lives. They taught each other to build traps for the soldiers, to use their few resources against their enemies. Rigoberta began traveling to other Indian communities nearby, learning the similarities and differences in their cultures, sharing the story of her people and learning theirs, and offering advice for resistance. She raised consciousness and encouraged people to investigate the root causes of their poverty and oppression so that they were able to form a united front. Her siblings and mother did the same, indeed her whole community was involved somehow out of necessity, but her mother focused specifically on organizing women (and children), for as she told Rigoberta, a revolution without women is no revolution at all.

But Rigoberta’s progress was continually hindered by many linguistic barriers. She finally learned Spanish, the language of her oppressors, in order to work against them. In a similarly subversive manner, she continued to do what she had done since she became a catechist at the age of 12, and used stories in the bible and lessons she’d learned from Catholicism to support the spiritual struggle of her people and encourage their plight.

The work that her mother and her brother did didn’t save them. Her brother was kidnapped, tortured for sixteen days, and burned alive along with other captives in front of their whole family and people, to teach them a lesson. Her mother was kidnapped, raped and tortured, and left for the animals to finish off (these chapters are extremely graphic and disturbing–they gave me nightmares, so consider this a warning). They were not able to save themselves, but the work they did help to sustain their people, their loved ones. Rigoberta herself became a wanted woman, and was forced to go into hiding. Her two sisters went into the mountains to join the guerillas.

It’s a difficult story to read, but worth getting through to learn about this woman and her activism. It’s also fascinating to learn of the ways in which she works to save her people and culture by, at first glance, acting in direct opposition to them. She reveres Quiche tradition, yet renounces marriage and motherhood so that she may continue her important work. She learns the language of her oppressors in order to denounce them. She takes what she finds useful of Catholicism and leaves the rest. She has interesting things to say about the roles of women in revolution and the machismo of her companeros, and the social barriers that exist between intellectuals and those who have not received traditional education. I was also intrigued (re: abhorred) to learn more about how the Guatemalan government couched their abominable actions in terms of anti-communism.

As for the book itself: as I stated earlier, it’s basically a series of translated interviews. Rigoberta Menchu was not speaking in her native language, and it shows. The editor pretty much left things exactly as they were said, which is a method I respect. But these things combined leave lots of room for repetition and structural awkwardness. The rhythm of her monologues was difficult for me to get into, and it’s not always chronological, which bothered me. I haven’t listened to audio books since I was a kid, and reading this, I was tempted to try one for the first time since. I don’t know if it’s available in that format, but I might recommend it over the dead-tree book version. It just made me wish I could see her speak live or something instead. I learned a lot from it and am glad I read it, but the actual reading experience wasn’t that great for me.

I honestly don’t know much about the current situation of indigenous peoples in Latin America, but this book definitely made me want to learn more. I really hope that Rigoberta Menchu’s work, and that of her family and companeros, has alleviated at least some of the suffering of her people, and that we continue to learn from them!

Written by Emily Jane

August 26, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

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Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonymous name “Linda Brent” in the middle of the 1800’s, before the emancipation proclamation, hoping to stir anti-slavery sentiment. She succeeded. Her story is not only riveting, but has had a lasting impact as one of the preeminent classic slave narratives by survivors of U.S. slavery. It was one of the first autobiographical accounts written by a female slave, and as such it was especially powerful for its revelation of the systemic sexual abuse endured by women under slavery, from which no one who read it could continue to turn a blind eye.

As a young child, Harriet lived what she deemed a comfortable life with her mother. When her mother died, she was sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who taught her to read, write, and sew. But then her mistress died too, and at the age of twelve Harriet was left to her mistress’ five year old niece. As it was, the niece’s father became Harriet’s master, and though she was considered “lucky” because he was doctor and so had a reputation to uphold as a “decent” master (one who is not liberal with lashings, who is discreet about sexual discrepancies), he consistently abused and manipulated Harriet. Not only was Harriet forced to deal with her master’s unrelenting assaults, but she had to contend with his jealous, vindictive wife as well.

By what she considered her only means of resistance at the time, Harriet had an affair with a white man unconnected to her master’s family, gave birth to two children, and hoped that he would buy, then free, the three of them. This did not happen, so while her children grew up with their freed great-grandmother, Harriet ran away and hid in a crawlspace in the same grandmother’s shed–a four by seven foot area, three feet tall at it’s highest point–for seven years. She then makes a miraculous escape to the north and arranges meet-ups for her children there. They’re grateful to be together at last, but hardships persist and they are not altogether free for some years more.

With this account, Harriet Jacobs relays her experiences as a woman under slavery, particularly as a mother. It is a good companion read to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, which I read a few months ago, and it focuses more on the effects that the slave system had on bonded families than does Frederick Douglass’ account. As slaves did not have a right to family, it is an especially harrowing perspective, and Jacobs shows us the ways in which bonded families were a point of attack by those who willed them to remain disempowered. For in family there is love, and in love there is power.

And that is what reading Harriet Jacobs made me remember. Thank you, Harriet.

Written by Emily Jane

June 28, 2010 at 4:50 am

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818 and sold many times throughout the U.S. South. While surviving the daily terror and brutality of the slave system, he taught himself, in secret, to read and write, and with these new abilities came new perspective concerning his unbearable situation. His masters were right; this knowledge was a danger to the status quo, and with it he helped to educate his fellow slaves and inspire some of them to attempt a small insurrection. Though the insurrection failed, Douglass did himself succeed in escaping to the north where he became a prominent abolitionist, suffragist, orator, and one of U.S. history’s most revered reformers.

His story is told vividly and with detail. One part that I’m still thinking about, a few days after finishing, is this passage, which highlights the incredible ingenuity in cruelty inspired by the ownership of people (pages 84-85):

The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but i undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whiskey without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed: many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.

This method of oppressing the slaves’ desire for freedom by using a backwards presentation of freedom as punishment is as haunting to me as the frequent descriptions of beatings and other more directly physical inflictions and, according to Douglass, was a common tactic in maintaining the oppression of slaves, and was used in other circumstances as well (Ex: a slave who’s stolen a jar of molasses may be made to eat it all at once, leading to illness).

Though much is now known and discussed about the evils of slavery in the U.S., it remains an insightful and revelatory experience to read Frederick Douglass’s narrative. I will say, though, that I wish he’d spent more time on the escape itself!

Written by Emily Jane

April 15, 2010 at 7:18 pm