Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Bound for Canaan (thoughts)

Yay! A discussion of a book! It's been far too long.

I checked out Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich as part of my ongoing attempt to read more non-fiction. It popped up on a lot of 'notable' lists, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Plus, I feel that someone who loves Gone With the Wind, both the book and the movie, has a hell of a moral obligation to read about how awful slavery was. It's a good balance to Margaret Mitchell's insanely skewed world.

That said, Canaan focuses on the underground railroad. Bordewich points out in the beginning that there isn't much scholarship on the actual railroad, and that popular knowledge doesn't extend much further than Harriet Tubman. Furthermore, Bordewich argues that in the past there's been a tendency to credit all of the whites involved with the railroad and discount the blacks. Not being familiar with antebellum scholarship, I can't comment as to the facts. But, Bordewich definitely does a good job of presenting the important blacks as well as the important whites involved in the operation.

There are two things that made this book really stand out, as far as I'm concerned. Firstly, Bordewich knows how to write. Canaan reads more like a particularly-fact stuffed novel than then stereotypical dry academic tome. He writes in present tense throughout the book, which makes the action more immediate. He's not afraid to speculate a bit as to what the various people might have been thinking. While this may not be kosher from an academic point of view, it makes for a damn good read. Bordewich can describe a scene well enough for me to have an image in my mind. At points, my heart was pumping along with the running slaves.

The other aspect that I really liked was that Bordewich presents the people as people. If some white involved in the underground railroad was also racist, Bordewich points that out. If someone was a bad family man, that's included. Basically, he resists the urge to deify these historical characters, which allows them to be human. I connected with a lot of them, just because there wasn't a 'holier-than-thou' attitude in the presentation.

For all the book's greatness, there was a bit of a problem: sometimes, it began to drag. Compared to the narrative-style passages, the small minority of non-narrative-style parts was incredibly boring. Sometimes, I'd have to force myself to get through a few pages, until the action picked up again. This is a small caveat, though: the difference between a great book and an extraordinary book.

If you're at all interested in antebellum American history, in the struggle for African American equality, or a good true-life adventure story, I recommend checking Bordewich out.

Favorite Passages
It was the terrible alternative that almost every fugitive slave faced at some point, and that few other Amiercans have ever been required to make: to choose between freedom or family, to leave behind wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters, or to risk losing everything. (115)

...and with the brisk steps of men who knew that whatever the outcome, they were about to make history...(420)

The Underground Railroad came into existence in an American in which democracy was the property of white men alone, and in which free as well as enslaved blacks lived under conditions that had more in common with what we today call totalitarianism than many Americans might care to admit....The abolitionist movement and its driving wedge, the Underground Railroad, forced Americans to think in new ways about that history of compromise, to face its moral consequences, and to realise that
all Americans were, in some sense, prisoners to slavery, and shackled to the fate of the slave. (437)

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