A revelatory reimagining of the slave narrative

Frannie Langton is a mulatta woman in 19th century England being tried for the murder of her master and his wife. She protests her innocence but gives us Confessions as her accounting. Gothic in style, The Confessions of Frannie Langton turns the typical slave narrative on its head. Although our protagonist makes it a point to say that she does not want to focus on the abomination that is slavery her testimony makes it hard to overlook these atrocities.

I could not help but make comparisons to Edugyan’s Washington Black. The parallels that I saw between the two books were:

Both looked at science and discovery in the 1800’s and how the scientific method was both driven by and overlooked because of racial prejudice.
Both protagonists are unaware of their mother’s identity until they reach adulthood. Each faces the inherent abandonment issues of motherless children – the trauma suffered by the separation of families and loss of identity. In addition both Frannie and Washington must deal with the guilt and horror of the sins committed against these parents when they knew not who these women were, all at once realizing the supreme sacrifice that each of their mothers gave.
Both were enamored with their enslaver. In the case of Washington it was Titsch. He simply could not see his faults or how he was being used for Titsch’s own ends. He was more naive then Frannie and didn’t come to realize that he was not valued or appreciated in the sense that he wanted to be. For Frannie it is her mistress whom she falls in love with. She gets her addicted to laudanum and takes advantage of her position. The old story of master raping and manipulating his slaves is well known and often seen in literature. Although we recognize that power is a potent intoxicating drug, we often don’t consider that power is power regardless of who is wielding the sword.

Now Frannie is not innocent by any means. She has had her hands dirty and has committed her own crimes. Frannie also admits to being angry and how this anger has subsumed her and followed her throughout her life. But in the end The Confessions of Frannie Langton is about taking power over your own voice. This was evident when “Lightning Laddy” was relaying a story his mother told him as a child about the Asiki. The Asiki were changelings – African children stolen and transformed by witches so that not only their appearance changed but that they also lost their ability to talk along with their memories. The question posed was “What would they tell us if they did have tongues?”  What of the exceptional Negro? Do they suffer the same as every other black? Are they used as pawns to perpetuate stereotypes and racist agenda? To answer those “well meaning” white abolitionists who bind the African by their stunted definitions and implicit racism Laddy Lightning replies: “Here’s the rub. You asking me to speak for them. How can I? Why have you asked me? Because you look at a single black man and see all black men. As if one black man is representative of every member of his race. Allowed neither personality nor passion.”

There were so many parts of this book that moved me. Both the language and the content were stirring. I am impressed. Bold. Absolutely refreshing.

What’s in a Name?

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake. 

The Guest Book is as much a family saga as it is a love story.  But what will perhaps carry this book through the ages is that it speaks to the heart of American society and privilege.  Kitty and Ogden Milton have power and prestige.  They are considered American royalty. Their legacy is not simply one of wealth but of morals and values as well.

Let’s first consider the guest book as an historical record.  Evelyn Milton is a history professor whose life’s work examines the role of the silent women in history.  She beseeches her students to consider the historical record.  Who gets to tell the story?  What part of history is actual fact?  How much of the story is missing?  One must not just consider different perspectives but acknowledge that facts, details, entire lives may have been erased.  In the end how does one verify the truth in what has been documented? 

More importantly, The Guest Book shows the legacy of prejudice and how our abuses of power and privilege are rooted in our value systems.  Kitty is Queen Bee of the Milton clan.  She has instilled in her children a list of “Ought Tos” and “Ought Nots” that will allow them to engage in polite society. It is these rules that also perpetuate the oppression of the disenfranchised.

I think that it is key that Reg Pauling’s name never appeared in the guest book even though he played a critical role on the night of the party.  In his own life he was quite successful as a journalist for The Village Voice.  He was well educated.  He lived a life worth the telling, a life worth being seen.  Yet, ala Ralph Ellison he is delegated to being “The Invisible Man”.  Kitty opens herself up to him because he seems so unassuming.   Len Levy, in contrast, is a man whose presence looms large.  He is ambitious, earnest in his speech and radiates confidence.  Kitty sees parallels between Levy and her husband Ogden.  For Ogden she sees these qualities as the source of his strength but for Len it is off putting.  As a Jew he was not supposed to take up that type of space.  He was not supposed to fill up a room with his presence.  So although Len Levy’s name does appear in the guest book it is not by Kitty’s offering but by Evie’s sleight of hand as she tries to hide her affair.  Levy gets acknowledged in the book but the feeling is that his name does not belong there.  Len does not belong to that society even though he has earned that right for himself.  Sarah Blake does a fine job exploring how nuanced power plays and discrimination can be within American society.

From the blurb: “An unforgettable love story, a novel about past mistakes and betrayals that ripple throughout generations, The Guest Book examines not just a privileged American family, but a privileged America. It is a literary triumph.”

Hello Fellow Bibliophiles

I am so excited to be here. I have always been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. Books have always been my friends, my refuge. When I first recognized myself in a story, my passion was fueled. (Thank you Mama Maya) Yet it wasn’t until I had children that I realized the critical importance of representation in literature.

Today I read a diverse array of books from preschool to Adult in search of books that will not only challenge me but will speak to my children. I look forward to sharing our family’s journey with you and hope that you too enjoy the ride.

Much Love,

Michelle