Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Maya Angelou, Charles Glass and Eric Hobsbawm.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

In the latest instalment of her memoirs, Maya Angelou tackles her tumultuous relationship with her mother. Miserable in her marriage and unable to cope with motherhood, Vivien Baxter sent Angelou and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, where they remained for ten years. The Washington Post’s Valerie Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom both as a storyof how [Angelou] came to love the woman who had sent her away” and “of a dangerous time when she struggled as an unwed mother”. Although she acknowledges a lack of detail in some instances, Sayers says it takes little away from the overall design: “As an account of reconciliation, this little book is just revealing enough, and pretty irresistible.”

Writing about Angelou’s style, the Independent’s Fiona Sturges praises the way in which some of the more harrowing incidents in the book are presented. “Angelou has never been one for florid prose, and here she maintains a precise and economical style which makes these bleak moments more vivid, like a film from which you can't look away.” Both critics praise Angelou’s perpetual optimism. Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom as a book delivered with Angelou’s “trademark good humour and fierce optimism”, while Sturges describes it as a “profoundly moving tale of separation and reunion, and an ultimately optimistic portrait of the maternal bond”.

Deserter by Charles Glass

The latest book by journalist, broadcaster and author Charles Glass provides accounts of three young men who were drafted into the infantry during the Second World War. As its title suggests, Deserter explores what motivated a group of British and American soldiers to make the decision to run away. While the Guardian’s Neal Ascherson notes that not much of the book is actually about deserting – “most of it consists of the three men’s own narratives of ‘their war’” – he nonetheless regards the accounts as important contributions to the historical narrative of war: “Because they are the stories of individual human beings who eventually cracked under the strain of hardly imaginable fear and misery, they are wonderful, unforgettable acts of witness, something salvaged from a time already sinking into the black mud of the past.”

The Telegraph’s Keith Lowe describes Glass’s book as “sensitive and thought-provoking”. Focusing on the story of an American coal miner’s son called Alfred T Whitehead, who wrote a war-time diary riddled with lies, Lowe praises Glass for his nuanced approach: “Most historians would probably have abandoned it as a source. For Glass, however, this is exactly the point: why did this man tell such tall tales?” Simultaneously appalled and moved by the witness accounts in Deserters, both critics conclude with the same the same question: confronted with such horrific conditions, who wouldn’t also have considered running away?

Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm

Writing in the Observer, Nick Cohen has high praise for Eric Hobsbawm’s posthumously published collection of essays. This book, Cohen argues, “shows this revolutionary traditionalist at his best”. Cohen praises the revered Marxist historian and asserts that none of his contemporaries was “better at deploying a killer fact to make an argument stick in your mind”. The Telegraph’s Alex Massie is careful to warn readers that anyone “hoping for the final showdown between Hobsbawm’s unabashed communism and the reality of the Soviet Union’s own failure will be disappointed”, suggesting that although the articles may have been published at different times, the common thread throughout is “a nagging crisis of identity and a parallel fear of redundancy” as the author explores the evaporation of classical music and elitist high culture.

This reading is echoed by the New Statesman’s own Jonathan Derbyshire, who notes that Hobsbawm “evinces melancholy empathy .  . . for the art and culture of the ‘bourgeois society’ that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War”. It was, Derbyshire argues, Hobsbawm's interest in “the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues" in the Communist Party Historians Group in the mid-1950s. Perhaps the highest praise for Hobsbawm comes from Richard J Evans, in the Guardian, who says his “pessimism comes through in many of the essays in this book more clearly than in any other work he published after the fall of communism”. Despite teaching and writing modern European history for 40 years, Evans says that he “learned an enormous amount that I didn't know before”.

The late Eric Hobsbawm in 1976 (photograph: Getty Images)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage