This month, we are lucky to have a book choice from writer Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love and A Manual for Heartbreak. Her latest book, Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books is one for book lovers everywhere – it is on our reading list! As is her book choice below, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
It all begins with a baby born during a raging fire in Fanteland in the 1760s. Effia grows up to be a beauty but her stepmother encourages everyone to believe she is cursed and when her family accept a bride gift of thirty pounds from James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle, she must leave her village. Effia’s new life is comfortable but, under her feet, there are other women kept in the castle dungeons. Collins refers to them as cargo and what Effia doesn’t know is that one of the women is her 15-year-old half-sister, Esi. From here on, the novel divides into two parts. The story of the descendants of Effia and Collins intertwines with the line of Esi, who survives the Big Boat to pick cotton in Mississippi, nicknamed Frownie by the other slaves because she never smiles.
Parallels and contrasts run through this novel alongside the two handed narrative. The upstairs and downstairs of Cape Coast Castle, the field and house of the plantation, the nature of being African or American or both. The last chapters feature Marcus and Marjorie whose stories come together when they meet at a party at Stanford. Marjorie fears fire, Marcus is scared of the ocean. His father, Sonny, told him black people didn’t like water because they were brought over on slave ships. The ocean floor was littered with black bodies, why would they want to get in the water?
This is a beautiful and accomplished novel that speaks powerfully to the terrible legacy of slavery. It never flinches from the horrors and complexities of its subject, yet somehow manages to be healing and hopeful. I first read it in 2016 and continue to think about it all the time. I long for everyone to read it, especially anyone who doesn’t understand why we need to say that Black Lives Matter. As we follow our characters through more than two centuries worth of cruelty, ownership and subjugation, we see how a whole people was intentionally deprived of will, autonomy and agency. As Marcus says, ‘Was it a wonder that the ghetto was the ghetto?’
Thank you very much to Cathy for this wonderful choice for October.
Read our previous Book of the Month choices here.