Monday, December 31, 2018

Colson Whitehead’s Mirror: “The Underground Railroad”

Consider the resume of the novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

The Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The National Book Award for fiction. The Carnegie Medal. The Heartland Prize. The Arthur C. Clarke Award. The Hurston-Wright Award. Longlisted for the Man Book Prize. Finalist for the Kirkus Prize. #1 New York Times Bestseller. Oprah Book Club. Best Book of the Year by The New York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalSan Francisco ChronicleNewsdayGQPublisher’s WeeklyEsquire, and Buzzfeed. Translated into 40 languages.

As I looked at and through the book at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore, I asked myself the obvious question. Can any book deliver with a resume like that one? Has it been overhyped, embraced by the critics because it happened to hit the zeitgeistat exactly the right moment? Would it have received all these accolades if it had been published the year before or the year after?

To come to a book like this, two years after its publication, is a challenge. You don’t want to read it to determine if it lives up to the hype. You don’t like the thought lurking in your head that this could be a book that allows our cultural, media, and publishing elites to celebrate because it’s the culturally correct thing to do (I’ve seen that happen with poetry books). I don’t want to feel compelled to like this book because of all the prizes it’s won or its 4200+ reviews on Amazon. 

No, you want to read this book for the story it tells and what the author is trying to say to you, the reader. That’s what I set out to do, and I believe it’s what I largely accomplished.

Whitehead tells a good story. It’s a hard story, a difficult story, a story filled with violent images and events. It’s a historical story deliberately filled with historical anachronisms. The largest anachronism is implied by the title; there was no real underground railroad, with trains, engineers, stations, and station masters. The historical underground railroad was a network or routes and safe houses that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom. It began in the late 1700s and reached its peak in the 1850s; one estimate says more than 100,000 slaves had been helped by 1850. No one knows for sure.

The story turns that network of routes and safe houses into an actual rail network existing underground. It doesn’t run to a regular schedule, but it does regularly run. 

Cora is a young slave living on a Georgia cotton plantation. Her mother Mabel ran away when Cora was a child; Cora cannot forgive her for leaving her behind. The plantation owners are particularly brutal; the violence is daily and often indiscriminate, and no one is going to help you if you’re singled out for special treatment. 

The underground railroad. Source: National Park Service
Another slave, Caesar, approached Cora about running away. At first, she pushed him away. But eventually she agrees to go with him, knowing that slave catchers will be sent after them. They have to make it 30 miles to a safe house which sits atop an underground station. They get to the safe house and aboard a train. Their owner sends Arnold Ridgeway, one of the most notorious and successful slave catchers, after them.

South Carolina is the first of four key settings in the book, and it is here that Caesar and Cora live for a time. Whitehead uses each setting to dramatize particular kinds of white attitudes and efforts concerning slavery. For South Carolina, the white population considers itself advanced in its thinking, and has established factories, schools, dormitories, and other facilities to help escaped slaves. After the brutality of the plantation, Cora finds South Carolina to an almost intoxicating refuge. But over time, she sees that while she is physically better off, this society with all of its well-meaning people and good intentions are keeping her exactly where they want her. It’s better than plantation slavery, but it, too, is a kind of slavery. And then Ridgeway arrives.

North Carolina is the opposite – a society determined to eradicate all vestiges of slavery – including the slaves themselves. The violence is regularized and constant; Cora is hidden away in an attic by a couple not quite sure what to do with her. Ridgeway finds her here, too. And then it’s on to the fire-blackened wilderness of Tennessee, with its plagues of yellow fever. The final setting is Indiana, where Cora seems to have found the ultimate refuge on the Valentine farm. But the growing community of escaped slaves and free people of color are surrounded by an increasingly hostile white population.

Colson Whitehead
Whitehead has created settings and situations which did not exist as he explains them but have existed in one form or another, to a greater or lesser degree, in most of American history. Slavery, even in the best of situations, was still a system based on brutality and violence. It was a social, economic, and political structure. Black people were property, to be used and abused by owners. 

In the world of The Underground Railroad, even the best-intentioned of abolitionists, sympathizers, and supporters rarely if ever saw black people like Cora as equals or even as full human beings. Cora finds a very tiny number of exceptions, but it is still her common experience. Many black people can’t be trusted, either, because they will also be keeping their eye on opportunity and reward. Cora will discover that she herself can’t be trusted; she’s often her own worst enemy. Slavery is a plague that infects everything.

What Whitehead has done is unusual. He’s created a historical novel that blends, shapes, and transports history. It is unsettling, challenging, disturbing, and riveting. It’s a journey on a train, an underground train, where the view from the windows is darkness.

It’s also a mirror.

Top photograph by Claudia Soraya via Unsplash. Used with permission

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Assignment

The archbishop of York had had enough. “What the bishop is trying to say, Michael, is that it’s been decided that you will be assigned to St. Anselm’s Anglican Church in San Francisco.”

Michael sat, outwardly composed but inwardly reeling. San Francisco?

“You can take the time you need to think this over,” the bishop of Norfolk said. “We know this is a surprise and not what you expected. So feel free to consider and pray about this.”

“I accept it, Father Stanton,” Michael said.

   - From Dancing Priest 

Photograph by Ben White via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Noises of the city

After Psalm 122

It is the silence I hear first,
but soon the noises overcome,
the bleating and lowing
of the animals.
Drawing closer, it is the sounds
I hear next, the sounds
of laughter and argument and 
rejoicing and singing and
prayer, the words spilling
from reservoirs and fountains.
It is the clicking of my feet
in shoes I hear next, the sounds
of hard leather 
clicking in the cobbles,
adding to the music.

Photograph by Hanny Naibaho via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Saturday Good Reads

The blogging and online publication world seems to slow During Christmas week, and that’s a good thing, I think. I noticed an uptick in poetry, though, and that’s a good thing, too. And this week we have an array of poems and articles about poets, from a story about how poet Dana Gioia saved reading to a poem from the late 15thcentury from a manuscript of carols.

The growing volume of articles about higher education cracking up seems to indicate something of a growth industry. Joshua Herring writes about whether the liberal arts will survive in this century (a response to a bad defense of a good thing); while even evangelical Christian Wheaton College has discovered that an outside speaker has allegedly triggered students’ feelings about being “unsafe.” 

Here’s a question: what do you think soldiers (on both sides) would have read during the American Civil War? Sarah Kay Bierle at Emerging Civil War has an answer (a bit of a surprise). 

Happy New Year!

More Good Reads


Poetry? What Is It Good For? – Nayeli Riano at The Imaginative Conservative.

The Circle Dance – Malcolm Guite at An Unexpected Journal.

I never said – Robert Rife at Rob’s Lit-Bits. 

Life and Culture

How to Change the World in 2019: Build Community – Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square.


Top 10 News Stories from 2018 – Lifeway Facts & Trends.

Between – Paul Phillips at He’s Taken Leave.

Writing and Literature

Why We Love to Visit Narnia – Louis Markos at An Unexpected Journal.

Charles Dickens’s great expectations about his attire – Maev Kennedy at The Art Newspaper.

Art and Photography

Snow Trail – Tim Good via Facebook.

Chute Silhouette and Beyond Sky by Tom Darin Liskey via Facebook.

Matt Maher – Let There Be Peace

Top illustration: Old Man Reading, lithograph on wove paper by Thomas Hart Benton (1941)

Friday, December 28, 2018

Stones under my feet

After Psalm 122

These stones under my feet
are singing as I walk,
each step a note
each pace a refrain
each stride a psalm.
They sing together,
these stones, they sing
in harmony, the sound
rising upward like a prayer,
the music of the spheres,
the language of heaven.

Photograph by Bastian Ignacio Vega Cani via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

“The House on Downshire Hill” by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Conrad Taylor is a 60-year-old recluse who lives on Downshire Hill, one of the prettiest (if not the prettiest) streets in Hampstead in north London. A neighbor reports to police that she hasn’t seen him for some weeks, and neither has she seen the younger man who’s been staying with for the past two years, a Tamil simply known as Raj. The police investigate and find Taylor’s body. He’s been dead for some time, but it looks like and is later confirmed as murder. And there is no sign of Raj.

Detective Superintendent Simon Collison and his team at the Hampstead Police Station (just around the corner from the murder scene) set to work. What looks like what should be a fairly straightforward case becomes anything but that. No one knows much about the recluse of the family who lived in the house before him. No one knows how to identify Raj. No one knows of a possible motive.

As Collison’s team gleans what little they can, they learn that Britain’s Special Branch has an interest in Raj, putting Collison in something of an awkward position because, as he knows, he’s under consideration for a position with Special Branch. And then a second body is found, buried on the property line between Taylor’s house and his next-door neighbor. This one, however, is from 20 years before. Collison’s gut tells him the two murders are connected.

The House on Downshire Hill by Guy Fraser-Sampson is the latest novel in the Hampstead Murder series, and it’s a worthy companion to its predecessors. The novel is as much about the characters of its police detective team as it is how they go about their work – the painstaking effort the police have to undertake when the clues are few and the unknowns are many. 

Guy Fraser-Sampson
Fraser-Sampson is perhaps better known as an investment funds manager and business consultant. He’s a member of the teaching staff of the Cass Business School in London, an investment columnist, and the author of four books on finance and investment. In the history and fiction areas, he’s written a history of the Plantagenets, a review of cricket from 1967 to 1977 when the color barriers where breaking down, two successor novels to Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson, and now this Hampstead Murder series.

The House on Downshire Hill is an excellent example of the police procedural (London style). We know that Collison and his team will find their killer, but they have to sort through old family history, hidden motives, and the complications of a security service keeping an eye on things. It’s no wonder that Special Branch is keen to hire Collison.


Top Illustration: St. John’s Downshire Hill, Hampstead, oil on canvas (1927-1928) by Sydney Carline.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

“Along Came Jones” by Linda Windsor

A red horse, or sorrel, running wild in Montana ranch land drives Deanna Manetti off the road, with her foreign sports car pretty well banged up and undriveable. She finds herself being ministered to by what looks at first to be a mountain man – scruffy and smelly. The mountain man is actually an ex-U.S. marshal, Shephard Jones, living on what he hopes will become a horse ranch. The ranch is adjacent to the old ghost town of Hopewell.

Deanna happens to be on the run – from police, from her former boyfriend who framed her to take the fall for a money-laundering operation, and even agents the Drug Enforcement Administration. What she doesn’t know is that a Canadian drug lord is also after her, believing she knows where the $3 million her former boyfriend (and boss) stole from him. It doesn’t help her security that one of the DEA agents is working for the drug lord. 

A New York City girl transplanted to Great Falls, Montana, Manetti is convinced to come to Shephard’s ranch, at least until her car is fixed (it was his loose horse that caused her to crash). Once he cleans up, the mountain man turns out to quite a looker. Electricity flows; sparks fly. 

Along Came Jones by Linda Windsor tells the story of Deanna and Shephard. It’s equal parts romance, comedy, and suspense, with a healthy dose of horse ranching thrown in. It’s the story of two people almost instantly attracted to each other but both of whom having reasons not to trust the other. And it’s the story of how people can live out a life based on faith.

Linda Windsor
Windsor has published more than 30 novels in the romance, historical romance, and Christian romance genres. She’s won a number of awards, including from the Romance Writers of America, National Reader’s Choice Awards, Aspen Golds, Barclay Golds, and a Christian Booksellers Association Christy Award. She lives in Maryland.

Along Came Jones is an entertaining story of a city girl and a cowboy discovering each other and learning that they’re an intellectual and even emotional match – after a great deal of funny banter and a host of villains looking to do them in.

Top photograph: A ghost town in Montana, similar to “Hopewell,” featured in the book. Image by Marc Averette via Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

From the small

After Micah 5:1-5

From the small
comes the great,
from the too small
to be counted comes
the ruler, the king,
the fulfillment
of the promise, ancient.
The insignificant
becomes more, greater
than the mighty,
the significant paling
in comparison, not
because of what but
because of whom,
the unexpected born
of her whose time had come.

Photograph by Eric Froehling via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Campion at Christmas" by Margery Allingham

Private detective Albert Campion celebrated Christmas. Who knew? 

Margery Allingham’s (1904-1966) fictional detective was famous during the Golden Age of Mystery, roughly the 1920s to the 1940s. He starred in 18 of her mystery novels and numerous short stories. Four of those stories have been collected and recently published as Campion at Christmas.

“On Christmas Day in the Morning” poses a “locked room” kind of mystery, but without the locked room. A postman is found by the side of the road, the victim of a hit-and-run driver. A suspect is in custody, having crashed his car sometime later. But the old lady in a cottage some distance off the road received her daily mail – at the time the postman would have been killed.

“Happy Christmas” finds a young couple named the Robinsons facing a guest-less Christmas. They’re rather well known for collecting Victoriana artifacts, and a living Victoriana artifact is in the flat at the top of their building – an aging lady whose heyday was the Victorian period. She’s becomes part of their neo-Victorian holiday celebration, but is everything really as it looks?

“The Case of the Man with the Sack” involves Campion being invited to a country house celebration for Christmas. And it promises to be a rather tense, depressing affairs. Some valuable jewels are stolen, and it looks like Santa Claus is the thief.

And “Word in Season” has Poins, the red setter belonging to Campion and his wife Amanda, pondering whether or not he should speak. Very few people know that dogs have the gift of human speech during the hour before midnight on Christmas Eve. Poins knows of both good and bad things that have happened to his canine friends when they exercised this ability. And a sharp disagreement (one can’t imagine Campion having a fight) between the Campions looks like it will force the dog’s hand, er, paw.

Margery Allingham
Allingham began publishing in 1923 when she was only 19. But it was The Crime at Black Dudley in 1929 that established her as one of the best mystery writers of the era. That story introduced Campion, a private detective who has assumed his name because he’s actually a title in one of Britain’s leading aristocratic families. His “man” or butler, Magersfontein Lugg, a convicted felon who has seen the inside of prison, also contributed to Allingham’s success. 

Campion at Christmas is an easy, fast read (it can be read start to finish in less than an hour). It’s also rather a charming collection of stories, and a treat for those of us Campion fans who still enjoy the detective whom everyone usually overlooks.


Top photograph by Craig Whitehead via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The place we gather

After Psalm 122

We walk the stones of the streets
of this city, the houses of rock
packed together, a closeness
compacting the hearts and emotions
and thoughts and all that we are

And those who come up for a time
walk the stones of the streets,
words of praise on their lips
as they walk to the thrones
the thrones of house,
the thrones of the house 
of David.

Within these walls,
these stones under our feet,
these rocks has aping houses
and palaces and citadels and temple,
we seek peace,
we seek security
we seek blessing
and find all three.

Photograph by Simon Matzinger via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Saturday Good Reads

One of the routine, and often daily, events in American corporate life is yet another hack or attempted hack of a company’s computer systems. A significant source of the hacks is the People’s Republic of China. The targets tend to be companies involved with cutting-edge technology. This is news to no one; it’s occasionally reported. But the Chinese government has another focus of activity – neutralizing perceived internal threats. More than a million members of ethnic minorities, most of them Muslim, are in internment camps, required to do forced labor. Some of that labor has been found to make sports clothes for the U.S. market

And it isn’t only Muslims who are being arrested and imprisoned. Christians are being rounded up as well. A minister who disappeared last week had given a statement to friends to publish in the event he suddenly was gone, and he explains why he had to engage in faithful disobedience. I read that story about forced labor, and the statement by the pastor, and I have to think what it means every time I buy something “made in China.” And how difficult it becomes to buy something not “made in China.”

Christmas Roundup: It’s that time of the year, and I’ve found a veritable explosion of articles, posts, and poems about Christmas. Here are a few of best:  

“Silent Night” turns 200 this year; Edward Schmidt at America Magazine asks if it’s the great Christmas song ever. Lynn Mosher asks where’s the joy of Christmas, and then poses a test to see how well you think you know the Christmas story. Eleanor Parker looks at an Anglo-Saxon poem inspired by the texts sung at Vespers at Advent. Jerry Barrett at Gerald the Writer has two Christmas poems: December Crawl and Singing Silently. Kingdom Poets posted a beautiful poem by Rochard Wilbur, A Christmas Hymn. And Joseph Mussomeli at The Imaginative Conservative has a great take on a popular song, The Twelve Ways to Christmas.

Everything is politicized these days, and if something’s politicized, it means there must always be a political solution (it’s a power thing). Take friendship. Lester Berg (a pseudonym) is a literary writer living in Brooklyn; he’s got all the appropriate bonafides, except he voted for you know whom. You can guess what happened. And Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition is spitting into the media narrative wind by factually assessing the claim that “81 percent of evangelicals” voted for you know whom.

More Good Reads


How Caring for the Poor Led to the Beginnings of Capitalism – Dr. Glenn Sunshine at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics.

Rest for the Weary – Eileen Knowles at The Scenic Route.

Writing and Literature

A Literary Pursuit of Beauty, Grace, and Truth – Michele Morin at Living Our Days.

Why do you do this? – Janet Reid, Literary Agent.

Reign of Love: The Fiction of Wendell Berry – Eric Miller at Commonweal.

American Stuff

Fredericksburg: The Way They Saw It – Sarah Kay Bierle at Emerging Civil War.

Life and Culture

How to Change the World in 2019: Reduce Anger – Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square.


Somewhere Else Entirely – Ruth Fainlight at The Hudson Review.

Leeks – Richard Spilman at Image Journal.

Art and Photography

Elise Ritter - Maureen Doallas at Escape into Life.

Building an Image: The first glazing layers of “Thomas Touching the Side of Christ” – Jack Baumgartner at The School for the Transfer of Energy.

Water World – Tim Good at Pixels.

Hanukah 2017 – Tom Darin via Facebook.

Where Are You Christmas? – The Piano Guys with Sarah Schmidt

Painting: Wife Helen Reading, oil on canvas by Frederick Serger (1889-1965)