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Find more Libraries Transform Book Pick
The latest Libraries Transform Book Pick, an award presented by Booklist and the American Library Association in a partnership with Overdrive, is Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma (Atlantic Monthly Press/Grove Atlantic). All public libraries in the U.S. participating in OverDrive will be able to lend unlimited ebook copies of Book of the Little Axe from September 14 - 28, 2020.
An historical novel set in 1796 Trinidad and the Crow Nation in 1830 on the Great Plains, Francis-Sharma’s second novel, after ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, follows the struggles and adventures of Rosa Rendón, who pushes back against the restraints associated with her gender and her race, ultimately marrying a Crow chief, and having a son who must learn her secrets to become wholly himself. In her starred Booklist review, Vanessa Bush writes, “Francis-Sharma offers fascinating characters across the broad sweep of the American continent at a time of great tumult, warring colonial powers, the spread of slavery, and expansion West. This is a compelling saga of family bonds, ambitions, and desires, all subject to the vagaries of powerful historical forces.” Vanessa Bush interviewed Lauren Francis-Sharma about this strikingly original and richly compelling saga. Please find their entire conversation here: bit.ly/LTBOOKPICK20 This is an excerpt.
VANESSA BUSH: Although Book of the Little Axe is an historical novel set in the 1800s, it strikes me as being really timely because it illustrates the complexities of race relations then and through to this very day. How did you come to write this book?
LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA: I wasn’t sure that this thing that’s happening to us now was actually going to happen, but on some level, it’s always been happening. I was thinking about a story of migration and community, and this world of multiculturalism. Because ultimately, there are so many people that intersect in this novel. I really wanted to explore what the world looked like at this time. And what impact the colonial powers had on this very small little island in the middle of the Caribbean. I felt like history, in some sense, was itself a character. And, of course, what happened in the Caribbean ended up happening in the continental North America and the United States. History is sort of chasing my character. And I think that there is something right and very resonant about history always chasing us.
BUSH: I really did enjoy the complexity because we often think it’s a Black-white dichotomy in America and that has never really been true. It is much more complicated than that, including how it seems as though people are scrambling not to be in last place and then that causes them to do the things they do and act out in the ways that they do and I can see that clearly in this novel.
FRANCIS-SHARMA: As I was reading and doing the research for this book, it occurred to me how many people from different places have come into the frame in order to build this world. So in Trinidad, for instance, we have Africans, Spanish forces, then Frenchmen coming in and the British. With America it’s very similar. The same sort of forces blend and people end up working in some weird way and living together, and their languages become blended. When you think about it, that has been true since the beginning of time, and it’s true now.
BUSH: I do so much appreciate the research that went into this. You can feel its presence in your characters’ lives. We don’t always understand just how much was going on privately as people tried to live their lives while powerful forces were making historical change.
FRANCIS-SHARMA: When you look at this period, it’s really easy to get mired in what’s happening in Europe and with European colonial forces and forget that there’s all this other stuff happening in North America with Native Americans and African Americans. And what was really fascinating for me was to see how, too, the push for the end of slavery had incredible ripple effects.
BUSH: There’s a lot in your book about knowing your place. You have your protagonist, Rosa, bristling at the limitations she faced in Trinidad because she was a woman. You also bring in all of the constraints associated with race and class status and color. Why was it important to you to examine the notion of knowing your place?
FRANCIS-SHARMA: I’ve tried in both of my books to explore this idea of sort of everyday people struggling against social forces. Yes, Rosa is not only dealing with being a Black woman on an island that’s about to be taken over by the British, and one that also enslaves African people who look very much like her. She’s also having to deal with gender issues and colorism. Whether she knows it quite at every moment or not, she is seeking some way past gender and past her race just to be to be able to live free in the way she wants to live. She’s a rugged farm girl who loves the land and loves the horses. Her father realizes that this land that he has cultivated and loved might not stay in the family. It probably should go to Rosa because she knows how to maintain it, but he cannot legally pass it on to her. The only way he can do this is if she marries. So that becomes a big part of the story, and this just drives her crazy.
BUSH: Edward Rose is an amazing character.
FRANCIS-SHARMA: Edward is such an important part of the story. He’s a real-life character I found in my research. He’s a Native American chief, and he’s also Black. He sees Rosa in a way that she hadn’t been seen before. And I think that really allows Rosa to blossom in this North American world that she’s had to build for herself. Then her son, Victor, is being raised as part of the Crow Nation, but he’s a Black boy and he doesn’t quite inhabit that world fully, in part because he has no idea about his family history.
BUSH: Yes, and this brings us to the diary, Book of the little Axe, and the interesting notion that you have to tell your own story, that you can’t rely on other people to do that. I mean, when you look at the West and all the things that are going on, who’s going to tell these really complicated stories, but the people themselves?
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