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Book Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Cover of the book The Conductors.

Summary:
Hetty Rhodes was once enslaved, but she ran away with her sister, only her sister was caught while she escaped. She began returning south to try to free her sister, but with her repeated trips became a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, alongside a man named Benjy, using their magic to help others escape. Now the Civil War is over and she and Benjy, who is now her husband, have built a life for themselves in Philadelphia. He’s a blacksmith, she’s a seamstress, and they both solve crimes in their spare time that the white authorities can’t be bothered with. When one of their friends turns up dead in an alley, their investigation takes them throughout Black Philadelphia on a hunt for answers.

Review:
The premise of the worldbuilding for this book reminded me of Thieftaker (review), the first in the Thieftaker Chronicles, which I really enjoyed, only set in the 1800s rather than the 1700s and with a Black woman lead rather than a white man. I say this as I was excited and thought this was a good thing. I remember thinking at the time that I wished there were more alternate history fantasy books and I was excited when the next one I saw brought such diversity to the genre.

I liked the magic in this book. I thought it was a great analogy for colonizing culture versus Black and Indigenous culture. The colonizing culture (Sorcery) requires the use of tools (wands) but the wands make that magic very powerful. The Black and Indigenous cultures use Celestial magic, which doesn’t require tools (they draw sigils instead). It can become very powerful but takes more study and time to become so. Anyone with magic being able to pick up a wand and wreak some havoc with very little knowledge as an analogy for weapons like guns I thought was great.

The book also demonstrates the community the Black folks of Philadelphia built up, which included those who freed themselves by running away, those who were freed by the Civil War, and those who were born free. There is a male/male relationship included among Hetty’s friend group, as well as a woman who experienced infertility and adopted a baby.

What didn’t work for me was the order in which the plot was told. The book starts in post-Civil War Philadelphia with Hetty and Benjy (her husband) working together to solve cases, in much the same way they used to work together as Conductors on the Underground Railroad. How Hetty escaped, met Benjy, and how they worked together as Conductors was told through a series of broken up flashbacks throughout the book. For me, this didn’t work. I was much more heavily invested in the stories being told in the flashbacks than in the present mystery, largely because a lot of the present storytelling relied upon the relationship between Hetty and Benjy and, without the full flashbacks, I had no understanding of the relationship between Hetty and Benjy. I needed to know why they were, for example, married but just for propriety’s sake. I needed to know why they decided to work together as Conductors in the first place. What finally pushed them to get married? I was so confused and felt so much like I was dropped into the middle of a pre-existing world that I went and double-checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally started with the second book in a series. Characters, even beyond Benjy and Hetty, kept talking about things that had recently happened in a way that felt like they had happened in a previous book. For example, the character who adopted a baby, the line about that felt like how the second book in a series will remind you of what happened in the first with that having been a key plot point in the first. I would say, in general, that for me, everything would have worked better if the first book in the series had been how Hetty and Benjy met and became Conductors together, maybe ending with them solving their first case as investigators after the War. Then this could have been the second book, perhaps with some additional flashbacks to inform us of some things from during the War.

I am sure that there are others that will read that paragraph and think “oh I like that vibe,” and that’s great. I hope this review helps this book find its audience. For me, though, I simply don’t like being dropped into the middle of the story.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

January 19, 2021 Leave a comment

Summary:
From the Revisioning History series, this explores United States history with a focus on the Indigenous peoples. History is explored in 11 short to medium length chapters in chronological order.

Review:
I majored in US History and took a full-length course on the Indigenous peoples of the US. I also previously was interested in the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, so read a few books about and by the people of that movement. I was kind of expecting, since this is a short book targeted to a mainstream audience, that I would not encounter too much that was new, but I was pleased to discover my expectations were incorrect.

This book was published in 2014 and thus took a more modern perspective than even my course late in the first decade of the 2000s took. It ensures a perspective not of we’re studying these ancient lost peoples but rather we’re studying the history of people who exist now in modern society and how genocide was enacted against them. The exploration of colonization and how it impacted Indigenous peoples is much more nuanced than the simple guns, germs, and steel history I’d studied in college. What I learned through this book is that colonization was strategic. It wasn’t just a happenstance of how germs worked out when the nations met and greater firepower. Of course, my coursework did acknowledge colonization, but not to the extent it was delineated in this book.

Through economic penetration of Indigenous societies, the European and Euro-American colonial powers created economic dependency and imbalance of trade, then incorporated the Indigenous nations into spheres of influence and controlled them indirectly or as protectorates, with indispensable use of Christian missionaries and alcohol….a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence.

4%-5%

To me an interesting aspect of this book was its discussion of Indigenous peoples and alcohol. Growing up, I definitely heard the myth that Indigenous peoples are more genetically prone to alcoholism. In recent years, I heard the theory that rates of addiction are higher in oppressed peoples, which makes sense as alcohol and other addictive substances can provide temporary relief from trauma. This book pushed my understanding two steps further. First, alcohol being used as an intentional weapon of colonization, calling it a “weapon of war” (21%), and noting that it wasn’t just introduced, it was also promoted (13%). This book also drew my attention to the idea that, for at least some Indigenous peoples, acting the part of the “drunk Indian” can be a form of protest. I read the article the author cites as the origin of this theory, and reading fiction work by Indigenous peoples seems to support this theory as well, for at least some instances. (See the book Ceremony, I’ll be reviewing it soon).

After covering the American Indian Movement, the book wraps up with a discussion of the expanding US imperialism and modern day colonization by historic colonizers (the US and the UK are specifically discussed). Through this, I learned of a potential connection between the Monroe Doctrine and overpowered policing forces. I also learned about the modern forced removal of the Chagossian people from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, which is now used by the US for a military based (rented from the UK). This is just one example of many given in the chapter, but it’s the one that stuck out the most to me, partially because I didn’t know the US even had a military base in the Indian Ocean but also because the book describes the forced removal including murdering every single pet dog on the island. While of course the forced removal alone is terrible there was just something about the added insult of murdering beloved pets that ground the whole event into my brain.

I have covered just a small snippet of what I learned in this book. It is well-written. The chapters are short to medium length and filled with information. There’s nothing extraneous here. It gets right to the point, which I appreciate. The chronological order is helpful as well for leaving the book and coming back to it as you have time. Highly recommended. I’ve already added several of the other books in this series to my wishlist.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 218 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: Amazon

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