The woman seated next to me at the book group describes almost word for word the image I’ve been trying to put out of my thoughts since reading it a few days earlier. It is worse than grim, but …
The woman seated next to me at the book group describes almost word for word the image I’ve been trying to put out of my thoughts since reading it a few days earlier. It is worse than grim, but part of me is glad that we cannot forget it. So many stories move quickly in and out of your brain; this one will stick, as it should.
I’ve been on a book club kick this past month. It’s been years since I was in one, but when I saw that the Western Sullivan Public Library offered book club discussions at all three of their branches, I signed up for all of them.
Okay, I pulled out of one when I realized that my first choice was 578 pages. I like to read, but eating and sleeping are nice, too.
The two I did end up reading were, at first glance, nothing alike. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr was to be discussed at the Tusten-Cochecton branch of WSPL, a humble but cheerful building a short walk from Main Street in Narrowsburg. Ciera, the adult program coordinator, greeted me at the front desk and gave me a quick tour before we sat down in comfortable chairs in the sunny main floor lobby. Perhaps it was the midday hour or that the club had been on hiatus for a while, but we were a cozy club of two, which didn’t dampen our enthusiasm to excavate the story and its ideas. Doerr slowly and steadily introduces you to a multitude of characters throughout history, each in places that are on the brink of great change, from pre-Ottoman Empire Constantinople to a present-day American town losing its natural beauty to development, to an interstellar starship in the not-too-distant future bound for a new earth-like planet because our old earth is used up. Like many multi-layered, multi-time period novels, it took a while to be pulled into its orbit, but once I began to see the ways each character was connected, the pages flew by.
And the hour flew by in discussion, just brushing the edges of this complex but enthralling paean to libraries and the books they attempt to protect. If you have even an ounce of happy library memories, you may, like me, wish you could experience Doerr’s vision of a futuristic library and its AI fueled Atlas, enabling you to walk (virtually) anywhere on earth.
Books aren’t read in black holes, however, and this is where my book group mash-up got interesting. When Ciera mentioned that she would be leading a discussion of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead in just over a week at the Jeffersonville branch, I knew I didn’t want to miss it, even if it did mean less eating and sleeping.
Over the course of the next nine days, traveling more than three hundred pages, I joined Cora, a young woman who escapes the hell of a Georgia cotton plantation for one hell after another on her journey through the pre-Civil War south. Through the eyes of slaves and the slave catchers who pursue them, Whitehead makes you see the worst of what humans can do to one another. Each time Cora boarded the surreal train to the next stop, I breathed a sigh of relief and then held that breath for what came next.
I turn the last page half an hour before the book club meeting, sit on my bed feeling both immensely relieved and profoundly sad, then jump in my car to get to the library.
When I get there, the clerk at the desk tells me that the book club is meeting downstairs. No sunny armchairs this time. A group of women (something I need to address in a future column. Guys?!) sit around folding tables, red book covers perched in front of them.
Everyone seems as moved and shocked and appalled and riveted as I. What is especially disturbing to all of us is the complicity of the white townspeople in the places where Cora waits for her next train. In a claustrophobic space above an attic, she looks out a small hole as families gather below in a park for what looks like a festive performance. The final act is the lynching of a girl the same color as Cora herself. The only protection Cora has from a similar fate are a few thin walls.
I am reminded of a line from Cloud Cuckoo Land, as another girl, Konstance, is confined to a small room. “Beyond the walls waits oblivion,” she has heard. Her train is an interstellar ark, where the space outside would freeze her solid in seconds.
On the ark, people are trying to escape a poisoned land. On the railroad, they are escaping a poisoned people. One book is our history. The other could be our future.
Ciera glances at her watch after what seems like only minutes of discussion instead of the full hour that has passed. The library is closing soon, and I wish there was more time and space to fully convey the magnitude of these deeply compelling novels. They transport us not just to worlds difficult to imagine, but to ones we cannot forget.
Tracy Gates is a children’s book editor and journalist and is often found running or biking the back roads of Sullivan County. For more information about places to read, find, and discuss books, please visit her at Readinginthecatskills.com
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