3 New Books about Runaways and Rebels
Sometimes you have to fight, and sometimes you have to run. Sometimes, flight IS fight. The protagonists of the new novels in this week’s book club are setting out to rail against injustice, whether it’s protesting an unethical war and draft, escaping the horrors of slavery, or an attempt to shake off the ravages of PTSD. Their journeys will propel them forward and change their lives in fascinating ways. Now all you have to do is run to a bookstore (or just click the links) to pick them up.
1. The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette ($17): “On the second Monday of September, Judy Talton put on the new jeans she had run through three washing cycles and the fatigue jacket she had found at the Salvation Army resale shop, went to the Student Union, and, for the first time, took a seat on the freak side of the Tune Room. She chose an empty table, one of dozens occupied by student radicals and other misfits, against a wall splattered with as many posters against the Vietnam War as for next month’s homecoming game. She glanced across the room’s wide central aisle at the matching tables filled with the neat sweaters and slacks of the sorority, fraternity, and other straight types on the Greek side. She watched the entrance as students walked in, paused at the top of a short flight of stairs, then chose their side: Greeks or freaks…What was she thinking, anyway? That she could just change her clothes, walk in here, and somehow her life would work itself out?”
Judy Talton’s birthday is on the fourteenth of September, a date which, once the Vietnam draft birthday lottery came into effect, infamously put you first on the front lines. Of course, Judy’s gender prevents her from having to serve in the war, but even before her birthday is called, she’s started having serious doubts about the morality of the fighting. It’s difficult for her to rebel, since she comes from a military family, attends Central Illinois University on an Army scholarship, and is currently designated Private First Class. Slowly but surely, however, she changes her clothes and her stance, and begins to ensconce herself in the anti-war movement.
Judy tries to keep her pacifist leanings quiet from her family and higher-ups, and her Army connections away from her new “freak” friends, who call her Judy Blue Eyes and include Vida, David, and Wil — the latter of whom has a September 14 birthday too. When Judy’s conscience demands that she march on Washington with her friends, she does so knowing full well that this will mark her as AWOL from her military responsibilities, but running away means running toward something greater that she can’t ignore. It’s this choice that will change the course of her life forever.
2. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan ($27): “Allow me to begin again, for the record. I have walked this earth for eighteen years. I am a Freeman now in possession of my own person. I was born in the year 1818 on that sun-scorched estate in Barbados. So I was told. I have also heard it said I was born in a shackled cargo hold during a frenzied crossing of the Atlantic, aboard an illicit Dutch vessel. That would have been the autumn of 1817. In the latter account my mother died in the difficult birth. For years I did not privilege one origin over the other, but in my first years free I came to suffer strange dreams, flashes of images: Tall, staked wooden palisades, walls of black jungle beyond. Naked men yoked together and stumbling up rotted planks into a dark brig. Was it Gold Coast I dreamed of, the slave fort at Annamaboe? How could that be so, you ask? Ask yourself what you know of your own beginnings, and if your life is so very different. We must all take on faith the stories of our birth, for though we are in them, we are not yet present.”
Canadian writer Edugyan’s novel, which was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, tells the story of George Washington Black, born into the cruelties of slavery. When his first master dies, the man who inherits Wash, Erasmus Wilde, is crueler still, to the point where several slaves commit suicide rather than suffer dehumanizing and terrifying physical punishments ranging from eating excrement to immolation. Wash’s protector, Big Kit, is convinced that suicide is their best way out to return to their homeland, but Erasmus denies even this escape by separating the heads of those slaves from their bodies. Despairing, and deeply afraid when he is asked to serve at the master’s table, 11-year-old Wash sees his life take a turn when Erasmus selects him to be his brother Christopher’s manservant.
Christopher “Titch” Wilde is everything Erasmus is not: intelligent, inventive, and an abolitionist. He is particularly enamored of hot air balloons and their ability to take people thousands of feet into the air. Wash settles into his role as research assistant, but then a suicide in his vicinity leads to his being blamed for the death. Aware that this spells certain disaster for Wash, Christopher engineers their escape in his balloon, as the two run from Barbados to America and finally the Arctic by air and sea. Escape is not easy, and Wash is eventually left to fend for himself; at least, though, he’s on the road toward freedom.
3. A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti ($13): Annabelle Agnelli is haunted by the events of her recent past. An excellent student with a stable home life and strong friendships, she comes face-to-face with a world-shattering situation of abuse thanks to a new fellow student who she dubs “The Taker.” Faced with the social pressure to be kind and giving, Annabelle has her good nature taken advantage of, and now feels extreme guilt over a crime that was not her responsibility. Her solution is to get as far away as she can.
“‘I’m not coming home. I’m going to run and keep running. I’m going to run until I reach Washington, DC.” Of course, this is crazy and impossible and doomed, even if she’s a long distance runner and has two marathon medals hanging on the doorknob of her room. It is silly, and dramatic, and naïve. Also — idealistic. Of course, she has no concept of the realities here. She has no plan. No team. No training. She will fail, fail, fail. But all she can feel at this moment is how much she personally needs this. She needs this so bad. Yes, she is that Annabelle Agnelli. ‘This is PTSD, Annabelle,’ her mother says. ‘Don’t you remember what Dr. Mann said? This is hyperarousal, recklessness. Have you been having flashbacks? You haven’t been sleeping well, I know. Talk to me. No one just does something like this. People who do…they plan, Annabelle. For months. There’s, I don’t know! Lots of stuff involved! No one just takes off. I’m coming to get you. Stop acting crazy.’ Stop acting crazy? Well, it is far, far too late for that.”
Annabelle runs from her hometown of Seattle to DC, but after her “crazy” declaration, she doesn’t go it alone. Backup from her family and friends comes in the form of an RV escort (driven by her grandfather Ed), and a support squad; her best friends Zach and Olivia and her 13-year-old brother Malcolm decide that her story and her journey should be known, and start a publicity team to cheer on Annabelle in facing her past and achieving her goal. She may not be able to outrun trauma, but she can still go the distance.
What books provide your great escape? Tag us in your next runaway read @BritandCo.
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