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I’m working my way through Colson Whitehead‘s best selling book, The Underground Railroad which has received raves from just about every book critic and taken home just about every award including this year’s National Book Award for fiction.
The New York Timesdescribed it as “a hallucinatory novel about the horrors of American slavery and the sinister permutations of racism, an imaginative portrayal of the routes to freedom literally on a railroad.” .…that is underground. Kinda trippy, yet an effective way to portray the issues and the experience.
It’s not hard to find real underground railroad “stations” along various routes that enslaved people traveled on the route north to freedom in the 1800s. This wasn’t some sort of subway system, but rather a dangerous trip much of it on foot, as slave hunters followed in pursuit. The stories of the people—both escaped slaves and those who sought to help them—are often as dramatic as anything an author could invent. The U.S. National Park Service offers a great list of sites across the country.
Some of my favorite of such places are in Detroit, mainly because it’s so close to Canada you can practically smell it. (Maybe it’s the Canadian Club distillery I smell over there across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.) How close, yet so far, those escaping people must have felt to their freedom, less than a mile across the river. That’s particularly tangible in Detroit’s Hart Plaza where the International Underground Railroad Memorial overlooks the river. The installation features two groupings, one in Detroit with its counterpart across the river in Windsor, both by sculptor Ed Dwight.
The Detroit component features two gateway pillars that bracket a ten foot by twelve foot sculpture with nine slaves and a railroad “conductor” pointing toward Canada in anticipation of boarding a the boat across the Detroit River to safety. The Windsor installation consists of a twenty-two foot high granite Freedom Tower that also serves as a candle representing the flame of freedom, along with a male slave giving thanks and a female slave holding a baby. A female Canadian underground railroad conductor is welcoming them both to safety.
Several other Detroit destinations offer their own story of abolitionist activity. The First Congregational Church of Detroit offers a “storytelling” re-enactment of the underground railroad passage. On the tour visitors are “shackled” with wrist bands at the entrance of the tour and begin their journey by entering through the “Door of No Return,” on Goree Island in Africa. “As this journey begins,” says their web site, “visitors transform into passengers on the underground railroad and are led to freedom by a conductor. Passengers hide from bounty hunters, cross the Ohio “Deep” river, and take retreat in a safe house in Indiana which is owned by Abolitionist Levi Coffin.” Finally, they move to “Midnight,” the code name for Detroit and take safe haven at the First Congregational Church of Detroit before moving on to Canada.
Detroit’s Second Baptist Church was also a station and received some 5,000 slaves before sending them on to Canada. By giving them food, clothing, and shelter the church was in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws. The church offers tours that describe it’s long service to the community as a underground railroad stop and other activities.
I’ve had a couple of opportunities to see the new exhibit, “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), once with the exhibit’s curator, Tom Rassieur. Now I feel enlightened.
Indulgences in Luther’s day were payments made to the Catholic church, something like Get Out of Jail Free cards in Monopoly, as a way to reduce the amount of punishment one had to undergo for sins. Luther criticized the practice as a corruption of faith and questioned the limits of the Pope’s authority. Though he intended them as a point of debate, the theses set off a revolution in thinking about man’s relationship to God —the Protestant Reformation—and a new chapter in religious and world history. As Rassieur says, “The theses hit the fan.”
The followers of Luther became known as Lutherans and Minnesota has more Lutherans than you can shake your protestant hymnal at. That’s one reason this impressive exhibit landed in Minneapolis–along with the fact that Mia is a terrific museum. Martin Luther has already sold more tickets than any other Mia exhibit.
I have to “confess” my knowledge of this era in history is a bit shaky, so as usual, I sought out a few books on Luther and the Reformation. Hefty and dense tomes abound, but I recommend Martin Luther by the aptly named author Martin Marty. (With a name like that, who else could he write about?) It’s short and well done.
Also, I couldn’t resist picking up Garrison Keillor’s Life Among the Lutherans, a collection of monologues from his radio show, Prairie Home Companion. This is, of course, a more modern look at Lutheran life in rural Minnesota and includes a new set of Theses by a Lake Wobegon resident including thesis #2,
Every Advent, we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if the survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating “a little” was, like vomiting “a little,” as bad as “a lot.”
But I digress…The exhibition offers more than art; it’s an astounding collection of Luther “memorabilia.” It includes paintings, sculpture, golden relics, textiles, and works on paper—as well as Luther’s personal possessions and recent archaeological finds, particularly from the house he grew up in, that shed new light on the man and his era. You’ll even see original manuscripts with Luther’s notes in the margins and the pulpit from which he gave his last sermon. Luther’s words spread far and wide because of a recent technological invention, the printing press, the social media of the time. Most of these artworks and historical objects are traveling outside Germany for the first time and the exhibit will only be here in the U.S. until January 15, 2017. Then the art and objects return to their places in Germany as the country celebrates the Reformation anniversary.
The people in the Saxony-Anhalt region of central Germany would like you to come see Luther on his home turf , the “Luther Trail,” and hope that the exhibit and the anniversary of the Reformation will inspire travel to their region. While religious history makes a great jumping off point for a trip, Luther Country offers an array of travel ideas to appeal to lovers of food, music, art, nature and biking and hiking adventures that will nurture your soul in every way. For books on planning your trip to Germany, see Longitude Books reading list.
It’s not easy to find Julie Schumacher. Like the setting of her book, Dear Committee Members, winner of the James Thurber Prize for Humor, her office in the English Department at the University of Minnesota seems exiled to a warren of rooms deep in the bowels of Lind Hall on the East Bank campus. Go downstairs, through some doors, down a hall, through the door with the arrow on it and its on the right somewhere at the end of the hall. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.
Also, like her fictional protagonist, Jay Fitger, she’s a creative writing professor and pens scores of letters of reference for students who are applying for jobs and grad school. Dear Committee Members consists solely of such letters in which the arrogant and curmudgeonly Fitger reveals more about himself than his students.
Peppered with a hilariously snooty vocabulary (with phrases like “floculent curds”), his letters perpetually digress to lament his department’s lack of status in the University, the ongoing building repairs and the trials of having an office next to the bathroom. “…we are alternately frozen and nearly smoked, via pestilent fumes, out of our building,” says Fitger. “Between the construction dust and the radiators emitting erratic bursts of steam heat, the intrepid faculty members who have remained in their offices over the winter break are humid with sweat and dusted with ash and resemble two-legged cutlets dredged in flour.” He bemoans the lack of respect for the liberal arts and the struggle of dealing with office technology—topics dear to Schumacher’s heart. Clearly, she follows the old adage “write what you know.”
Yet, when you do arrive at her office, it’s easy to see that Julie Schumacher is no Jay Fitger. She’s downright pleasant, enjoys her colleagues and proudly shows off her former students’ published novels. She swears her letters of reference never wander off, Fitger-like, into completely inappropriate discussions of sexual indiscretions around the department. Finally, unlike poor Jay, her work regularly receives recognition.
She was first woman to win the Thurber Prize in its 18-year history.The award is named for James Thurber, the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons and one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century. Previous Thurber Prize winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin.
So many women have written funny books—Tina Fey, Nora Ephron and Betty White to name a few—it’s surprising that a woman hasn’t won the Thurber prize before now. See my previous post about James Thurber. That changed last year when all three of the finalists were women including New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast for her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Annabelle Gurwitch for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge.
As the first woman to win, Schumacher recognizes the irony that her lead character is a man. “It never occurred to me to make him a female,” she says. “This character has certain expectations of power, a big ego and he’s crushed when things don’t turn out professionally and romantically. It had to be a guy.”
Schumacher came to this place of distinction through long experience and serious practice of her craft. She grew up in Delaware, graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University with an MFA in fiction. She joined the University of Minnesota faculty after teaching as an adjunct at several Minnesota colleges in an effort to “keep an oar in the water” while raising her two daughters. Along the way she published books for young readers, a short story collection, and a critically acclaimed first novel, The Body of Water.
Of Dear Committee Members she says, “I didn’t start out to write a funny book. Actually, it’s a really a sad book. For Jay, things haven’t turned out like he expected, he’s besieged and disappointed. He’s a complicated character. I fell in love with him.”
Her sophisticated style of humor eschews the raunchy (no f-bombs here) in favor of writing that observes the funny in everyday life and in human nature. “The trick,” she says, “is to push the discomfort of a character’s behavior just to the edge, but not too far.” That makes it perfect for an award named after James Thurber. “Humor, he said, is “a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect.”
Schumacher says life today requires humor. “Its a release, a catharsis.” Through her alter ego, Jay Fitger, humor also gives Schumacher a means of serious social commentary. He says, “…there are other faculty here on campus who are not disposed to see notable scholarship ignored; and let it be known that, in the darkened, blood-strewn caverns of our offices, we are hewing our textbooks and keyboards into spears.”
Cartoons and funny articles in a style that is spare and gentle.
James Thurber was one of the most beloved humorists of the last century and his cartoons were regularly featured in The New Yorker for over 30 years. I recently visited his boyhood home in Columbus, Ohio, where the stories about Thurber’s childhood explained a lot about his gentle and quirky humor, particularly the tales about his delightfully cooky mother and his love of dogs.
Thurber’s drawings are spare, simple black lines and experts speculate that it may be due in part to an eye injury he received as a child. If your knowledge of Thurber’s work is limited to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and its recent movie incarnation, I suggest reading The Thurber Carnival, a collection of his short stories and drawings for a better look at the author/illustrator. For example, one of my favorite of Thurber’s canine characters is Muggs, in “The Dog That Bit People.” Muggs, a really crabby Airedale, was one of the family dogs (Thurber owned 53 during his life). Muggs bit everyone except Mrs. Thurber who always defended him. Thurber writes, “Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedale bit. The list finally contained forty or more names.” Like most authors’ homes, Thurber’s house offers a view of life in a slower, though with Muggs around, not necessarily a safer era.
Apart from the stories and drawings, one of Thurber’s most important legacies is the Thurber Prize for American Humor that is now awarded in his name from the non-profit that runs the house and the many Thurber House programs for writers. Winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris,Calvin Trillin and most recently Minnesotan Julie Schumaker for her hilarious book Dear Committee Members. See my article in the Minnesota Women’s Press on Julie Schumacher.
Join Off the Beaten Path in welcoming Terri Peterson Smith, author of Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways. Smith will take us on a tour of America’s most fascinating literary destinations and will provide inspiration and suggestions to plan your own literary getaway.
The history of women gaining the right to vote is receiving new attention with the release of the movie Suffragette.
That movie takes place in England, but earlier this year, I visited the mecca of women’s suffrage in the U.S., Seneca Falls, New York, located in the state’s Finger Lakes region, at the tip of Seneca Lake. There, Women’s Rights National Historical Park depicts the women’s journey to equal citizenship in this country, particularly the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, on July 19-20,1848.
Get up to speed on women’s rights struggle at the Visitors Center with a great film on the first conventions and its leaders, exhibits on that event and our progress since then, and a book store selling a variety of books on the topic.
The park also includes the Wesleyan Chapel next door the convention took place and the houses of other prominent leaders of the movement including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She helped launch the reform movement for women’s rights to which she dedicated the rest of her life. She was born on November 12, 1815, (Happy 200 birthday!) and lived in Seneca Falls.
Down the street from the Visitors Center, you can also tour the National Women’s Hall of Fame, where plaques and photos pay homage to America’s famous women.
It’s all very inspiring, especially if you’ve ever felt like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, isolated at home with three small children, described herself as a “caged lioness.”
For an excellent list of books about women’s suffrage and other travel reading, go to Longitude Books and search under “women’s suffrage.” And be sure to read my article about Jack London State Park in their “Favorite Spot” section.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.