Friday, December 23, 2011

Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by Trevor R. Getz and LIz Clarke

Abina Mansah is a young West African woman living in the British Gold Coast Colony (now Ghana) in 1876. After escaping to the town of Cape Coast, she accuses Quamina Eddoo of purchasing and holding her as a slave. Britain outlawed slavery in the Empire in 1833 and an act of enslavement is in contravention of the "Gold Coast Slave-dealing Abolition Ordinance, 1874" so judicial assessor William Melton feels it his duty to take the case to trial. Abina is in no danger of being returned to slavery but pursues the case because she wants to be heard.

The collaborator's took the transcript of that trial and created a compelling graphic history of Abina's story. Supplementing the trial transcript, Getz (the author) constructed a plausible background for Abina as well as the events that gave her freedom and demand for justice. Clarke (the illustrator) brought the story to life with her well researched and striking illustrations. Look at the cover (right), Abina standing defiant with the "important men" (Melton, Eddoo, defense attorney, advisors called by Melton) with their backs to her. Strong stuff.

The book could have stood with just the graphic history and the actual transcript but it goes much farther and in a direction that will have me returning to it later. Following the transcript Getz points out that he and Clarke have created an historicization or historical narrative placed in the context of the time and place in which it is set. There are questions that need to be asked and he sums up the challenge he and Clarke faced:
Like many others who interpret the past, we have strived to create a representation that is reasonable accurate, authentic to the experiences and perspectives of the individuals represented, and useful to our audience. How did we turn the short primary source into a longer interpretation that tried to meet these criteria? How can we know whether our account of the events surrounding Abina Mansah's day in court is a reasonably accurate and useful interpretation? How can you, the reader, trust the work we have produced? (italics are mine)
 Part III establishes the historical context by describing the area with its peoples, languages, social structures, the effects of European involvement, and importantly, the British approach to its civilizing mission, ie what did Britain see as its responsibility to the inhabitants.

Part IV, Reading Guide is fascinating and is the part I will be rereading several times. Here Getz shows us how a historian works. In the Reading Guide are the
issues of philosophy, ethics, and methods that we faced in turning a document from 1876 into a graphic history in 2011. In the following pages, we grapple with three questions: whose story is this? Is it a true story? Is it an authentic story?
Getz goes into the pitfalls or writing history, the inevitable biases that color the narrative, the problems interpreting past events through modern sensibilities that might ascribe motivations differing from those who lived the events. He gives us a good summary of the philosophy behind the approaches that historians have to consider when writing history.

Part IV has made me think about current events in the U.S., the current political turmoil and the seemingly insurmountable philosophical divide on the intention of the constitution and the responsibilities of government. What will future historians do with the vast amount of print, digital, and media material that survives? I look at this section for insights how historians look at us and write our history.

Abina and the Important Men is a very adaptable book in that it is suitable for a variety of audiences. Obviously it appeals to me and I appreciate the intellectual challenge of understanding how history is recorded. I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a young person interested in history. The graphic history is good hook. It could also be used in high school and college courses. Part V gives suggestions how Abina could be used in the classroom.

The books includes maps that are a great help in visualizing the setting of the story.

I highly recommend Abina and the Important Men. It has an interesting story to tell and is intellectually stimulating. I wish I had a niece or nephew old enough to appreciate it.

Trevor R. Getz is Professor of History at San Francisco State University.
Liz Clarke is a professional artist and graphic designer in Cape Town, South Africa.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman

Hurt Machine
by Reed Farrel Coleman
Tyrus Books, 2011

Reed's website.

Hurt Machine is being offered as a FREE eBook download from 12/20 - 12/24 on Amazon,  Barnes & Noble and Other eBook sellers.

Two reactions on reading The Hurt Machine: Wow, I'm glad I read this book; and Why did I wait this long to start the series?

First sentence: Death, not time, is probably the only lasting remedy for hurt and even that's just an educated guess.

Hurt Machine is an excellent hardboiled detective novel and one of my favorite reads of 2011. Normally I am fanatic about reading a series in order but I was offered a review copy of this seventh Moe Prager story. I've had the series in mind for a while and decided to chance starting at the end; I have no regrets. Coleman gives a new reader enough information that references to past events are not an obstacle to following the story. In fact, they make me want to start at the beginning to see how Moe gets to this point.

The Story
Moe Prager is under a lot of stress. His has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and this clouds the joy of his daughter's upcoming wedding. Moe doesn't want anyone to know until after the wedding and this includes Pam with whom has has a serious relationship.

Into this mix comes his ex-wife Carmella Melendez who he hasn't seen for 10 years. Carmella tells him that her estranged sister, Alta Consecos, was murdered, stabbed to death outside a night club. The police are not making progress finding the murderer and Carmella asks Moe to look into it. Moe hasn't been an active detective in years —he doesn't know where he put his license—but he can't say no to Carmella though it adds another level of stress since Pam isn't very happy about it. The case promises to be interesting as Alta was on suspension from her job as an EMS technician after she and her partner let a man die without rendering aid.

Moe comes from the same line of hardboiled detective as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe—pretend you know more than you do, poke around, piss people off, see what happens. And like the classic hardboiled detective, Moe makes pithy, humorous, and sometimes somber observations. If you read the comments sections on the Internet web sites you will appreciate Moe's thinking about hate mail: " occurred to me that people with hearts so full of hate must have no room in their brains for spelling or syntax."

With Moe not knowing exactly what he is looking for, he tries to find connections, figure out which events are related, who are the players. I can't say much about Moe's investigations without delivering spoilers but I will say that the author is a master at setting up situations that come to a head later in the story. I had several "OK this makes sense now but I didn't see it coming" moments.

There is a lot going on in the story and these other elements — Moe's health, his daughter's wedding, his relationship with his ex-wife, his current relationship with Pam —add layers and complications to the investigation. They are not a distraction though, they make Moe human, someone the reader can relate to.

What I didn't expect from Hurt Machine was the unexpected emotional response I have toward Moe. He and I are about the same age. With a cancerous tumor in his stomach, Moe can't help but think of life, death, things he's done in the past, what he will leave behind:
When you reach a certain stage in life, you do a lot of wondering about the people who've passed in and out of it. Soon enough, I realized, I'd be someone's absent friend. You add alcohol to thoughts like that and you get tears.
Time to think is life's Petri dish. It's the medium in which a random twinge of anxiety morphs into debilitating self-doubt, where a passing regret grows into paralytic guilt.
The way Coleman overlays the story with Moe's reflections adds a dimension to the story that sets it apart. Moe's thoughts can be brutally honest but the author doesn't let them turn maudlin or morbid. Rather, he has found a way to sum up the life of his character, a character in which he has a lot of emotional investment. I read somewhere that this is the last Moe Prager book. If so, the author has delivered a satisfying conclusion and one that is going to send this reader back to the beginning.

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