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Taking a look at ‘Girl in Black and White,’ ‘The Book of Daniel,’ and ‘A Fine Orange Bucket’

Illustrations by Jill Finsen

Reframing history

When a photograph is used for political purpose, argues Jessie Morgan-Owens in her new book, the subject becomes appropriated as an object,” as happened to Mary Mildred Williams, a 7-year-old girl whose family was released from slavery, and whose photograph was used to support the anti-slavery movement. “Girl in Black and White” (W.W. Norton) is a story, in large part, about silence. There’s little record of Williams’s life, none of her own words in archives, but, as a white-passing little girl, she was used by Massachusetts governor Charles Sumner to increase support for the abolitionist cause, trying to gain “sympathy of like to like,” and thereby perpetuating “the racial hierarchy that made slavery possible in the first place.” With verve and rigor, Morgan-Owens explores the life of Williams, the relationship between photographs, race, and politics, and looks at the way sexual slavery was not discussed nor written about, leaving holes in archives and stories untold. Mary’s “silence remains, even now, a cipher of nuance and depth,” Morgan-Owens writes. “Hers is the silence of the private woman, the silence of old photographs ... the silence of the oppressed, the silence of those who find a way through oppression, and the silence wrapped in the archive, ready to be given the honor of a hearing.” Morgan-Owens will discuss the book on Tuesday at the American Antiquarian Society; on Wednesday at the Massachusetts Historical Society; and on Thursday at Longfellow House.


Drawn lines

Aaron Smith’s latest collection of poetry, “The Book of Daniel” (University of Pittsburgh) seethes with tension, anger, unease. Smith, who teaches creative writing at Lesley, writes, often with wry humor, of celebrity (Nicole Kidman, Prince, Anne Sexton, Daniel Craig all make cameos), poetry, desire, and death; of the battle between fight and resignation, anger and exhaustion; and of being gay, the rage directed at him, and the rage directed out. “No more being peaceful,” he writes. “This queer has been tired his whole life.” His lines about the place where fear and desire intersect (which, in some ways, is everywhere) are frank and arresting. He looks at dying head cocked: In “Delayed Elegy” he writes, “I want to know if you were afraid / your neck would snap / before it snapped, before / the steel pitched back / and crushed you. / What went through/your head: Basement kiss? Scrap / of laughter? Scrape / of kitchen plate?” A hardness is balanced by moments of gutting tenderness, particularly in poems addressing his mother and her illness. Of life’s indignities, pain, cruelty, loss, “there’s nothing you can do about that but live with it . . . At the end of the day, despite everything, you live with it.”


Beyond the pail

The ocean-going adventures of a big orange bucket is the focus of Brooksville, Maine-based writer Charlotte Crowder’s new picture book, “A Fine Orange Bucket” (Country). A lobsterman named Percy heads to Hamilton Marine to buy pot warp and foulies, engine oil, shackles and turnbuckles. He spots the titular bucket and brings it aboard. During a storm, it’s washed to sea, jammed between two rocks, and “at high moon tides, the waves broke over its rim and filled with with seaweed and saltwater.” A family sailing finds it, and a child pulls it from its pinch between the rocks and the bucket continues on its journey. The illustrations of artist Jill Finsen – who spends her summers painting in Maine and on the Cape – are loose, rich, and colorful, suggesting the action and movement of light and life on and near water. The book is a deeply New England story, including the glossary at the end of the book noting different nautical and ocean-based words and terms.


Coming Out

“They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears” by Johannes Anyuru, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel (Two Lines)

“Head of the Hollow” by Malcolm Tariq (Graywolf)

“The Great Pretender” by Susannah Cahalan (Grand Central)

Pick of the Week

Chrysler Szarlan at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass, recommends “Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje: “With his usual virtuosity, master storyteller Michael Ondaatje delivers a mysterious, shimmering new coming-of-age novel, the story of two teenagers abandoned by their enigmatic parents in post-war London. Balancing poignancy with surprising comic touches, Warlight is a stellar addition to the Ondaatje canon.”