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In 1830 on the Great Plains of North America, a boy is learning to hunt and hoping to establish his place among his tribe, a quest complicated by his mysterious parents. His father is a Crow war chief, though his skin is black. Victor’s even darker-skinned mother “claimed she was born in the middle of a sea, on a land she called ‘Trinidad.’” He wonders if his strange origins are holding him back.
So begins Lauren Francis-Sharma’s strikingly original, intricate, and compelling historical novel, Book of the Little Axe, the second Libraries Transform Book Pick. Spanning the Caribbean and the American West and encompassing conquest, slavery, war, and displacement, this exquisitely written saga illuminates the often overlooked diversity of the early American West and the roots of America’s systemic racism. Francis-Sharma also tells the story of a powerful and fascinating woman protagonist, Rosa Rendón, who from girlhood on refuses to comply with the restraints decreed by gender and her race. As Rosa tells her son in the wake of a violent confrontation, “You see? A little axe can cut down a big tree.”
The works of fiction and nonfiction below share some of the many facets that comprise Book of the Little Axe, from its settings to its communities, conflicts, and themes.
At the Full and Change of the Moon. By Dionne Brand. 1999. Grove, $17 (9780802137234).
Award-winning, Trinidad-born, Canada-residing Brand’s incantatory tale begins in 1824, when an enslaved woman on the island of Trinidad, Marie-Ursule, poisons herself and others in bondage in a desperate act of defiance but spares her little daughter, Bola, whose children end up living all around the world until, decades later, another Bola returns to Trinidad.
Days without End. By Sebastian Barry. 2017. Viking, $17 (9780525427360).
In his Costa Award–winning novel, Barry, like Francis-Sharma, portrays an atypical American West as he brings together young Irish immigrant Thomas McNulty and John Cole as they navigate life in the U.S. army on the Great Plains in the early 1850s. They witness genocidal violence against Native Americans, serve in the Civil War, and land in Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, all the while sharing a deep and dangerous love. Ultimately they manage to marry and adopt a young Lakota orphan, Winona, whose story is continued in A Thousand Moons (2020).
The Dragon Can’t Dance. By Earl Lovelace. 1998. Faber & Faber, $14.95 (9780571193172).
Venerable Trinidadian writer Lovelace peers beneath the rigid structure of island society in this tale of a disruptive carnival season in Calvary Hill, a shantytown where Miss Cleothilda, the carnival queen, and Aldrick, the dragon king, try to concentrate on creating their elaborate costumes in spite of the distraction of beautiful Sylvia. Conflict also drives Fisheye, a warrior without a cause whose restlessness infects his fellow steel band drummers, and Pariag, the only Indian on the Hill.
Even in Paradise. By Elizabeth Nunez. 2016. Akashic, $15.95 (9781617754401).
Trinidadian narrator Émile is at college in Jamaica when his close friend becomes engaged to the eldest of Peter Ducksworth’s three daughters. Émile and Albert travel to Barbados to meet Albert’s future in-laws, where wealthy, boozy Ducksworth announces that he is dividing his land among the sisters. With a nod to King Lear, celebrated Trinidadian writer Nunez crafts an introspective tale as her vividly drawn characters cope with the complications of heritage, race, and loyalty.
Gardens in the Dunes. By Leslie Marmon Silko. 1999. Simon & Schuster, $18 (9780684863320).
Seminal Native American writer Silko’s nineteenth-century saga centers around the last remaining members of the ancient Sand Lizard tribe. Sister Salt and her younger sister, Indigo, learn to live in the Arizona desert on their own until they’re drawn into the chaos of the frontier and cruelly separated by the authorities. Indigo is taken in by an unusual white couple, with whom she travels the world. Sister Salt makes a scrappy living at a dam construction site. This is an intricate, mesmerizing, and phantasmagorical tale rooted in neglected history and heightened ecological awareness.
Golden Child. By Claire Adam. 2019. Hogarth/SJP, $26 (9780525572992).
Adam’s first novel is a moving study of her native Trinidad centered around the Deyalsingh family: hardworking and determined father Clyde, ferociously protective if slightly wistful mother Joy, and their twin sons, Peter and Paul. As the family faces increasingly complicated woes while living under a near-constant sense of impending violence, Adam brings into sharp focus a vivid, affectionate, yet increasingly suspenseful and menacing portrait of both the island and the family.
Inland. By Téa Obreht. 2019. Random, $27 (9780812992861).
Obreht’s audacious tale revolves around two haunted characters. Lurie is a young fugitive roaming the Southwest, communing with ghosts, and puzzling over his distant origins. Smart, funny, and ruthless Nora’s escalating struggle takes place on a drought-stricken homestead in the Arizona Territory in 1893. As their lives converge, Obreht dramatizes the delirium of the West—its myths, hardships, greed, racism, sexism, and violence—in a tornadic novel of stoicism, anguish, and wonder.
Land of Love and Drowning. By Tiphanie Yanique. 2014. Riverhead, $16 (9781594633812).
The Bradshaws had a proud place in the history of the Virgin Islands even before the Dutch transferred control to the Americans in the early 1900s. In a style that evokes Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez, Yanique dramatizes the lives of three Bradshaw generations in a tale rife with family intrigues, magic spells and curses, triumphs and tragedies, all unfolding amidst the world events that rocked the Caribbean between 1916 and the 1970s.
Love after Love. By Ingrid Persaud. 2020. Random/One World, $27 (9780593157565).
Set in a richly realized Trinidad, this affecting novel tells the story of an unconventional family: Miss Betty, a widow; her teenage son, Solo; and their lodger, Mr. Chetan, a teacher and closeted gay man, each narrating, in Trinidadian dialect, in alternating chapters.
Remembrance. By Rita Woods. 2020. Forge, $27.99 (9781250298454).
Three women’s lives are linked by one mysterious place in this historical debut that features a heavy dose of magic. In 1790s Haiti, Abigail, who is enslaved, flees to America with her mistress in the wake of revolution. In 1850s New Orleans, Margot flees slavery and stumbles upon Remembrance, a hidden stop on the Underground Railroad. In modern-day Ohio, nursing home aide Gaelle—who fled her native Haiti after the devastating earthquake there—is plagued by unsettling dreams as a mysterious elderly woman warns against the rising tide of racism.
The Round House. By Louise Erdrich. 2012. Harper Perennial, $16.99 (9780062065254).
As part of her resound saga of Native American novels, Erdrich writes in the voice of a man reliving the fateful summer of his thirteenth year when his mother was brutally beaten and raped. As Joe and his father try to help Geraldine heal and figure out who attacked her and why, Joe awakens to the complexities and traumas of adult life in his Ojibwe and white community. Through her vivid, varied characters and their spellbinding stories, Erdrich covers a vast spectrum of history, cruel loss, and bracing realizations.
Washington Black. By Esi Edugyan. 2018. Vintage, $16.95 (9780525563242).
The year 1830 finds 11-year-old George Washington (“Wash”) Black enslaved on a sugar plantation in Barbados. His life changes dramatically when his master’s younger brother, Titch, chooses him to assist with Titch’s scientific experiments. When an innocent Wash is in danger of being charged with a death, he and Titch flee in a hot-air balloon, surviving a journey to the Arctic. On his own, Wash, an eloquent narrator, makes his way to Nova Scotia and London. Wonderfully strange, astute, and unforgettable.
Wounded. By Percival Everett. 2005. Graywolf, $16 (9781555974862).
John Hunt is a Black horse trainer, living with aging Uncle Gus on a ranch outside a small town in Wyoming, and recovering from the loss of his wife in an accident he feels partly responsible for. On the surface, Hunt’s race seems to have little impact on the area, with its mix of whites and American Indians. But when the son of an old college friend comes to town with his gay lover, Hunt is forced to face the grim realities of his environment.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. By Isabel Wilkerson. 2020. Random, $32 (9780593230251).
Wilkerson, renowned for The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), draws on genetics, anthropology, religion, and economics to examine the history and structure of caste in America by exploring slavery and the decimation of Native Americans, the “authoritarian regime” of Jim Crow, and the transformation of European immigrants into whites with caste status. An eye-opening book well-timed in the face of a pandemic and police brutality that, indeed, cleave along the lines of caste.
From the Heart of the Crow Country: The Crow Indians’ Own Stories. By Joseph Medicine Crow. 1992. Bison, $14.95 (9780803282636).
Medicine Crow is an oral historian of his tribe, and he was also the first Crow Indian to graduate from college and to earn a graduate degree. Thus, trained in Western anthropology as well as traditional Indian historical methods, he combines the two to make an exemplary study of his people, whose traditional territory includes much of the state of Montana.
Island People: The Caribbean and the World. By Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. 2016. Vintage, $17 (9780345804990).
Jelly-Shapiro recounts the history of transatlantic slave trading and colonization that blended people from all over the world to form the distinctive and enormously influential Caribbean culture, telling the stories of ordinary citizens and those of famous writers and artists, including Bob Marley, Paule Marshall, C. L. R. James, and Pedro Mir, as well as revolutionaries Marcus Garvey, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, and Fidel Castro.
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. By Andrés Reséndez. 2016. Mariner, $16.99 (9780544947108).
Historian Reséndez avers in this significant and clarifying work that the enslavement of North American Indians from the sixteenth through the late nineteenth century is a “key missing piece” of the annals of the hemisphere, especially in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the American Southwest, and that while slavery was abolished in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment, it remains unclear when the enslavement of American Indians actually ended.
Our Land before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole Negro. By Jeff Guinn. 2002. TarcherPerigee, $16.95 (9781585421862).
Guinn tells the hidden story of America’s denial of the complex relationship between Blacks and various American Indian nations during the founding of this country, focusing on the numerous Indigenous nations in what became known as Florida, and which became a refuge for those fleeing enslavement. The alliances Native Americans and African Americans forged were complex, and their fate at the hands of the U.S. government brutal.
Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad. By Krystal A. Sital. 2018. Norton, $25.95 (9780393609264).
Sital focuses on her mother and her maternal grandmother and their current lives in the U.S. while also offering a transporting depiction of their ancestral island home in its vibrancy, beauty, and blight. Recreating her family’s history in episodes ranging from ordinary to painfully intense, with dialogue in patois, Sital chronicles the ways these women were fiercely determined to escape the formidable hardships of their past, foremost for the sake of their children, yet were all but doomed to repeat them.
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