Take Me Away

I recently started a book—I won’t tell you yet which one—chosen by a book group. The work was non-fiction, a history/biography kind of book and it was fat with small print. Generally, I prefer fiction, so I came to this tome with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But as I read the introduction, the author made me believe I was in such capable hands that I continued on to Chapter 1, no longer dutiful but eager.

What I want to discuss is: how did she do that? As a writer, I want to do it, too. I want my readers to settle back, kick off their suspicions and wariness like old shoes, let go their outer world and travel off with me into the written world.

The Words

To put it briefly, I liked the writing. After a dozen pages, of it, I’d been delighted by its clarity—despite its complexity—and surprised, too, by nice turn of phrases. Here’s a sentence in the Preface that pleased me:

We must, and will, pay attention to them,
but they were only part of a much larger family story.

It was the “and will” that made me smile, especially after such a strong verb as “must.” Not only did the sentence sound strong, it sounded like a promise: we will do what is needful in this book; we will do what is right. I felt as if I could hear the author’s voice in my ear, a voice I began to trust with that one felicitous sentence.

Another sentence appealed to me, this one in the Introduction:

The numbers told a story, but in the detached
and steely way that numbers tend to do.

The phrase “detached and steely” caught my fancy. I stopped for a fraction of a moment to run the word “steely” over my tongue and to picture steely blue-silver numbers.

Frankly, this is the kind of word-tasting I hope readers of my own book will one day do.

Voice and Style

I’m not sure I can separate the choice of words and the sentence structure from the “voice,” nor am I sure that the former aren’t part of the latter. What I can say is that the writing, via the sentence about numbers, spoke directly to me the reader and I listened.

Despite the fact that my two samples are relatively short and straightforward, the sentences throughout the Preface and Introduction varied in length and structural complexity, forming a rhythm that was neither too staccato (too many short sentences together) nor too legato (too many lengthy sentences with clauses and sub-clauses.)

Furthermore, she mixed ideas that were relatively obvious with some that required thought on my part. I stopped to consider several times as I read along: did I agree with her? Had she omitted a piece of the analytical puzzle? None of the thinking was terribly heavy lifting, but my mind was engaged. And where the mind goes, so goes the reader.

Okay, I (subconsciously) said to myself. This author knows what she’s doing; she knows how to write. Good. I’ll keep reading.

The Tone

Some historical treatises sound academic, even preachy or, worse yet, full of themselves and how brilliant they are for knowing all the facts they know.

Not so this book. Right away, in the Preface, the author tells us that as she finally holds in her hands the original 18th century source document whose passages she already knows by heart, she is, nonetheless, “completely overwhelmed. For a time I simply could not continue.”

Her words made me imagine her in a library chair, little old book in hand, maybe crying, utterly still. I related to her on a human level. This was an author with emotions. Showing her emotion to me made me trust her more, since I, along with every other reader, know that authors who pretend to have no feelings about what they write are frauds.

black woman strong face looking to right

On the same page she talks about reading this source material that documents which slaves got food or clothing and how much of each and how she thought of the man writing and making these decisions: “Just who do you think you are?

That was another place I stopped to ponder, this time about the author herself. As an African-American woman, how much more deeply might she feel this sense of outrage than I, a white woman,  on reading the same passage. I thought about how hard it might have been for her, emotionally, to do the research this book required and how she must have labored to bring all her work to light. And how important she had to think it was to do so.

By this point in the book, still subconsciously, I’m fully on the author’s side. She has become a sympathetic figure to me. She’s working hard at something that can’t be easy for her because she thinks it’s important work to do. She’s got a personal stake in this book, it means something to her, all of which brings me to invest myself in the book, too.

Authorial Attitude

The book explores the lives of a family of African slaves brought to America and, as I’ve said, it’s written by a black woman. Without even realizing it, I’m a little hesitant. I expect to hear a lot about white supremacy in a righteously angry voice and I expect to feel both an outsider, one of them, and guilty as charged.

The author disarms me in the Introduction by acknowledging that more is known about one family of slaves than “the vast majority of freeborn white Virginians of the time,” simply because this family was related to a famous white man. Huh.

Later on, she discusses how white folks of the time tended to believe that slaves with some white blood (as if blood came in different colors) were more worthy of help because they were “naturally” smarter and looked more like white people. “That is one way prejudice works,” the author writes and another part of my inner tension lets go. This author doesn’t take the opportunity to grind an axe. No matter what she may feel upon occasion, when she sets her final words on the page, they are balanced, educational in tone and fair-minded.

On the first page of Chapter 1, she demonstrates again that she takes a wide view of history by including the effects of sexism upon her female characters:

Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them.

I am, by now, completely at ease. She has avoided a trap that I see so many fall into these days—setting racism and sexism in opposition to each other, as if they do not spring from the same source, patriarchal attitudes in which white men reside at the top of the cultural pyramid.

This is an author, I decide, who is knowledgeable, diligent, and fair. This is an author I can learn from, whom I trust to tell me the truth as she’s discovered it. And that, dear readers, is how she caught me in her capable hands and took me away on her private flight of writing.

Pile of stones with "trust" written on top one

Can you and I do the same? With some of Annette Gordon Reed’s tools in mind as they appear in her National Book Award winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello , I surely hope we will.

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