The devil’s in the details of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (Doubleday, $26.95). Taking direction from American slave narratives, the novel confronts the linked heritage of slaveocracy and democracy seeking to ensnare the fugitive teenage orphan, Cora. Cora’s flight from a Georgia plantation and from the slave catcher, Ridgeway, propels her towards fleeting notions of freedom on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. As a subversive text, the novel undermines historical fiction with its fantastic literal dimension of locomotives, train tracks, and subterranean stations; it also outdoes the historical Underground Railroad’s metaphorical network of passageways, covert conductors, and secret safe houses. Colson’s ornate craft deftly depicts America’s reign of terror, inspiring reconciliation.
Set in sunny Jamaica, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, $26.95) by Nicole Dennis-Benn, chronicles lives that are anything but. While Jamaica is known for its great resorts, few who live there have pampered lives. Thandi, though the youngest in her family, is cast in the role of support and even savior of her mother and sister, Margot. Already, on the basis of her excellent grades, they expect her to raise the family from the island’s endemic poverty. Meanwhile, Thandi’s mother, Delores, sells trinkets to tourists and Margot is one of the local resort’s best workers; they see their labor as an investment in Thandi’s future—and through her, their own. But how realistic is their hope? This novel quickly became one of my favorites because Dennis-Benn’s writing grabs you and completely immerses you in Jamaican culture and the lives of her characters. She uses her fiction to show how poverty, greed, and colonialism affect those on the island and how these people do their best to make ends meet. Margot, Thandi, and Delores are three characters that will remain in your memory for a long time.
Following in the footsteps of James Baldwin and his collection of essays, The Fire Next Time, Jesmyn Ward has gathered the work of today’s leading black writers for The Fire this Time (Scribner, $25). Featuring Claudia Rankine, Edwidge Danticat, Isabel Wilkerson, and many others, this collection makes an important contribution to the current discussion of race relations in America. Ranging from essays on Rachel Dolezal and the murals instructing New Yorkers what to do if they witness police brutality, to poetry and the legacy of Baldwin and his contemporaries, this forum reminds readers that the black community continues to experience the same bias it did when Baldwin was living and working. These pages are full of history, cultural criticism, and vivid first-hand accounts of what it means to be a part of the black community. Readers familiar with The Fire Next Time will find that its namesake does not copy nor repeat Baldwin’s original work, but draws from that powerful writer and expands on his thought in new ways. This quickly became one of my favorite books of the year. The power of hearing multiple black voices in one collection makes The Fire This Time well worth reading and a great holiday gift.