It’s incredibly infrequent for me to reread a book these days, after all, there are so many out there that I want to enjoy, and so precious little time. However, in this instance it felt like a special assignment, with it’s own reward outside of the mere enjoyment of the reading itself. The local bookmonger, Haight Street’s The Booksmith, holds a bimonthly event, the “Bookswap.” It’s a fantasticly fun time: about 30 or so people will meet up, over drinks and catered food, with a book in hand, selected from their collections based on the night’s theme. Then, splitting into groups of 5 or 6, they will discuss the book they brought, and after 20 minutes or so, will shuffle around into new groups and repeat the process. At the end, a big white-elephant exchange occurs, with everyone going home with a new book.
The upcoming theme is “Flashback,” where, if you are a longtime Bookswap attendee (I’m not), you may bring one of your favorite books you received at a previous meeting, or, in general, you can bring a book having to do with time travel in some regard, or a book that you read a long, long time ago. Pretty open, yes. So, Flight to Canada: Ishmael Reed’s raucous satire about the American South during the Civil War, replete with the completely anachronous inclusion of airplanes, television, and Reed’s own 70’s-style Black Postmodernism, which indeed I read a (fairly) long time ago, presented itself as the perfect choice. It is also short enough to have reread with little time following the announcement of the Bookswap’s theme, and short enough also to dissuade those who fear longer titles from avoiding grabbing it during the white elephant.
The novel focuses on Raven Quickskill, a runaway slave trying to, with money earned from having his poetry published, catch a flight to Canada. Naturally, trouble ensues, as his former master, the ludicrously decadent Arthur Swille, cannot abide his departure and sends some slavecatchers on his tail. Along the way, Raven encounters several other runaways, as well as a variety of allegorically defined characters, who represent various contemporaneous ideologies regarding race, the war, and the place of literature as a means of defining selfhood. There are cameos by Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others, each in their own hilarious vignettes. Reed does a good job in balancing his barbs among both whites and blacks living in the States, as well as Native Americans and Europeans.
Ultimately, the character who wins out at the end of the novel is Uncle Robin, a “domesticated” house-slave who Arthur Swille puts in charge of much of his plantation’s operations. Upon Swille’s death, it is revealed that Robin has sneakily altered Swille’s will such that the majority of the estate is left to him. Less fortunate are the rowdy, upstart younger generation of slaves, who in spite of winning their freedom, receive much hardship along the way. Without wishing to supply too much speculation, it is curious to wonder whether Reed saw himself in this scenario. He gained success by participating in the white man’s world: academia (he taught at Cal for 30 years), compliance, negotiation, as opposed to many of the radical black youth of the 70s, namely the Oakland-based Black Panthers, and related groups. The conflation of past and present seems particularly apt to fit this interpretation. Regardless of such extrapolations, Flight to Canada remains a joy to read, full of wit and poignant historical observation. I trust that, granted I can sell it well enough, it will be quite the hot commodity at the Bookswap.
Pros: fun, humorous read, with enough historical commentary to make it feel significant as a work of social literature as well
Cons: sometimes the characters are not completely fleshed out, and serve more as a vehicle for various ideas
Recommended for: fans of literary postmodernism, alternate-histories, the Civil War, race, the potential of linguistics to be a transformative experience