Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.
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Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome to the last discussion day at Camp ToB 2019! It’s been a great summer of rewarding reads and conversation. Whether we loved a book or didn’t feel the click, getting to talk about each title with everyone stretched our minds a little further, and that’s always a good, good thing. We hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as we did. And please remember to sweep up any candy wrappers from under your bunk.
So, we’ve reached the end of our quest. After endless bloodshed and complicated set pieces, Tracker found the boy (multiple times), joined forces with previous enemies (beware the lightning bird), lost friends to tragic ends (alas, poor not-giant), became rivals with prior friends (alas, poor Leopard!), and now remains to rot in his prison cell. For our final discussion of the summer we’re joined today by California native Rachelle Hays-Carter Bittancourt to discuss Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s second half. Rachelle, please introduce yourself to Camp ToB.
Rachelle Hays-Carter Bittancourt: Rachelle Hays-Carter Bittancourt here—yes, it is quite a mouthful, but my students call me Mrs. B. Not too long ago I moved back to the USA from time abroad and landed in my hometown of Lodi, Calif.
For the last 40-plus years my life has been about teaching high school and college English, serving God, and reading voraciously. I fell in love with the ToB long, long ago when it first began; I pulled for Cloud Atlas from the beginning. Since then, I have worked on creating ToBs in schools where I work—I love it/them and am thrilled with the extensions that have grown from the original.
Rosecrans: That’s terrific all around. So, to get started, we had a lengthy discussion last week, going through the first half of the novel, about violence, genre, gender, not to mention the book’s complexity and non-transparency. Before even getting into particulars, how did this novel land with you by the time you finished?
Rachelle Hays-Carter Bittancourt: I loved it from the beginning. Since my introduction to African literature many years ago, I have loved African tales, parables, stories—and their inclusiveness. I believe it was Chinua Achebe who said that one of the brilliances of the African tale was how the narrator brought the reader into a “tribe” as a child to whom it is telling a story. The first half was that for me, especially in light of accepted cultural behaviors—and after I bought into the language and accepted the rules of the culture, it owned me. I approached the end with hesitation, knowing or at least believing the story was headed for disaster. As I had grown to care for the characters, especially Tracker, I feared for what was coming. I got slower and slower in my reading so I didn’t have to reach the end.
Rosecrans: Talk to me a little about worked best for you, and what didn’t work so well?
Rachelle: For most of the second half I was sold on the story and wanted to know more about the boy, so following the quest kept my attention. The opacity of the boy’s identity was an ingenious way to move the novel.
Rosecrans: Let me jump in and say I have to agree with you, even when I found it frustrating (I’ll get to that in a moment). We never really meet the boy, but we sort of see him changing, malformed by years of capture by some of the very worst monsters I’ve been required by a book to imagine.
Rachelle: In addition, the intertextuality of the novel began to assert itself in my head. Glimpses of The Wizard of Oz and who was behind the curtain pulling the strings. Brave New World with the servants in Dolingo. Heart of Darkness with the man screaming “what a horror” and the search for Kurtz mirrored in the search for the boy. The film Snowpiercer when the children in Dolingo were incorporated into the mechanisms of the trees. The ongoing fellowship (of the rings) as Tracker and others sought to complete the quest—and so many others. When we can relate to something so unrelatable, it’s thrilling, it keeps your attention.
Rosecrans: That’s a good point. Were those comparisons occurring to you as you read, or in hindsight? When you read a novel, are you looking to find references?
Rachelle: Well, I believe what Shakespeare said about nothing new under the sun, and that was the 16th century. Rarely do we find anything that has not been influenced by the past, though I will say there were times when I was surprised by this novel. While there are certainly elements of intertextuality, it has its own moments, at least from my perspective— understanding that each person’s interaction is different (postmodernism did that for us).
Rosecrans: I’ll say that my interaction with this book was pretty toasted by the end, even when I read it a second time and knew what was coming. I just didn’t care anymore. My patience was flayed, and the violence, as feared, had started to seem pornographic. Plus there was so much hemming and hawing and misdirection, too much complaining about the value of the quest, too much indirect description of events that were pivotal—e.g., the end chapters’ attack on Tracker’s new family, or Leopard’s changing loyalties—that we basically had to process through hints. Perhaps we’ll get insight in later books in the series, but at this point I’m not sure I’ll read them.
Rachelle: What worked least for me was the Hollywood-ness of it. It many ways I felt like I was reading a script: the intense description of movement, of venue, of exactly what characters were doing in the midst of these battles. For me, it was a distraction, I wanted the story to move on; I didn’t care where Tracker’s hands were in relation to the axes.
Rosecrans: I hear you. Speaking of the Hollywood-ness, we know it’s being adapted by Michael B. Jordan for some kind of screen version. Will you watch it when it comes out?
Rachelle: I will see it, I adore film, but I’ll be glad I read it first. I think there are elements of the plot that are hard to follow, so the boost of having read the novel will be useful. I see this as a film in the model of Black Panther, but obviously with a broad set of twists. If we had more time it would be interesting to talk about the LGBTQ+ community’s potential reaction to this novel and/or film.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard. As Tracker follows the boy’s scent, he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? And why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Rosecrans: For sure. Also, has anyone seen the book reviewed or discussed in African newspapers or websites? I haven’t found anything, but I’d love to be directed if the Commentariat has any ideas.
Rachelle, as an English teacher, how would you teach this book?
Rachelle: I probably wouldn’t teach it in high school, for obvious reasons, but I would to my college students. Language would be my first focus, maybe even my primary focus, for reasons already discussed, followed by what we’ve looked at here: gender, African tribal elements, sexuality, and the importance of an educated mind in order to relate to much of the novel’s subtleties. Of course, recognizing that the educated mind doesn’t always happen in a classroom.
Rosecrans: We talked at length last week in the discussion and the comments about the book’s masculinity. In the second half, what did you think of the female characters’ development? Were Sogolon and the King Sister and Bunshi interesting?
Rachelle: Well, the female characters were certainly not feminine. You are right to say such a masculine book, but he also wrote the female characters as though they were men. There were no gentle sensitivities to the female body. Women were never suggested to “stay behind” and be safe. The woman’s role was equal to the man’s except she didn’t play key parts. For short periods of time, they were important and Sogolon was brought back at the end, but only cursorily.
Rosecrans: As cited last week, James has suggested the next volume of the series will be from Sogolon’s point of view.
Rachelle: For me, the bulk of the novel was the jaunty, masculine interaction of the Fellowship. And I was intrigued at the idea of the monarchy’s lineage carrying through the King Sister’s son (much like Biblical Moses).
Rosecrans: “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism,” James said earlier this year. “It is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.” It’s a good point, but by the end I found it a bit empty. Looking back on it, I found this book a gory grind that often didn’t require thinking so much as puzzle-solving—and the solutions to those puzzles were rarely rewards. Still, reading it twice gave me a love for the book, but is my mind simply justifying the hours? I’m not sure. For you, was the novel worth the effort?
Rachelle: Absolutely worth it. Early in Camp, one of the campers said about another book she stopped battling with the story and just read it. It was great advice for getting me into it and going on, especially when it began to feel like it was the prewriting of a movie script. When James showed us his depth of understanding of narrative with his intertextuality, I knew I was in love, and I could grapple with the gore and the gruesome sexual images after I’d encountered hints of familiarity. It is definitely a “go back and reread” for me.
Rosecrans: Final question: Did you read American Spy, this month’s first novel? If so, which way are you going to vote?
Rachelle: I read the entire summer list and thought, by far, Black Leopard, Red Wolf was the most important book. It certainly wasn’t a beach read. In fact, I tried to read it at the beach but couldn’t. I read most of it sitting at a table with pens, pencils, highlighters, and a notebook, and not just because I was going to write commentary. There is a lastingness to this novel that broke barriers, at least for me. (Perhaps others have encountered more works like this novel, I know we have some avid readers.) While American Spy had its merits, there is no comparison for me. I recognize that many of our readers have commented on the novel’s violence, but it is a reflection, albeit an excessive one, of our times. Mostly, this book falls into its own category or genre. I would not be surprised if it eventually becomes modern canon. Knowing what I know now, I’m eager to start it again, so I will be ready for number two.
Rosecrans: Thanks, Rachelle! Readers, let us know in the comments what you think.
Now, on to the voting. Use the form below to cast your vote by Friday, Aug. 30 at midnight (ET) for which of our two August books you think should head to the summer finale.
We’ll announce our August finalist on Saturday, when we’ll also open our final summer poll so you can decide which of our summer reads is going to the 2020 Tournament of Books. That poll closes next Tuesday, and then we’ll see you back here on Wednesday, Sept. 4 to announce our summer champion.
UPDATE: And we have our August winner: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson! Now it's time to vote for which of our summer finalists you want to see in the 2020 Tournament of Books. Cast your vote in the form below by Tuesday, Sept. 3 at midnight (ET) .
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The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar
- June 5: Bowlaway through page 172
- June 12: Bowlaway to the end
- June 19: Daisy Jones & the Six through page 151 (finish “The Numbers Tour” section)
- June 26: Daisy Jones & the Six to the end
- July 3: VACATION
- July 10: Lost Children Archive through page 186 (finish part 1, or chapter 11 on audio)
- July 17: Lost Children Archive to the end
- July 24: Trust Exercise through page 131 (finish part 1, or chapter 5 on audio)
- July 31: Trust Exercise to the end
- Aug. 7: American Spy through page 141 (finish chapter 12, or chapter 13 on audio)
- Aug. 14: American Spy to the end
- Aug. 21: Black Leopard, Red Wolf through page 243 (finish chapter 2)
- Aug. 28: Black Leopard, Red Wolf to the end
- Sept. 4: Announce summer champion