1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What is freedom? And is it an option for anyone in this tale? Is there any hope in these "uttered words that felt like prophecy"? ("True freedom is a master too, you see -- one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver...What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves to justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose...You are not a slave, Hiram Walker," said Corrine. "But by Gabriel's Ghost, you shall serve." (155; 157) Is this Corrine's way of saying that if you're not an anti-racist, then you're a racist?)
3. Who is Hiram? What is he? ("But there are so many miracles. As when I was told of a man who did not merely conduct but self-resurrected, who hoisted himself out of the ice, a man who, pursued by the hounds, felt a longing for home so fierce that he blinked and he was there." 269) (And just an aside, but Hiram is always noting when he washes and changes his clothes. Is there any symbolism in that?)
4. What do you make of the terms he uses to designate people -- the Tasked, the Quality, the low whites? Had you heard those terms before?
5. How were the stakes for women different from the stakes for me? ("...if you told me that Hank Powers cried for three hours when his daughter was born, I remembered..." 11) And what do you make of Sophia's question to Hiram regarding his intent towards her? ("I like you, I really do...But I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this Underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain't freedom to me, do you understand? Ain't no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored...If that is your plan to shackle me there...then tell me now and allow me the decency of making my own choice here." 111-112)
6. Did your opinion of Sophia change (as Hiram's did) when you discovered she was pregnant when she ran with Hiram? Was the pregnancy a surprise to you, or did you know all along? ("I think of what it must mean to bring someone, a little girl perhaps, into all of this. And I know it's coming, someday. That it ain't even up to me. It's coming, Hiram, and I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in, and..." 99; "I will bring no child into this..." 107; "It's coming, Hiram," you said. "And I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in." None can say it was not said. And though I remember everything, I cannot say I always hear it. BUt I hear you now, and I hear much more." 350).
7. What do you make of Hiram's perspective of how the Quality pitted the low whites and the tasked against each other to keep both in their place? ("These men became rich off the flesh trade, but their names were of too recent vintage and their work of such ill repute that they could never rise above their designation. It was the strong association between the jail and the low whites who fed and served it that gave them the name Ryland's Hounds. We feared them and hated them, perhaps more than we feared and hated the Quality who held us, for all of us were low, we were all Tasked, and we should be in union and arrayed against the Quality, if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake." 57) What would it mean for the low whites to "wager their crumbs"?
8. Did Georgie and Amber try to warn Hiram or not? ("Ain't nobody out, son, you hear? Ain't no out. All gotta serve. I like serving here more than at some other man's Lockless, I will grant you that, but I am serving, of that I can assure you." 60) And how does Georgie's insistence that Hiram go home, that his life is a good one, contrast with Hiram's statement that "there was no peace in slavery, for every day under the rule of another is a day of war." (130)
9. What was the Conduction, and why not explain it to Hiram and the reader at the beginning? Why the journey of discovery? Why does Harriet not tell Hiram? (Per Harriet, "The jump is done by the power of the story. It pulls from our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses. All of that feeling is called up, and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved." 278; "The summoning of a story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction." 358).
How is the Conduction similar or different from the idea of The Underground Railroad as depicted in the book of that title by Colson Whitehead?
10. What is a water dancer? His mother, his aunt and Sophia? Or part of the Conduction? ("Stay with me, friend," Harriet said. "No exertions needed. It's just like dancing. Stay with the sound, stay with the story and you will be fine." 271)
11. The prevailing image I hold of slavery in my mind is of laboreres being mistreated in the fields. Do you have a dominant image in your mind? What about Hiram's perspective on slavery was surprising or new? ("Walking down the back stairs, I knew that my father's statement could only be reconciled through the peculiar religion of Virginia -- Virginia, where it was held that a whole race would submit to chains; Virginia, where this same race held the math that molded iron and carved marble to exact proportion and were still called beasts; Virginia, where a man would profess his love for you one moment and sell you off the next. Oh, the curses my mind constructed for my fool of a father, for this country where men dress sin in pageantry and pomp, in cotillions and crinolines, where they hide its exercise, in the down there, in a basement of the mind, in these slave-stairs, which I now I descended, into the Warrens, into this secret city, which powered an empire so great that none dare speak its true name." 70)
I was surprised, as Hiram knew I would be, that train cars were integrated. ("It may be hard to believe now, in these dark days, but there was no "n-- car." Why would there be one? The Quality kept their Tasked ones close the way a lady keeps her clutch, closer even, for this was a time in our history when the most valuable thing a man could own, in all of America, was another man." 188)
12. Was there foul play in Maynard's death? How did they end up in the river that night?
13. What did you make of (Miss) Corrine? Did your opinion of her change? What do you make of Corrine's interpretation of women's role? ("And some of us have been down since the days of Rome. Some of us are born into society and told that knowledge is rightfully beyond us, and ornamental ignorance should be our whole aspiration." 166)
And why is Hiram always surprised to see Miss Corrine? Why is she so hard to figure out? What do you make of his assessment of her at the end? ("Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boast, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. Corrine was no different, and it was why, relentless as she was against slavery, she could so casually condemn me to the hole, condemn Georgie Parks to death, and mock an outrage put upon Sophia." 370-1)
14. What did you make of the layers of deceit -- how Hiram couldn't even trust other tasking folks -- how they were divided against themselves? ("And then there were even darker tasks. To be their eyes and ears, their intelligence among the other tasking men, so that they, the masters, knew who smiled in their faces and scoffed behind their backs...The effect of all this was a kind of watchfulness among the tasking folks, in particular toward those you did not know." 104-5) This sadly reminds me of what poet and media activist Malkia Cyril explains in the film “13th” that white people aren’t the only ones to view Black men as criminals. It broke my heart as she said, “Let me be clear...Black people also believe this...and are terrified...of our own selves.”
15. In what ways does the author continue to raise the stakes for Hiram that continue to build the story? ("So I must go, for my world was disappearing, had always been disappearing -- Maynard called out from the Goose, Corrine from the mountains, and above all, Natchez." 116)
16. What do you make of Hiram turning the lens back on himself after the boy is sold from the jail and his mother is beaten? ("I did nothing. Understand that I saw all of this and I did nothing. I watched those men sell children and beat a mother to the ground, and I did nothing." 135)
17. What do you make of the tone and perspective of this book? How old did you imagine Hiram to be at the time of its telling? What "dark days" is he in "now"? ("It may be hard to believe now, in these dark days..." 188) (I found the tone reflective and regretful -- at least, that's how the audiobook read it -- slowly, thoughtfully, making me think that Hiram would be an old man at the end...)
18. Was it clear to you what Hiram's new job was? ("First you learn what they know, in the general. And then you learn them in the specific -- their words and their hand. Own the man's especial knowledge and you shall own the measure of the man. Then you might fashion the costume, Hiram, and make it yours to fit." 167) How did Hiram's memory help him on his journey? What else wasn't clear during his journey? Was it clear what they did to Georgie? (175)
19. What is the meaning of memory in this book? ("We forgot nothing, you and I...To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die...To remember, friend...For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom." 271)
How does the author weigh the importance and risks of memory in highlighting Raymond White and his collection of records of runaway slaves? ("Reaching in, I found an assortment of paper, correspondences with fugitives...In the wrong hands, countless agents would be exposed." 223)
What is the price of remembering? ("There is a reason we forget. And those of us who remember, well, it is hard on us. It exhausts us. Even today, I could only do this with the aid of my brothers." Harriet to Hiram, 305).
How do we remember? ("I stopped here and watched, for though the moment was conjured up by me, I wanted to savor it, but when I tried, I saw them begin to fade from me, fade like mortal life and mortal memory, and I knew that I must keep telling the story." 395)
20. What was particularly hard to read? (For me, the story of Benjamin Rush saying that blacks were immune to a fever in Philadelphia (236), especially since recently I heard there was a rumor that blacks couldn't contract COVID, leading who knows how many to fail to take precautions.)
21. How succinctly does Hiram describe structural racism? ("I had never seen either Simpson. But I could not help but imagine the son here among the Northern Quality presenting himself as a man of society, a man of good breeding, reputable connections, and respectable business. But shut away in that foot-locker was his unwashed life -- the proof of a great crime, evidence of his membership in the dark society that underwrote this opulent home, which was, itself, built upon a sprawling grave, in the heart of this alleged slaveless city." 240)
22. Were you aware that the abolitionist movement had so many layers to it? Public meetings existed above the Underground (Raymond White) which existed above the work of people like Corrine Quinn?
23. What did you make of the Convention by the Canada border and the tents of people advocating for freedom for blacks, women, Native Americans, children... What conclusions does Hiram make? ("It occurred to me that an examination of the Task revealed not just those evils particular to Virginia, to my old world, but the great need for a new one entirely." 251)
24. Did Harriet have a vision of the Civil War? If so, what does that mean? ("And then the ash rose with the wind, until it formed itself into a whole company of black men in blue, black men with rifles upon their shoulders...In the eyes of this army assembled before me, I beheld the humiliation of slavery burning like fire...Below we saw the great range of our shackled country, its crops, rooted in flesh and watered with blood. And a song rose up among these men...as they stood in ranks, and the song was that old feeling put to hymn, and on my sign we fell down upon this sinful country, and our battle-cry was as mighty as a great river conducted through a high and narrow valley." 275)
25. Does Hiram make excuses for his father's behavior? ("He was as ill-prepared for repentance as Maynard was for mastery. His world -- the world of Virginia -- was built on a foundation of lies. To collapse them all right then and there, at his age, might well have killed him." 337).
26. What does Sophia mean at the end? ("We are what we always were...Underground." 403)
27. Why couldn't they find Hiram's mom? Would finding her have meant he wouldn't have had the powers of deep memory in order to Conduct Thena?
28. When is this going to be a movie? :)
So nice to see you guys last night. There was a lot to dig into with this book! Thank you for pointing out the SuperHero-like storyline -- and the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes Black Panther for Marvel! We were drawn into this story by its suspense, so some of us were left wanting more at the ending. However, we also commented that the author spends more pages on the emotional violence of the culture than the physical violence, and so perhaps the separation of mother and child was the greatest violence the main character could know... We were fascinated by the idea of the Conduction and were surprised to hear that it is also featured in the 2019 movie "Harriet". Perhaps something to screen this weekend?
For next month, let's read Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I'm not sure where or when we'll be meeting...so stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy the book!
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The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.