It’s Sunday Night – Are You Ready for Droughtlander?

Are you an Outlander fan? Book or TV show, it makes no matter. With the Season 4 finale of the Starz television series recently airing and book nine of Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander series expected somewhere in the (hopefully) not far distant horizon, Outlander fans have a bit of a wait to get through, a wait known in the fandom as Droughtlander. It’s real and it’s here. At least until Season 5 or the publication of Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone – whichever come first. Meanwhile, there is time to kill and you can can rewatch and reread but you can also try something new!

Here’s a very brief synopsis of Outlander if you’re scratching your head and trying to figure out what we’re all talking about. Claire Randall is a WWII nurse who accidentally travels through time and meets the dashing James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, a Highlander in the 1700s. Claire is already married when she travels through time, and that story interweaves with her narrative in the 1700s. The set of novels chronicle Claire and Jamie’s lives and family over generations. Eight are published so far, with ten as the expected total number in the series. As I said above, book nine is in the works complete with a name but no publication date.

We’re taking a trip to the 80s and 90s today, revisiting some of the novels I remember from around the time Outlander was published, books and authors that either preceded or came up the ranks with Gabaldon. There’s plenty of read-alike lists on the internet suggesting current titles for Gabaldon fans longing for a substitute, and I’m not discrediting those at all. I, however, want to time travel a little on my own and share some of my favorites that are worth the search at libraries and used bookstores. Most are also still in print.

I have to admit, although Outlander is a favorite of mine, I lost interest in the series somewhere in the third book for a variety of reasons and never finished it or the rest of the saga. I have read Outlander more than once, though, and I really love what has been done with the television adaptation. I feel the need to say that because despite my waning interest in the books, Jamie Fraser is one of my favorite all time romantic heroes in a novel and Outlander will always hold a special place on my shelf. In fact, my first copy looked just like the image I chose above from back in 1991. Outlander is a sweeping story, full of romance and adventure and just the slightest bit of fantasy with the time travel component: all the elements I love in a story and, as you’ll see in the list, mirrored and complemented by the other titles here. Let’s go!

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine (1986): Jo Clifford is a journalist out to debunk past-life regression. When she goes under hypnosis, she relives the life of Matilda, Lady of Hay, wife of a baron during King John’s reign. The story alternates between Jo’s real life and the periods of regression. There is history, romance, love triangles, betrayal, heartbreak, and family drama. Jo’s men in her 1980s life are intertwined with the men in Matilda’s life and, as usual, they are not always who they seem. The past-life regression takes the place of time travel and Matilda is a real person from history, although facts are changed somewhat to suit Erskine’s story. The novel is self-contained, not part of a series, but Erskine has written quite a bit and you may find additional titles by her that interest you.

Through A Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen (1986): Barbara Alderley is a 15-year-old noblewoman engaged to a much older (than her) man, handsome 40ish Roger MontGeoffry. Barbara is close to her duchess grandmother but not so much with her mother, a somewhat nasty piece of work. The story takes place in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries of England and France, so a grand backdrop with a fair share of drama, intrigue, romance, family, and history. This is the first novel by Koen, and she wrote both a sequel (Now Face to Face, 1995) and a prequel (Dark Angels, 2006) to this novel. Admittedly, I had to wait 10 years between the first and second book but it was totally worth it and I love the pair of them, even though they made me cry more than once. Haven’t read the prequel, but now I’m inspired to go back and read all three!

North and South by John Jakes (1982): Talk about making me cry – I wept and wept during this trilogy. Jakes wrenched my heart with this set of novels and I loved the miniseries, too! North and South is the first of the three, followed by Love and War, then Heaven and Hell. Yes, I cried, but I also laughed and talk about steamy! Girl, please. I was a late teen reading these things and let me tell you. They were smokin’ to me and my friend. Definitely the swoon factor, but blood, war, death, love, family, history. Jakes knows how to write his stuff and he was prolific with other series that are, I’m told, just as riveting. These are the holy trinity for me, though, and I haven’t ventured away from them!

Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (1980): You have to give Auel credit – she wrote an impressive odyssey of six books over 30 years. Each book is rich in detail, although science and fiction are blended by Auel for the sake of storytelling. She did loads of research, though, and you will not be disappointed in protagonist Ayla’s saga and the story of the beginnings of mankind as we know it. Once again, you’re given family drama, history, adventure, tragedy, and human foibles. Clan of the Cave Bear was amazing and even if you don’t like your history Prehistoric you owe it to yourself to at least read this one!

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996): The Stark family is rewarded/punished for their loyalty to the King in this medieval-style fantasy that spans several years and several families battling for the ultimate rulership of the land. How is this similar to Outlander? There’s more these two series have in common than you might realize. First books published just a few years apart, both series are hefty with high family drama, both series have highly successful television adaptations, and both book series are still unfinished with authors giving fans the blues by not writing faster! One is just a little more bloody and incestuous than the other, that’s all. The other coincidence? I didn’t finish this series either, but I am crazy about the TV show! As with Clan of the Cave Bear, at least read this first book if you think high fantasy is not your genre. Martin is a great author and fearless in his decision to kill off absolutely anybody. Plus, Gabaldon and Martin are apparently friends, so that’s a fun bonus!

Skye O’Malley by Bertrice Small (1980): Getting back to romance, this series has several books following the vibrant Skye O’Malley and her life and loves and family. Several books follow her children, as well. Set in Elizabethan England, the series is rich in period detail and historical figures mixed in with the fictional. Skye is a strong heroine and author Small was know for her steamy sex scenes, so I certainly remember this book being a page-turner! Loved the whole series and you see the span of Skye’s life as it plays out through her many adventures.

A Knight In Shining Armor by Jude Devereaux (1989): I mean, come on – when you go to an author’s website and you can search through their body of work where the titles are sectionalized by alphabetical tabs? That’s a large body of work and Devereaux ruled romance for many, many years. A Knight In Shining Armor is part of Devereaux’s massive Montgomery family saga (that starts with The Black Lyon), and Douglass is our heroine who tugs Lord Nicholas Stafford forward in time from his own year of 1564. She then travels to his time as well. Again, there is history, romance, a larger family saga in other books, and time travel.


There’s more. There’s always more. Read This Calder Sky by Janet Daily and the rest of the Calder series. Johanna Lindsey’s Malory series was big during the timeframe I’m talking about. I read the hell out of those, especially if Fabio was on the cover! Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love was another favorite. Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote some great historical-type fantasy with strong women protagonists. I especially loved The Mists of Avalon and The Firebrand.

This should give you a good start on finding something to get you through Droughtlander. Please feel free to let me know your favorites!

**I have to mention these titles may not all be PC by our current standards and the #MeToo movement. I’m aware that the bloom might be off the rose if I go back and reread some of these, and I do remember forcible sex between hero and heroine in several books, like on a wedding night in the historical fiction books. It was the time of Luke and Laura on daytime TV, remember? He raped her and then they fell in love and had one of the highest-rated weddings ever? I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying that it was a common storyline at that time and go into some of these books understanding what was accepted by society as a “manly man” at that time or what the historical perspective was for the book. (Sexual assault plot points have never been a favorite and turned me off of more than one author, including Gabaldon.)

Book With A One Word Title

I’ve been reading a smattering of children’s literature lately to help friends sort through potential award nominees. One of the titles I came across was Dirt, a novel I would have loved as a kid.

The premise is one of hope and friendship. Yonder, a young girl whose mom has died, has quit talking. Period. She can talk, she just hasn’t since her mom died in a car accident. Her kind-hearted dad is despondent and drinks too much since his wife’s death, hardly noticing the comings and goings of his little girl. Yonder is teased and bullied at school, too stubborn to make her side of the story known. Our girl Yonder doesn’t take the bullying lightly, though, and gets a few licks in on the bullies. Of course, she is the one who gets suspended from school. After being suspended, she decides to skip school for a week, figuring nobody will notice. She busies herself around the shack she and her father call home and ventures out in the rain one evening. In the pouring rain she comes face to face with the little round Shetland pony from the neighbor’s house.

Yonder recognizes the pony and knows his reputation. The pony’s owner, Miss Enid, complains that the pony eats everything – glasses, newspaper, trash, iced tea (and the pitcher), tape, signs, and also has a penchant for pumpkins! Miss Enid calls him “evil pony beast,” so Yonder is hesitant to be around him. The pony has one eye and no name, but a mischievous and sweet personality that endears him to Yonder. She ends up calling him Dirt because he loves to eat it, play in it, and roll in it. Dirt becomes a regular visitor to Yonder and she realizes he is not an evil pony beast. He responds to Yonder even though she doesn’t speak. They quickly bond during Yonder’s week of being AWOL from school and Yonder finally has someone who cares about her and whom she can love in return.

The good times can’t last forever when you’re a young girl ditching school. The social worker shows up Monday to find out why she hasn’t been at school. Yonder nonverbally communicates she’s sick. Each day, Yonder promises to go to school. When she doesn’t show, the social worker forces her out the door. Off to school she goes only to come home and find she’s had a visitor. Dirt has made himself at home, getting into the “special cider” and taking a long nap in her house. Yonder and Dirt fall into a pattern of after school visits and they communicate wordlessly, growing closer as the days go by. Yonder worries that Dirt is not cared for when he wanders back to his home each night, just as Yonder is neglected by her own father as he falls into a deeper depression and drunken stupors.

One evening, Yonder is out walking and realizes Miss Enid is selling Dirt. And not as a pet. The sign in her yard says “Pony for sale. Good quality horsemeat.” Horrified, Yonder takes off to find Dirt to make sure he hasn’t already been sent away. Dirt is at her home, eating a fresh pumpkin. Yonder decides to move him into her house, hoping her father, in his stupor, won’t notice. He notices. Her dad agrees that Dirt can’t be sold for meat and offers to try and help Yonder keep him and, just like that, Yonder’s best friend moves in. Yonder heads to the library (my girl!) to research the care and keeping of Shetlands and finds it’s not unheard of for Shetlands to live in a home.

The two have an affectionate relationship. Yonder sets about getting Dirt’s room ready, training him to potty outside, and exercising him in secret. They play and nuzzle and enjoy each other’s company, often leaning up against each other and staring up at the sky. As Yonder says, “Sometimes the weight of a friend who needs you can lessen your load.”

The routine that Dirt and Yonder fall into is interrupted. Another bullying incident happens and Yonder decides she’s done with school. Social services eventually comes knocking again, and time’s up for Yonder, Dirt, and her dad. Things go from bad to worse as Yonder is placed in foster care and her father has a stroke from the stress. The doctor says Yonder’s dad will be in the hospital for quite awhile as he recovers, which means longer foster care for Yonder. Realizing she can’t do more for her father than the hospital can, Yonder hopes she can at least save Dirt. The rest of the book follows Yonder’s quest to track down her beloved friend, encountering a slew of people and animals along the way and using her determination and ingenuity to track down Dirt. He nasty Miss Enid brags she sold him to the junk man; he has sold Dirt to his brother; the brother has sold him to a petting zoo…you get the idea. It’s an ongoing chase to a satisfying conclusion.

The author, Denise Gosliner Orenstein, is pictured above with what I assume is the inspiration for Dirt. It’s a good story, reminiscent of other equine classics like Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty or The Black Stallion, one of my personal childhood favorites. Horse lovers and book lovers will enjoy this one!

Book Based On It’s Cover

Do you love IKEA? Me, too! The cozy home-like display rooms, the ingenious small space solutions, the inexpensive kitchen items, the meatballs! Heaven on Earth! Sneak into a small corner somewhere, wait till closing, and have the whole night to pretend to live in the tiny homey spaces! My love for IKEA is what drew me to the cover of this book. When the lights go out, however, what really happens? Horrorstor has some ideas about that.

A Home for the Everyone! That’s the motto for Orsk, a fictitious furniture superstore that was created to be a direct competitor with the superior IKEA. Orsk markets the same sleek, simple (and hard to put together) designs that IKEA offers, as well as the store model and naming style. However, someone seems to be getting a little too comfortable in the staged home areas, and employees notice weirdly placed fecal remains, broken items, and graffiti happening every night after the store closes. Has someone decided to vandalize the store? Are homeless people getting in? Disgruntled employees? Someone or something else? Five employees stay late one night to find out.

Basil is the upwardly ambitious supervisor. Amy is the unhappy employee who hates him. Ruth Ann is the “go to” employee for anything unpleasant that needs to be done. Matt and Trinity are the wannabe ghost hunters (Bravo, not A&E). Together, they spend the night to find an answer to the mystery.

Basil, Amy, and Ruth Ann are actually on the clock. While on patrol around the store, they find that fellow employees Matt and Trinity have snuck in also, not knowing the other three would be in the building. Matt and Trinity are hoping to use the investigation to make their big break to national ghost hunting fame. They are the only two who are actually glad to be there. The group gains a little bit of insight about each other while they wait out the night, but it’s not long before the group has more to deal with than office politics.

There are explainable noises, and the group does find a homeless man in the store. He denies being the one who defaces and damages the store, though. That’s not nearly the end of the bizarre happenings. Amy ends up calling the police once they encounter the homeless man. Even though she tries to call them off, they are obligated to arrive. However, there is a weird vibe in the building that makes employees feel lost and bewildered and it apparently extends to the outside world. The police call for directions more than once, but can’t seem to find their way to the massive store. Basil goes out to try to flag them down. Meanwhile, the rest of the group (including the homeless guy) decide to hold a seance to test for any ghosts in the building. Guess what? It works. Our group encounters The Warden, an evil entity attached to the former prison that used to be at the same property.

One by one, the group encounters The Warden and his crew who get into their heads, convincing them that they are worthless. Why fight the truth? You’re only good enough to run a register or answer call center phones. Stop resisting. More frightening and gruesome things happen to the group, just like any other horror story. However, the underscoring theme is the hell of retail and the churning out of bodies who make the minimum in order for upper management to make the maximum. Am I right? Ghastly. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked a lot of retail and loved it for what it was, but it’s not always workable to be a helping hand up.

No surprise, I chose the audiobook. Bronson Pinchot is a guest narrator giving the Orsk commercial blurbs throughout the regular narration given by Tai Sammons. The real book has more of a catalog feel to it. The image below is a screenshot from it, with story and fake catalog side by side.

It’s an interesting listen, a good quick horror story as we head into October. You can take it at face value or appreciate the satire. Either way, it’s entertaining and seems to have a cultish following. Here’s a quirky little book trailer for Horrorstor. Evidently, a television show was in development in 2015 but no word now on what became of it that I can find. In TV land, “in development” runs on its own timeline. I also found this Q & A with author Grady Hendrix.

Book About Books

Love letters and Dear John letters comprise this collection where a librarian waxes poetic about books she loves and hates and some to which she has to bid a fond farewell. The librarian in question, author Annie Spence, covers a broad range of titles in her collection of letters. As she explains, librarians are always working those books shelves for personal reading, recommendations for others or checking condition and use of each title for a final withdrawal from the collection. Spence singles out certain titles or authors and then writes personal letters to them that include anecdotes from library interactions, personal reflections, and always entertaining dialog on the pros and cons of popular selections.

The letters are funny and not remorseful at all of the books she doesn’t like or has never read. For example, Spence takes home Anna Karenina for a month, never reading a page of it. It sits around her home, waiting for The Bachelor to be over or for Rainbow Rowell and Dolly Parton’s biography to vacate her bed. Sadly, Anna Karenina is not to be and Spence’s letter apologetically relegates the tome back to the stacks.

As an example, The Time Travelers Wife is a personal favorite of hers, partly due to the main character working at the same library she did at the time. However, her reflection on the book goes much deeper and she discusses how reading and re-reading the book at different ages gave it a different but no less significant meaning to her life. This could be true of many favorites you read and re-read throughout our lives; different ages give different perspectives. You pick up nuances you missed before or passages that didn’t matter that much on the first reading take on a new life when read again. The Virgin Suicides is a 15-year favorite book of hers and the most perfectly written book in her opinion which affected her deeply. 50 Shades of Grey takes a beating (rightly so, imho) as does Twilight and Bill O’Reilly, and Spence shares her woe about the constant requests for these books (50 Shades made her say the word erotica to an old lady!) while they are surrounded by much better choices.

I chose the audiobook for this one and I was not disappointed. Spence and I actually share a lot of favorite titles and opinions on books (although we disappointingly disagree on The Hobbit), so it was an entertaining list to go back and revisit, comparing my feelings and thoughts to hers. There is even some book shelf envy in the passages, which is a real thing when you’re trying to organize a personal collection. The struggle is real, people. There are also titles I haven’t read, so it was nice to have something like a conversational book talk about several things that are now on my TBR list. There is humor, yes, but also a poignancy about the books that helped raise her, saw her through adulthood and the single years, marriage, childbirth, and post-partum depression.

I won’t lie, there are some spoilers throughout the letters. The book is organized in a way that you could skip the ones you don’t want to read just yet, and then go back later and pick them up once you’ve read the book. This book reminds me of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series, Bibliotherapy, and other reading guides but with more personal anecdotes. not necessarily a book you want to read or listen to in one setting, but it’s a great book to browse as your mood suits you and one you will probably refer to over and over again. NPR’s article about the book is here. It’s a great choice for book lovers, either yourself or a friend. I’m betting you’ll find some as yet undiscovered gems!

Book Made Into A Movie

It’s 1962, and England is in the midst of losing its status as the center of the world to America and Russia. The dashing young President Kennedy shines his influence across the ocean and youth and exuberance are the coin of the day. The Pill is emerging in polite society, but just barely. On Chesil Beach, however, innocence prevails. Two young newlyweds are facing the daunting prospect of consummating their marriage. Both are virgins, and both are anxious about the impending event for their own reasons. Edward, apparently having experienced some degree of fooling around, is worried that he will again be overexcited and disappoint his bride (and embarrass himself) by arriving too soon as they say. Edward’s fears are the normal jitters of a naive virgin – you know there is an act to perform but you aren’t quite sure how to go about it.

Florence, on the other hand, has a real dread and disgust for what she knows of the sexual act. She loves the idea of being pregnant by Edward, but the act of becoming that way seems thoroughly offensive to her. Florence’s only frame of reference is a handbook for young brides that uses the terms engorged and penetration quite often, which sounds painful and uncomfortable and makes her not at all look forward to a lifetime of this activity. Florence’s mother is not open to a more enlightening discussion, her sister is too young, and her friends are too gossipy to ask. As author Ian McEwan writes, “…her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.” Florence wants a life with Edward, but sex with him would not be “the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it.”

Of course, neither has expressed their fears to the other. Especially not Florence, who was certainly okay with the engagement, the wedding, the excitement of married life…but not actual sex. This was never a conversation she had with Edward. As far as he’s concerned, she’s a nervous bride and he mistakes her rising nausea at the thought of consummation as her excitement for the unknown act to come. So, what’s a young, newly married couple to do?

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age when everything (and I mean everything) is exposed in film, television and reality shows. To go back to a time of such innocence in the first few pages of this book is both refreshing and cringe-worthy. You feel for the unenlightened couple, but it’s also sweet that they still have the most intimate things to discover about each other.

The book as a whole takes place on this wedding night. The nervousness and apprehension are interwoven with both their own thoughts and the memories of how the two met and courted. You see the signs, the two people who love each other but maybe love the idea of each other more. Edward, the history major, is truly smitten with Florence; the only thing Florence is truly passionate about is her music. While Florence loves Edward, her emotion is more familial. Not exactly what a young groom hopes from his bride.

McEwan hints at reasons for Florence’s revulsion, and the early 1960s are before the height of psychoanalysis, which Florence even mentions she might need at one point in the book. The “Will they or won’t they” question lingers in the air throughout the book and the ending still leaves me pondering the decisions made by the couple. I’m including a review from The Guardian here that I really enjoyed.

Since this is a ‘book to movie’ selection, I’ll give you my quick thoughts on the film. Not everything translates well to the big screen. The book immerses you into the conversations and minds of Florence and Edward, making the short novel a more intimate experience than you get from watching the film. While well acted, the film is just this side of boring. The inevitable changes that ruin most book to movie adaptations are there, of course, and it doesn’t help endear the movie to the audience. I can’t say a lot more about it without giving away the book plots, but it’s at least worth a look after you read the book!

You can see a trailer for the movie here. I found many articles bemoaning the film adaptation. One review from The Spectator can be found here and one from Roger Elbert’s site here.

Book You Love and Want To Read Again

One of my favorites, Griffin & Sabine captured my imagination when it was first published. I was working in a book store at the time and I recommended this book to everyone. Everyone. If you are not one of the seemingly thousands of people I preached to about this book and it’s new to you, let me explain…

Griffin Moss is an artist living in London. He has his own postcard company, as in he’s the sole artist for his creations and works out of his apartment. He leads a solitary life. One day, he receives a mysterious postcard in the mail from an a woman named Sabine Strohem who lives in the South Pacific. She seems to know him, but he does not know her. Throughout their correspondence, Sabine reveals that she has been able to see his drawings as he creates them but never knew who he was or why she could see his creations but nothing else about him. This seeing of visions has gone on for 15 years and she finally read an article in a publication about an artist and recognized the featured drawing as one from her visions. Voila! She tracked him down and sent a postcard by way of introduction.

The book text is actually a series of postcards and letters (enclosed in envelopes attached to the book pages). It reads as though you’re going through someone else’s mail, so you get a voyeuristic kick if that’s your thing. The pair reveal each one’s life growing up and what their daily lives are like now. Griffin admits to Sabine that he struggles with a deep depression, and he seems to become obsessed with this paper-only relationship. Early on, he signs his correspondence with “love, Griffin” whereas Sabine is more careful in her signing-off wording. There is a definite attachment on both sides, but Griffin seems to become more depressed by his daily life and more focused on Sabine and her letters as the only bright point he has. Sabine asks him to come visit, and Griffin responds that he has become too attached to the whole correspondence and declines to visit. He also states that he is breaking off the communication because he’s not completely sure the whole thing isn’t in his head. The last letter is from Sabine stating that she will come visit him since he won’t come to her. The book ends as a mystery. Was Sabine ever real? Was Griffin so mentally broken that he created his own escape? Did he get catfished by a serial killer? Did Sabine come to visit and the two lived happily ever after?

Written in 1991, Griffin & Sabine was almost pre-internet but certainly pre-social media. People were still writing letters and putting stamps on them, and you waited and waited for the mail to come so you could get news from far away. Letters and long-distance (expensive) calls were how you kept up with folks in the not-so-distant past. There was no friending, no ghosting and no catfishing. I mean, there was, but it was not so public and certainly there weren’t television shows about it. Griffin & Sabine takes place over the course of a year as the reader can tell from the dates on the letters, so there is more time between correspondence for the two to daydream about each other and, especially for Sabine, to put a context behind the pictures she sees in her head.

Upon re-reading this book, I was glad that it still held up after all these years. It’s beautiful and intriguing and romantic and a little tragic, too. It also caught my attention at the time it was published because I had a pen pal from Canada I had written to for something like 13 years. He and I never met and gradually stopped corresponding, but I still think about him and actually had sent him a copy of this book back in the day. This book gives me all the feels for a variety of reasons, and I’m so happy to be able to share it with you! (Spoiler alert – there’s a whole series of these books with the final one published just two years ago, so you can become completely immersed yourself! There are lots of links out in the World Wide Web on author Nick Bantock and the whole series, but I don’t want to give away any real spoilers, so I’ll let you search those at your own peril…)

Historical Biography/Memoir

Imagine if you will that you are walking along the streets of your town. You’re young, healthy, able to work. You show up for a job each day, hang out with your friends on the weekends, maybe go see your mom on Sundays to get your laundry done and have a home cooked meal. You run your errands after work, drop off your Amazon returns at the post office, hit the liquor store, stop to buy some milk and bread. Life is normal, right? Just as you’re paying for your groceries, you and everybody around you is jumped by unknown assailants. The healthy and young are sorted out. The children, the females of breeding age, and the males who can do manual labor are separated from the aged and sick. You may very well being standing there with your family or your friends, and suddenly strangers appear and start picking out the best of the gathered prospects. Your children are ripped from your arms, your spouse is taken one way and you are taken another. Some people are killed outright in front of your very eyes. Off you go to parts unknown, and who knows where the rest of the people you know will end up. You are allowed no communication and have no way to ever find the ones you love or even know what happened to them. Most likely, you’ll never see them or your homeland again. You are forced into permanent cuffs and made to work as a slave for the rest of your life. Just like that. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.

This is the story we all think we know, but most of us think about it in the abstract. We know groups of people were enslaved, that slavery was a horrible blight on the history of humanity, and that it was fairly recent in American history when you compare us to the thousands of years of other civilizations. We know that slaves influenced music and food and other parts of American culture, especially in the Deep South. There are, of course, existing slave narratives telling the stories of the individuals who lived through such a horrific experience and lived to see themselves set free, but few are as engaging and personal as Hurston’s account in Barracoon.

Cudjo Lewis shared his story with Zora Neale Hurston in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Hurston was a fledgling anthropologist at the beginning of her career, an unknown name sent to interview Lewis by famed anthropologist Frank Boas. Lewis was 86-years-old and living in Alabama.

Look at this man’s face and imagine him as a young man, living his daily life. Kossula, the real name of Cudjo Lewis, was in his village admiring the young women and going about his daily routine on the day before his life was changed forever. He had been training as a warrior, his father was an officer to the King, his village had laws and traditions and a rich culture. He had a good and full life. The next day, another tribe raided his village, massacred many, and sold the survivors to slave traders. Kossula, about 19 at the time, watched as his village was overrun by the men of the neighboring King. This King dealt in slavery with white traders. Kossula was in the midst of terror, watching as people’s heads were ripped off, faces were ripped off, his own King was beheaded and much of this was done by women warriors. Kossula never saw his family again and was taken away, marched for days, and taken to a barracoon which was a holding area for slaves. Kossula had never slept on the ground before, he cried for his parents, and watched as the other villages either fought or surrendered to the King who conquered his people. Kossula boarded the last slave trading ship, the Clotilda, and headed for a strange land called America. His clothes were stripped off, and he was displayed to prospective buyers. He had never gone without clothing before and was aghast that he was assumed to be a savage because of a nakedness that was not his choice.

It’s an incredible story, and Hurston writes in the vernacular that was common practice at the time. She didn’t just interview Lewis, she built a relationship with him by taking him peaches or watermelon, insecticide for mosquitoes, or helped him clean his church. Sometimes Lewis didn’t feel like talking about his past, and he and Hurston either sat in companionable silence or talked of other things. I recommend the audiobook because I think the flow of language is wonderful – you’re right there on his porch, eating sweet, cold melon and hearing his stories of an incredible life.

If they are any blessings to take away, Lewis at least seemed to have happy memories for his first two decades of life. As much as Lewis suffered once he came to America, his remembrances of his old life and the life he should have had were still hard for him to bear when he had his conversations with Hurston. As this NPR article mentions, “That pain stayed with Lewis for his whole life… So often in the interview process, he would weep, or he would be so lost in the memories of what happened to him, he could not speak.” Lewis was a slave for five and a half years before slaves were freed. He worked hard to build a life for himself afterwards, married and had children, suffered indignities and slights, and had the grievous misfortune to suffer the loss of four of his children. His story breaks your soul and then heals it again with the humbleness of his own.

There’s a link to a news story on Lewis’s legacy here and another article on the history of Barracoon’s publication here. Do yourself a favor and read this book.