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Hummingbird House

Henley, Patricia

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

North American midwife, Kate Banner, has been living and working in Nicaragua for 14 years and after losing a patient following a difficult birth (the terrified young woman gives birth in the bottom of a swamped wooden boat), Kate decides to return home. She first stops in Guatemala to see old friends and instead meets (and eventually falls in love with) a priest from New Orleans and his household, including a mute street child, Marta, and a Mayan woman who becomes a political activist in search of her husband.

Staying longer in Guatemala than she had planned, Kate's life becomes deeply intertwined with theirs. She ends up making a home with a wide assortment of people in "Hummingbird House," a place where mothers and children come for medical help ["children with emphysema who since birth have breathed in woodsmoke from the indoor cooking fires. . . . We deliver babies. Los milagros. We scold the mothers about too much sugar, too much soda pop. . . . We see with quite clear eyes the war beneath the wars. If you pass this story along, make sure you get it straight. . . Do not walk away in sorrow. Do not be consoled" (326).]

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The Conjure Man Dies

Fisher, Rudolph

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The well-known and mysterious "psychist" and former African king, N. Frimbo, is found dead one night in his chair at the conjure table. What appears to be a murder is investigated by Detective Perry Dart of the Harlem police force and Dr. John Archer, his friend. Archer had been the physician summoned by Frimbo’s clients when one of them found he was speaking to a dead man.

The plot becomes more complex when Frimbo’s corpse disappears and returns as Frimbo, living. Declaring that he has control over his mind to such an extent that he can return from the dead, Frimbo nevertheless was attacked by someone for some reason and the detective and doctor proceed to find out who and why.

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Mama Day

Naylor, Gloria

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A story with roots in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Mama Day recounts the lives of Miranda, "Mama" Day, her sister Abigail, Abigail's grown granddaughter, Ophelia (Cocoa), and her love affair and marriage to George. Told in the voice of George (from the grave), Cocoa's voice, and an omniscient narrator's voice, the novel explores the tragic past of Mama Day's forebears as well as the present in which Mama Day functions as healer and wise woman of the small community just off the coast of Georgia.

Among other things, Mama Day helps Bernice heal from misuse of fertility drugs and helps her conceive a baby through a combination of natural medicine and "helping nature out." Cocoa and George court in New York, marry, and eventually visit Willow Springs during which time the obsessively jealous Ruby poisons Cocoa with nightshade and works a spell on her that causes her to come quite near death.

A powerful storm strands George and Cocoa in Willow Springs when the bridge goes out. George cannot believe the cause of Cocoa's illness and the means of her cure and dies in the process of trying to help her. His sacrifice and Mama Day's healing powers combine to effect Cocoa's healing. The novel is constructed as a conversation between George's spirit and Cocoa (and a narrator), looking back years after the event actually took place.

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Tracks

Erdrich, Louise

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Set in the 1920s, Tracks is the chronicle of the Anishinabe community in North Dakota and the struggle for land and the continuance of their tradition and beliefs that undergird the heterogeneity of their tribal society in the face of shifting U.S. policies. Told in the counterpointing voices of Nanapush, a tribal elder, and Pauline Puyat, a mixed-blood member of the community, the novel describes the intertwining lives of Fleur Pillager, Nanapush, Pauline, and their families; the horrible losses from epidemics, as well as the powerful love circulating among the community, and their resistance to cultural and political domination.

While these issues occupy much of the story, Pauline’s decline into an excessive and destructive religious asceticism is also a central part of the plot. Pauline’s internalized racism (she "would not speak our language" [p.14]) takes its shape in her hatred of her own body and her fascination with death ("I handled the dead until the cold feel of their skin was a comfort, until I no longer bothered to bathe once I left the cabin but touched others with the same hands, passed death on" [p. 6]). She ends up in a convent inventing new ways to torture herself as she listens to Jesus tell her she is not really Indian.

In contradistinction to Pauline are Nanapush and Fleur, who resist dominance and claim their identities in magnificent ways. In one scene, Nanapush refuses to allow a doctor to treat his granddaughter’s severely frostbitten foot with amputation, knowing that "saving [her] the doctor’s way would kill [her]." Nanapush nurses her himself, saving the foot and telling her stories as a way to walk her through the pain of healing.

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Mourning Song

Harjo, Joy

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

This is a prose poem told in the voice of a homeless person who is battling with grief and loneliness ("the houseguest who eats everything and refuses to leave") and hoping for good weather. The speaker of the poem, while dealing with the heaviness of grief and loneliness, also makes "a song for bad weather so we can stand together under our leaking roof, and make a terrible music with our wise and ragged bones."

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Northern Lights

Harjo, Joy

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

A Native American who has been destroyed by his participation in the Vietnam war and alcoholism tells the speaker of the poem about his healing. "Whirling Soldier" had seen the apparition of his cousin Ralph in "the gook rattling the bush" nearby and had believed that "each shot [he fired] rigged his spine to hell." The difficulty of reconciling willful killing with the Native American belief in the connectedness of all life drives Whirling Soldier to alcohol and heroin.

The poem tells of his descent into hell and his final drunken episode, after which "a spirit who had never been a stranger but a relative he’d never met" speaks and blesses him. At the end of the poem, the Northern Lights appear, "shimmering relatives returned from the war, dancing in the skies all around us."

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Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

South African lawyer and leading member of the ANC (African National Congress) during the tumultuous 70s and 80s, lost an arm, sight in one eye, and suffered hearing loss and diminished use of his legs when the bomb planted in his car exploded on April 7, 1988. This book chronicles the accident, his long recovery in a hospital and rehabilitation unit, and the process of re-entering life and politics after such a harrowing experience.

Sachs connects his personal recovery with the emergence of an apartheid-free South Africa and tells his individual story within the context of political struggle. The 2000 edition includes a forward by Desmond Tutu, an introduction by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and a new epilogue by Sachs.

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A Place to Stand

Baca, Jimmy Santiago

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Born in New Mexico, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca recounts his long saga of imprisonment, beginning in childhood and stretching into adulthood. Throughout this beautifully written memoir, Baca describes his experiences in and outside of prison, and how he moved from being a victim of the system to a survivor through the written word.

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Dear World

Allen, Paula Gunn

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

In this poem, the speaker’s mother has lupus [systemic lupus erythematosis], a "disease / of self-attack" where, for example, when the police arrive at a mugging, "they beat up on you / instead of on your attackers." The speaker goes on to reflect on the logic of such an illness residing in the body of "A halfbreed woman" who, for historical reasons, "can hardly do anything else / but attack herself." Being Indian and white, the speaker says, "cancel each other out. / Leaving no one in the place," which would be fine except that, being a woman, she must perform caring duties regardless of her circumstance. The speaker describes her mother’s physical pain, her ". . . eyes burn, / they tear themselves apart . . . / her joints swell to the point / of explosion, eruption," concluding with the observation that "when volatile substances are intertwined, / when irreconcilable opposites meet, / the crucible and its contents vaporize."

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Stones for Ibarra

Doerr, Harriet

Last Updated: Dec-12-2006
Annotated by:
Taylor, Nancy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Californians Sara and Richard Everton move to Ibarra, a village in central Mexico, where Richard plans to reopen the copper mine his grandfather had worked before the Revolution of 1910. Six months after arriving, Richard learns he has leukemia. Their Ibarra neighbors offer home remedies, for they have a "companionship with death": "daily and without surprise," the people of Ibarra meet "their individual dooms . . . [and accept] as inevitable the hail on the ripe corn, the vultures at the heart of the starved cow, the stillborn child." Creating stories about the villagers, Sara gives them happy endings, the kind she wants for Richard's story. After his death, in a California hospital, Sara returns to Ibarra, and the villagers bring stones to mark their remembrance of Richard.

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