Children’s book review tour! Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad – Henry Cole

“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves” ― Abraham Lincoln

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad – Henry Cole

unspoken_111-495x436

Another children’s classic, the picture book. It is unusual for me to try and review a book with no words at all, but a challenge I accepted and enjoyed to the last.

What would you do
if you had the chance
to help a person
find freedom.

This is the question presented to a young girl, in Henry Cole’s haunting tale of a young slave’s journey to freedom.

Unspoken is a beautiful example of a children’s picture book with illustrations that are filled with emotion and can, on their own, tell a strong and provocative tale. Cole has taken something which is often associated with children’s literature, a picture book, a wordless story, and created something beautiful. That is not to say that picture books can’t appeal to adults. Children’s classic such as The Snowman, and Father Christmas are stunning and offer equal entertainment for adults as they do for children.  Indeed, the tale told in Unspoken can speak more toward an adult audience as the innocent child is unlikely to grasp the full extent of sadness that underlies the beautiful artwork. To the child the book may appear as nothing more than a story of young girl with a secret friend.

unspoken-9780545399975-pages-16-17-1-final-rightWithout words, the young girl who lives within the illustrations of Cole’s work is almost a stranger to us; we do not know her name, or very much about her life. However, from her actions it seems as though she is from a less than well off family. Cole draws her working on a farm in tattered clothes, leading cattle and feeding chickens. It is while carrying out chores that the child sees men on horseback riding through her family’s farm, they are searching for something, and she is soon to discover the whereabouts of their quarry. Sent to the barn to gather supplies she is startle by a sound coming from a pile of corn – there is someone there.

If we knew little about the young girl, even more mysterious is the identity of the runaway. We see only their eye peeking through the ears of corn, and later, their thankful hands, reaching out to receive food encased within the young girl’s handkerchief. In my mind I have given the runaway a female identity, although each reader will have their own feelings on this matter.

9780545399975

The worry etched on the young girls face as she hides this secret says far more than any words could express. Her concern seeps from the pages, a combined anxiety for the creature in the corn, and that she will be discovered harbouring a fugitive.  She watches with clear disdain as men on horseback visit her father once again, offering a reward for the return of an escaped slave. You can see that the family live a simple life, likely a reward would be very gratefully received, and yet the young girl looks on, in silence.

Our heroine, beautiful in her innocence, seems only to think of the safety of the figure in the corn. She follows her heart, as the runaway follows the North Star, away from the South, to freedom. When she returns to the barn and finds the runaway gone, leaving behind a small token of thanks, she knows she has made the right choice.

Page 2 Unspoken

Without a single word Cole’s book speaks mountains. There is no colour, no creed, no judgement, just a person, helping another person.

In his author’s note Cole writes that he hopes that those who read the book will use his pictures as a starting point to create their own story – filling in all that has been left unspoken.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ― Gustave Flaubert

A man of the world

Glimpses of a Global Life ― Shridath Ramphal

Glimpses of a Global Life

Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal was born in 1928 in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, to an Indo-Guyanese family. Having been educated at King’s College London, and later at Harvard Law School, Ramphal went on to live a decidedly ‘global’ life.

In his memoirs, Glimpses of a Global Life, Ramphal tells of his experiences working within international institutions, framing his place within the bigger picture of global politics. The book was released in November following a launch party at Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat and one of London’s best-known stately homes.

Among his acknowledgements, Ramphal speaks of his reluctance to write a set of memoirs, having been asked, somewhat insistently, by multiple friends and relatives, when his memoirs would emerge. He defines multiple reasons for not having written until now, one of these being that his story had not yet ended. His mind was changed over Christmas in 2011, the time of ‘resolutions’, he says, when he felt that it was not just the time, but his duty to begin writing.

Ramphal begins, somewhat unusually for a memoir, 100 years before his birth, with the abolition of slavery. But it was a key time because it formed the roots of Ramphal’s beginnings within British Guiana, a country built on the trade. The first section, ‘Beginnings’, in fact serves as less of a memoir and more of a depiction of the foundations that supported Ramphal’s life. Ramphal traces the history of the abolition of slavery, painting an extraordinary picture of his family’s life in Guiana.

He speaks of his interest in the voyage of women across the Kala Pani under the Indian indenture system and, in particular, the book Maharani’s Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean, by Professor Verene Shepherd. It was a journey that his own great grandmother took, and a story which could easily have been her own. He begins the book in this way because the events helped to shape his life: “I am a child of all I have narrated,” he says.

There are eight parts to Ramphal’s memoirs, each of which could serve as a volume in its own right, every one covering an important era of Ramphal’s life. From his humble beginnings in British Guiana, Ramphal rose to become Foreign Minister of an independent Guyana, from 1972 to 1975, and later was the second Commonwealth Secretary-General, from 1975 to 1990.

One of the most moving sections of the book is that dedicated to the period of Apartheid in South Africa, described by Ramphal as “the most cruel legacy of slavery”. Ramphal recounts the importance of the Commonwealth community, and himself, in ending this legacy and helping to ensure that “the light of Apartheid’s end was faintly glowing” by the finish of his final tenure as Commonwealth Secretary-General. He speaks at length of the events leading up to the release of Nelson Mandela, whose freedom embodied that of black South Africa. In a chapter dedicated to Mandela’s freedom, Ramphal recounts his own words, emphasising the significance of Mandela’s release to the future of South Africa: “The human spirit survives in South Africa in many ways… But most of all, its survival is symbolised in the person of Nelson Mandela.”

The end of Ramphal’s time as Commonwealth Secretary-General was by no means the end of his story. He went on to become Chancellor of the Universities of Guyana, Warwick and West Indies, and served as the chair of the West Indian Commission. He was also recommended several times for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations. In the final sections of his memoirs, Ramphal writes further of the ‘honours and intrigue’ inferred upon him, and how he was awarded honorary degrees from 28 universities and made an honorary fellow of another four.

Ramphal ends his memoirs, somewhat fittingly, with a story summing up his relationship with Nelson Mandela. In 1996 Ramphal had the pleasure of conferring upon Mandela an honorary degree from the University of Warwick. The graduation ceremony was a tremendous event held at Buckingham Palace and attended by eight top universities, but it is Warwick, and indeed Ramphal, that are said to have ‘stolen the show’ when Ramphal’s offer of a handshake was dismissed in favour of a familial embrace.

Glimpses of a Global Life is a truly fascinating look into the life of a key figure within the Commonwealth of Nations, serving not only as a memoir, but as a recollection of serious global issues spanning several decades. All this is presented in the form of a worldwide show, in which Ramphal stands centre stage, alongside a whole host of the world’s most prominent figures in international politics.

This review was first published in Global: the international briefing. Many thanks to Hansib for supplying a free review copy of the book.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ― Charlotte Brontë

Which side is the ‘right’ side?

Clara  Suzanna Linton

CLARA

Suzanna Linton was born in South Carolina and grew up in Orangeburg County. After graduating high school, she attended Francis Marion University, where she majored in English. Linton tells of how she began writing as a child, after feeling as though she was brimming over with ideas and needed to ‘share them before they poured out of my eyes and ears’. An initial penchant for experimenting with poetry grew into a love of writing fiction. Linton currently lives in South Carolina with her husband and pet dogs. As well as writing fiction, she works in the local library. Her debut novel, Clara, was published in 2013.


Linton’s book follows the journey of Clara, a seemingly ordinary child to whom life has been anything but kind. Having being sold into slavery, Clara loses the ability to talk, her voice forced deep inside of her by the horrors she suffered at the hands of the slavers. Bought by a wealthy master, Clara falls into a dreary life working in the castle kitchens, never venturing further than the kitchen garden. She is known by no name and those around her see her as nothing more than a mute slave girl who is possibly a little slow. But, unbeknownst to those around her, Clara holds the unique ability to see into the future, a gift she has kept secret for years through fear of persecution. When a vision prompts her to prevent a murder, she finds herself catapulted into the lives of the nobility, and the centre of civil war that threatens to destroy the country. In a journey that takes her from her humble roots to the capital city itself, Clara discovers that the future of the nation depends on her and her alone.

Before I started reading Clara I knew nothing about the story other than the title. I think I expected a Jane Austen-style coming-of-age romance more than anything, so I was surprised by the way the story progressed. I like the way Linton gradually introduced the reader to the supernatural side of the novel, starting with Clara’s visions and gradually bringing in further aspects. The book is written in the style of a medieval fantasy and the world in which Clara lives is similar to that of our own with elements of fantasy thrown in. On the whole, Linton keeps the language of the characters fairly simple, drawing on medieval English and introducing new words occasionally to describe, for example, measures of time. I liked this aspect of the book, which added to feeling of it being a fantasy novel without becoming too confusing. I also enjoyed the setting that Linton created; the descriptions used were vivid, allowing the book to come to life. I particularly liked Linton’s description of the wealthy capital, Candor:

‘Every bit of trade going south to Bertrand went through Candor. Every bit of trade coming up from Bertrand went through Candor. It sat like a giant purse on a rich man’s desk, begging to be stolen.’

At its heart, Clara is indeed a coming-of-age novel, although perhaps not in the classic sense. Through the three hundred pages of the book, the reader forms a relationship with the heroine and follows her through an incredible transformation. From the very beginning, Clara’s life is hard on her; we are first introduced to the girl as a skinny child, sent to work and unable to play with the other children:

‘Clara trudged home, the sack of pots banging and clattering against her thin legs. The wind blew against her back, bringing with it the laughter and music of a festival she couldn’t attend.’

From this point, the reader follows her as she is sold into the slave trade, before becoming the pet ‘mouse’ of the lady of the castle in which she was so recently enslaved. Seldom throughout the novel does Clara seem genuinely happy, although one such moment that particularly spoke to me occurs shortly after Clara has escaped from slavery and is travelling with Emmerich and Gavin:

‘Mud and dust stained her dark red riding dress and her hair fell loose from her braid. A little dirt smudged her cheek. Fatigue slumped her shoulders but a small smile curved her face as the horses bent to eat the hay she sprinkled before them.’

Later in the book she is given many more luxuries and presented with beautiful clothing, ladies in waiting and guards to protect her, but it is never enough to make her happy. In some ways, Clara can appear as an unlikable character: she is angry and untrusting, miserable most of the time, and does not appreciate the things she is given. However, I think this makes her character all the more genuine; it is natural and very human for Clara to behave the way she does. Regardless of the gifts and luxuries Clara is given, she has within her always the desire to break free of the slave’s collar, which remains symbolically strapped round her neck until the end of the book.

As Clara becomes more and more entwined within the politics of the civil war she faces situations that challenge her allegiance, often leading her to wonder which the ‘right’ side is. Clara’s abilities render her invaluable to both armies and, as such, she is vulnerable to manipulation. Both sides hide the truth from her in one way or another, and it is left to Clara to decide for herself who she should put her trust in. Sometimes, doing what is ‘right’ can have unforeseen repercussions.

As Clara’s character develops, so too does her beauty. As a slave, it is easy to forget that Clara was once described as ‘beautiful’ by a friend of her parents; she becomes the dirty, mute slave girl with matted hair. As the mouse, she is described as ‘elfish’, before moving on to ‘pretty for a slave’. It is not until Clara begins to break free of these shackles that it becomes apparent just how beautiful she really is in the eyes of those who love her:

‘She looked up and formed a question with her large eyes and sweet mouth.’

Clara’s confusion towards the love she receives is a central theme throughout the novel. She finds it difficult to know how to feel about any of those who flatter her: can they really be trusted? Her nature makes her guarded towards any advances.

I thought it was inevitable that Clara should fall for one of the men in the book, but was very pleased that, ultimately, there is not a fairy-tale ending. Too often heroines give up on their dreams because they fall in love. Most prominently within Clara is the desire to escape, to be free, and to discover herself, and she makes the choice to put these dreams first, and perhaps to come back to love once she has discovered herself.

As with many of the books I review, I do have a couple of small gripes to add before I round off. Firstly, I feel the text could do with a professional edit as there are quite a few mistakes in the text. However, I do feel this is inevitable with a lot of self-published work, and I don’t feel that the mistakes overly detract from the story. Secondly, I feel that at some point events are perhaps drawn out a bit too far, and what could be described in a few pages takes up substantially more. I personally like to keep things concise. That said, I feel these are fairly minor details.

On the whole, I found Clara to be an enjoyable read. The storyline is entertaining and keeps you wanting to read on at the end of each chapter. I would be interested to see where the story goes next and in finding out the answers to some of the questions left hanging at the end of the book. I feel Clara would best suit a young adult audience, and fans of medieval fantasy.

All due thanks go to Suzanna Linton for providing me with a free review copy of the book.