Online Reading Challenge – April Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How did your  “1800s” reading go in April? Exciting? Interesting? A non-starter?

I struggled a bit to find something to read this month. I think the “1800s”, while full of many excellent titles, was a bit to broad. There was almost too much choice. A more defined time period, while limiting choices, would make it easier to find a real gem. In fact, I had decided I would re-watch some favorite Jane Austen movies, but at the last minute I found a book that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. That book was The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman living in England in 1850, is jilted by her intended and decides, at the last minute, to join her sister who is immigrating to America to marry. The month-long Atlantic crossing is very difficult for Honor and further tragedy strikes during the journey to Ohio. Honor finds herself homesick, alone and struggling to find her place in a strange land.

America is very different from the England Honor grew up in; where England is settled and solid, America is raw and constantly changing. Survival is a constant struggle and comforts are meager. While people are kind, they are not particularly welcoming, absorbed in their own problems and struggles. And political tensions run high, often pitting neighbor against neighbor as the question of slavery begins to reach its boiling point – Honor has landed in a tiny settlement near Oberlin, Ohio, known as a safe stop for runaway slaves following the Underground Railroad.

Honor’s Quaker religion teaches her to despise slavery and she quickly begins helping the runaways that she encounters at her family’s farm. She soon learns that ideals can suffer in the harsh light of reality; her family forbids her from helping the runaways even though they agree with her views and new laws threaten hefty fines and imprisonment if defied. When a crisis is reached, Honor must decide between her beliefs and the law. Which path will she take and at what cost?

Much like Honor, this book is deceivably simple – a straightforward story line with a clearly drawn situation. But also like Honor, there is a lot of hidden depth here. How do you stand up for your beliefs against the majority? How do you battle loneliness and homesickness when you know you can never return home? How do you find purpose and meaning? There is a lot of  rich imagery, of the beauty and harshness of nature, of the quilts Honor expertly sews and the differences from their English counterparts. I enjoyed the view of a mid-1800s life on what was essentially the frontier, and a glimpse of the Quaker religion, practices and principals. Throughout the book, Honor hangs on to the Quaker belief that “there is Light in everyone” even when people are at their worst; a lesson that has never gone out of style.

OK, now it’s your turn – what did you read this month? Let us know in the comments!

 

Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner

gateway to freedomMore than any other scholar, Eric Foner has influenced our understanding of America’s history. Now, making brilliant use of extraordinary evidence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian once again reconfigures the national saga of American slavery and freedom in Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

A deeply entrenched institution, slavery lived on legally and commercially even in the northern states that had abolished it after the American Revolution. Slaves could be found in the streets of New York well after abolition, traveling with owners doing business with the city’s major banks, merchants, and manufacturers. New York was also home to the North’s largest free black community, making it a magnet for fugitive slaves seeking refuge. Slave catchers and gangs of kidnappers roamed the city, seizing free blacks, often children, and sending them south to slavery.

To protect fugitives and fight kidnappings, the city’s free blacks worked with white abolitionists to organize the New York Vigilance Committee in 1835. In the 1840s vigilance committees proliferated throughout the North and began collaborating to dispatch fugitive slaves from the upper South, Washington, and Baltimore, through Philadelphia and New York, to Albany, Syracuse, and Canada. These networks of antislavery resistance, centered on New York City, became known as the underground-railroad. Forced to operate in secrecy by hostile laws, courts, and politicians, the city’s underground-railroad agents helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves reach freedom between 1830 and 1860. Until now, their stories have remained largely unknown, their significance little understood.

Building on fresh evidence – including a detailed record of slave escapes secretly kept by Sydney Howard Gay, one of the key organizers in New York – Foner elevates the underground-railroad from folklore to sweeping history. The story is inspiring – full of memorable characters making their first appearance on the historical stage – and significant – the controversy over fugitive slaves inflamed the sectional crisis of the 1850s. It eventually took a civil war to destroy American slavery, but here at last is the story of the courageous effort to fight slavery by “practical abolition,” person by person, family by family. (description from publisher)