Category Archives: History
by Will Ferguson
I never thought I’d read the words “Will Ferguson” and “book about Rwanda” in the same sentence. When I did, the idea intrigued me. What on earth did Will Ferguson—a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour—and Rwanda have to do with one another? I wanted to know.
Turns out, Ferguson has a child who played soccer with the child of Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Rwandan who escaped the genocide. Will and Jean-Claude became friends, and the friendship led to the decision to tell the story of Rwanda reborn.
So, a novelist known for humorous writing and an escapee from genocide go on a road trip.
Does the idea make you feel a little apprehensive? It did me. The horrific events of the 1994 Rwanda genocide defy description and comprehension. How would Ferguson manage to honour those killed and those who survived and still write a novel that touches the light side of our humanity?
“I’d always maintained that a sense of humour can be found in any destination, no matter how bruised, how battered, and that through humour we can find a sense of shared humanity. But Rwanda?”
Ferguson does it. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of one million people being brutally murdered in a mere 100 days—the length of an average university semester. He shares the obvious scars—a car rental agent with a thick machete slash scar from ear to ear—and the hidden scars, evidenced in the many moments when he and Jean-Claude can do nothing more than stand together in silence.
The gifts of this book come Ferguson’s exceptional storytelling ability combined with Jean-Claude’s intimate knowledge of the country, the communities, the events, the people, the recovery, the new leadership, and the damage. Ferguson writes stories that make me want to pull up a chair, lean forward on my knees and take in every nuance, as if he were recounting a tale by the fireside. He is a fine writer who describes scenes vividly, sometimes poetically, and always authentically. No pretentious literary meanderings for him.
“Kigali is draped across a loose federation of hills, and the city’s main thoroughfares often run along high-wire ridges before dropping suddenly into the valleys below. This layout—the dip and drop, the ridges and sloping descents, the whorls and loops—makes driving through the city akin to navigating a fingerprint.”
Jean-Claude and Will venture into the public sites and the private homes of the new Rwanda, a country that has a growing list of optimistic statistics indicating recovery and new growth. They share unspeakably sad moments, of course, but they share humorous moments involving fire ants, Primus beer, gorillas in the wild and a journey to the source of the Nile. (Ferguson is a descendant of David Livingstone, apparently. No, really.)
The two journey around a country dealing with “the consequences of targeting one segment of society, of singling out one specific group of people,” and in the end, find hope in children and a game of soccer in the dusty streets.
by Oliver Pötzsch, Translated by Lee Chadeayne
Mariner Books, 2011
Oliver Pötzsch is a direct descendant of the real man on which the main character, an executioner, is based. More than that, Pötzsch is a descendant of generations and generations of executioners. It was the family business. Grandparents and parents handed down the duties, dangers and psychological hardships to children and grandchildren. The author’s personal connection to this dubious past makes this story all the more absorbing. When his main character tortures and kills, Pötzsch exorcises some family demons. When this same character soothes and heals better than the town physicians, the author redeems and grants some esteem to the family reputation.
Notice I am talking about the hangman as the main character, not the hangman’s daughter. The title is curious. The hangman has a daughter, sure, but the story does not revolve around her. It’s not a crucial point except it did distract me during my reading. I kept wondering, “What is the hangman’s daughter going to do that is so important?” In the end, nothing of note. Huh.
So, the main character, Jakob Kuisl, is hangman living in Bavaria in the 1600s, a time of superstition and medical misinformation. When a midwife is falsely charged with murder and witchcraft, Jakob must torture a woman he believes to be innocent and kill her if he doesn’t find the real culprit.
Apart from the misleading title, Pötzsch’s mystery informs as well as entertains. He chose a setting and character about which most of us know little. The book is worth reading for the glimpse into the life of a hangman and his family of that era.
This is the first of a series, including The Dark Monk, The Beggar King, and The Poisoned Pilgrim.
by Joseph Boyden
Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2013
We own a cottage in Huronia (central Ontario, Canada), so for decades I have frolicked in the geographical area where the less-than-frolicsome historical events from which Joseph Boyden drew his inspiration took place. We canoe for pleasure on the same waters where First Nations people and the French engaged in life-saving trade and life-ending battles. We spend touristy afternoons at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, a reconstruction of the 17th-Century French Jesuit mission where the peaceful coexistence and treacherous torture took place.
Perhaps familiarity with the area and the history helps me to visualize this novel. Perhaps the life force—the orenda—of the time lives on through the Canadian Shield granite upon which those people walked. Whatever the reason, The Orenda resonates with me.
Joseph Boyden uses three narrators to tell of the first encounters of Jesuit priests with the Wendat people and of the conflict between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Wendat (Huron). The three narrators cover all angles of the story: Snow Falls is an Iroquois teenager who becomes the victim of a revenge kidnapping by the Wendat, Bird is the Huron warrior who kidnapped her, and Christophe is a Jesuit priest who wants to convert these “sauvages.”
Boyden’s story has no “good guys” or “bad guys.” In their pursuit of revenge, conquest or conversion, all his wonderfully complex characters perpetrate acts of kindness and villainy. Thanks to Boyden’s skill at characterization and his instinct to honour the integrity of a story, we understand his characters’ acts of villainy in those circumstances, even if we could not condone them in today’s society.
We all know how the story ends—the big-picture story of First Nations and European relations in North America—and that knowing flows like an unseen undercurrent in the reader’s mind. When Bird questions how the “crows” (the priests in the black wool cassocks) will effect his people, when Wendat warriors struggle with alcohol, and when Samuel de Champlain’s men hand over the first gun, we know. It adds an eerie shadow effect to the reading.
The only concern I have about this book—the only thing that made me stop reading and step outside of the magic of the story for a moment—is the use of present tense by Christophe in certain circumstances. I like present tense stories, and it worked beautifully for Snow Falls and Bird, who we imagine relating their version of events via the ancient oral storytelling traditions of the First Nations. Christophe, however, writes to his superior in France or in a diary. Him we imagine writing, so he needs past tense. When he is pulled under water by the sodden weight of his heavy wool cassock he could not have been scribbling notes at the time, so a first-person, present-tense account doesn’t work.
My stickiness about implausibilities of tenses aside, I admire this novel. Boyden never shies away from gory details, so when you read his books, expect the brutal truth. The Orenda has torture scenes that might alarm and repulse some delicate sensibilities.
But then the true events of history often do.
I recommend any book by Joseph Boyden. Through Black Spruce is my favourite. Three Day Road is harrowing but worthy.
by Reza Aslan
Random House, 2013
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” —Matthew 10:34
Reza Aslan begins Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth with the above quote above as the epigraph. It made this peace-loving Christian squirm. I sat up and prepared to have my assumptions challenged.
Aslan described himself as a man “raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists . . .” At age 15 he “found Jesus,” and then still later unchained himself from the belief that Bible stories were literally true. The author with Muslim/atheist/Christian background studied and sought more meaningful truth in our ancient texts. Out of his studies grew an interpretation of what the Jesus before Christianity would have been like.
“Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
Aslan builds a mind-world for us. He re-creates in vivid detail the “obscure hamlet” of Nazareth and first century Palestine. Within the Nazarene peasant homes of “whitewashed mud and stone” he sets the kind of man who would arise out of such a place. He shows what he believes Jesus of Nazareth, a man shaped by the people, the geography, and the politics of that impoverished village would be like.
Aslan’s insights into Paul and the unforeseen affect his actions would have on the shape of the church were particularly interesting. When Paul called Jesus “Jesus Christ” instead of “Jesus the Christ,” for example, his slant rippled down through the centuries to the Christians of today. Jesus the man dealt with the earthy bodily concerns of his people. He fought against poverty and oppression, he resisted Roman authorities, and he struggled for justice. Paul and others minimized Jesus’ nationalistic human concerns and transformed him into a universal spiritual leader. Out of that grew a new religion, something Jesus wouldn’t have imagined.
“. . . practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive . . .”
Every reader will come to this book with different amounts of knowledge of the Bible and other historical writings, and with different interpretations of what they know. Some of the historical facts Aslan shares will surprise some readers; some of his assertions will upset others.
This book will kindle conversations about Jesus, Paul and Christianity, and it is a worthy read for that reason alone.
by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, Penguin Canada, 2014
I almost didn’t read this book. I wouldn’t have, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so. I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.
The Invention of Wings is Sue Monk Kidd’s fictional version of the real lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two daughters of a wealthy landowner in 19th Century Charleston.
As young children they rebelled against the cruelty of slavery and the restrictions of their church. As adults they lead an infamous charge to abolish slavery, strive for racial equality and promote women’s rights.
The Invention of Wings is also the story of Handful “Hetty” Grimké, a fictional African-American slave “gifted” to Sarah Grimké on her eleventh birthday.
Monk Kidd alternates between the first-person accounts of Sarah and Handful, and these two perspectives allow the reader a broad view of Charleston life at that time. The two girls inhabit the same world but in two very different ways, and both women are trapped but in different ways. Sarah is trapped in her restricted female role by inflexible societal norms; Handful is trapped in her slave role by poverty, cruelty and oppression. From an early age Handful senses the intractable barrier between her and her white mistress, but the privileged Sarah takes longer to perceive their great divide. Later in life, Handful tells Sarah: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”
One of Monk Kidd’s most intriguing characters is Handful’s mother, Charlotte. She lives with the cruelty of slavery that breeds what Monk Kidd calls the “cold fire of hate.” Even though her name is in the landowner’s inventory book as part of the “goods and chattel,”—“right after the water trough, the wheelbarrow, the claw hammer and the bushel of flint corn,” Charlotte tells her daughter: “Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.” Her strength plants the seed of resilience in Handful, who grows up believing that her body might be “goods and chattel,” but not her mind. “I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind for what I know is me,” she says.
Monk Kidd navigates all the complexities of the world at that time; nothing is straightforward, and nothing is easy in the face of overwhelming societal and economic pressures. Sarah vows to “put feet to her words” and take action to abolish slavery, but in so doing, she sacrifices family connections, friendships and love. Sarah rejects slavery and moves north to join the Quaker movement to abolish slavery. She then discovers that the Quakers might want to abolish slavery, but they still want racial segregation. Even the abolutionists she and Angelina work with urge her to ease off on her feminist cause. She tells them, “Now sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks.”
I almost didn’t read this book because Sue Monk Kidd’s previous two books, while beautifully written, did not stir my soul. I wouldn’t have read this book, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so.
I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.
by Solomon Northup
Penguin Books, 2013
You won’t find this story anywhere else: a story about African-American slavery written by a man who was both free and a slave; a story of slave owners, both kind-hearted and cruel; and a story about how depravity as a societal norm affects the generations.
You won’t find this story anywhere else, so read this book.
Solomon Northup was born a free man. Educated and hard-working, he thrived, married and had children in the free state of New York. In 1841, two men lured him to Washington, D.C., drugged him and psychologically terrorized him with beatings, and sold him into slavery.
The beatings the men inflicted on Northup worked. Terrified of revealing his true identity and his status as a free man, he spent twelve years in Louisiana as a slave on cotton plantations. Driven to find a way to return home but with few options or resources available to him, he laboured, endured punishments, inflicted punishments, and bore witness to the trap that is slavery.
Northup published his account of life in slavery to inform 19th Century Americans about all aspects of the practice. He emphasized several themes:
- He discouraged anyone from believing that slaves didn’t understand or desire freedom. Too many people at the time said that slaves had food and a roof over their head, so they neither needed nor desired anything else. Northup made it clear that this was not so. “They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest of white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power . . .”
- He wrote about the de-humanizing impact of the cruelty of slave-owners. The repeated beatings and whippings caused men to behave more “like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.” “The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Immune to the suffering of others, the violence begat more violence in a horrific cycle.
- He described his helpless feeling when forced to play his own part in the brutality. Slaves beating slaves was part of the psychological torment.
- Northup observed sadly the passing on of prejudice from one generation to the next. Sons, daughters, and wives learned how to treat their slaves cruelly by observing the owners and overseers. The slave owners not only taught family members to beat and whip slaves, they encouraged such behaviour. “The effect of these exhibitions of brutality on the household of the slave-holder, is apparent. Epps’ [a slave owner] oldest son is an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age. It is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict . . . he often rides into the field with his whip playing the overseer, much to his father’s delight.”
In 1853, Northup regained his freedom (with the help of a Canadian, I’m proud to say), and more than a century and a half later, Northup’s concerns still need addressing. The passing on of racist attitudes from generation to generation means that African-Americans still face discrimination today. Slavery isn’t an accepted part of the economic order in North American anymore, but slavery and human trafficking still exist. The perpetrators still behave “more like savages than enlightened human beings.” Sadly, Northup’s book is just as necessary today as it was in 1853.
Read it, not because it’s timeless, authentic and eloquent, but because its narrator will charm you, his objective fairness will impress you, and his truths still need to be told.