Review: Something Wonderful

When I was growing up, my family lived out in the country on a cattle ranch, surrounded by luxurious acres of rolling hills, creek beds lined with ancient trees, and an endless chorus of katydids and bullfrogs that became the background music of our childhood. Perhaps the greatest thing about where we grew up, though, was the fact that our grandparents lived a half mile away — a measly 90-second jaunt down the gravel road on our bikes, refuge from our mother’s chore list in the summertime months.

It was there, in Grandma Simon’s sunken living room — replete with faux-walnut wood paneling and innumerable picture frames that sorely needed dusting — that I came to know (*dramatic pause*) the the-uh-tuh.

Oklahoma! strikes me as the first musical she introduced my sister and me to, but that could just be the fuzzy recollection of twenty-some years gone by. We reenacted Curley’s opening number (“Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day!”) and belted “Oooooooooooooooooooo-klahoma!” at the top of our lungs, most likely whilst racing back home on our be-streamered bicycles.

Grandma showed us The Sound of Music and The King and I and Carousel and South Pacific — I’m pretty sure my sister sang about washing a man outta her hair every time she showered for months after. Rodgers and Hammerstein became the sort of names my sister — who later became a theater major and remains invested in theatrical work to this day — uttered with the reverence one might reserve for May Crowning at church. We lived and breathed musicals during the summer months, when that dratted school couldn’t occupy all of our Grandma-visiting hours.

All this is to say: when I had the opportunity to read Todd Purdum’s newly released biography about the musical gods themselves, titled Something Wonderful, I jumped. And then I dragged my feet a bit, because a year since Grandma’s passing felt too soon to be reading something that reminded me of moments we had shared and cherished so much. When I finally began reading, though, I was thrown into a nostalgic world of musical and theatrical bliss, and filled with a longing to watch the film adaptations of the stories my childhood was steeped in.

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Something Wonderful is, through my rose-tinged perspective, truly something darling. Purdum explores the relationship between the composer and lyricist, starting well before the two ever began collaborating and following their paths to the end. This work is an exhaustive look at the achievements (and failures) of the artists’ lives, no mean feat, to be sure. Purdum takes readers on a tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creative works, starting at the beginning and working his way — albeit slowly — to the bittersweet success of The Sound of Music, which surely remains one of the most widely-known and beloved musicals of all time.

Although the work lacked the fluid telling I’ve come to love in narrative nonfiction (there was so. much. detail.), I was compelled by Purdum’s telling, often chuckling or snorting in disbelief or shedding a tear or two at some tragedy or another. Of course, some of this emotional response is undoubtedly connected to my own attached memories; but I ultimately feel that Purdum captured an essence of life in his book.

The thing about works such as Something Wonderful: I always pick up a nugget or two of historical import that come as an absolute surprise and charm me to bits. In this case, Purdum sprinkles in references about actors and actresses that tried for parts in the iconic duo’s Broadway productions, but weren’t selected — names that stand out today as some of the best-known thespians of the 20th Century. (I won’t spoil the fun for you, readers.) These little surprises managed to lighten some of the more tedious portions of the biography — sections in which name-dropping is exhaustive but means nothing to the moderate theater-lover such as myself.

Something Wonderful is a delightful history of two of the greatest theatrical contributors of all time. For readers with an interest in live productions or Broadway, I can’t recommend this book enough. For the moderate enthusiast — proceed for nostalgia’s sake, but keep another book on hand to temper the reading.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with my grandma’s homemade brownie recipe and Julie Andrews’ Austrian foray.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Henry Holt Books sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are my own and were not influenced in any way by the publisher or author.

Review: Barracoon

I recently had the opportunity to become a Bookstagram/blogging partner with Harper Books (yippee!) and jumped at the chance to receive hard copies of to-be-released titles for review. One of the first titles I snagged: Barracoon, written nearly a century ago by the literary goddess Zora Neale Hurston.

Barracoon is an anomaly: as a biographical work about Kossola “Cudjo” Lewis, one of the last living “imports” of the Clotilda, which brought more than one hundred slaves to the United States in 1860, the work documents the life of an African person who was sold into slavery by his own countrymen and endured years of servitude in America before becoming a freed man once again. As the editors of this work note, Hurston’s sketch of Cudjo’s life is a rarity among slave narratives of men and women who were born into slavery in the U.S. Few works exist that detail the experiences of an individual who was stripped of his homeland prior to being stripped of his most fundamental human rights.

Written in vernacular and broken into a handful of sections that start with Cudjo’s experiences in “Afficky” and end with his lonely existence as a freed man in Plateau (“African Town”), Alabama, Barracoon isn’t a terribly lengthy narrative but it’s both utterly despairing and surprisingly uplifting in its conveyance. I was surprised by how little the narrative focused on Cudjo’s six and a half years in slavery; rather, much of the work dealt with the circumstances surrounding his capture, his commute to America, and the nature of his life after his emancipation. One of the most striking components of the story is his relentless longing to return to his homeland — I grieved for the man who had been removed from all that he knew and was never able to return again.

A few particular quotes resonated with me; I found myself returning to passages I’d highlighted and contemplating on Cudjo’s repeated vocalizations of his frustration at having been hauled away to a foreign land, made to do the bidding of another man while living at subhuman levels, and then freed — unable to build a home in the unfamiliar land, unable to return to the home he loved, a stranger with his feet in one world and his heart in another.

Upon his arrival in America, and departure from the ship once the masters had divvied up their bounty:

“We very sorry to be parted from on ‘nother. We cry for home. We took away from our people. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ‘nother. Derefore we cry. We cain help but cry.”

The following passages particularly capture the conundrum of non-natives in a foreign land and the urgent requisite to shed customs in order to be re-cast as members of their new society:

“When we at de plantation on Sunday we so glad we ain’ gotee no work to do. So we dance lak in de Afficky soil. De American colored folks, you unnerstand me, dey say we savage and den dey laugh at us and doan come say nothin’ to us. But Free George, you unnerstand me, he a colored man doan belong to nobody. . . . Free George, he come to us and tell us not to dance on Sunday. Den he tell us whut Sunday is. We doan know whut it is before. Nobody in Afficky soil doan tell us ’bout no Sunday. Den we doan dance no mo’ on de Sunday.”

And on the subject of names:

“In de Afficky we gotee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names. One for de son, you unnerstand me, and den one for de father. Derefo’ I put de name of my father O-lo-loo-ay to my name. But it too long for de people to call it. It too crooked lak Kossula. So dey call me Cudjo Lewis.

“So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. one name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call.”

I won’t assume to know or understand the immigrant experience (and absolutely recognize that Cudjo, by no means, falls into what one might consider a “typical” immigrant mold), but I am struck by the sheer loneliness and longing that emerges in narratives of displaced peoples. Cudjo’s desire to be back among his native people and in the land that he was raised in is achingly present in Barracoon, only offset by the small joys he takes in the community built by Africans in southern Alabama in the late 1800s.

A couple of gripes: I wish that the endnotes had been made footnotes, as I didn’t like flipping to the back of the book multiple times each chapter. I also wish that there had been . . . more? . . . to Cudjo’s narrative; as it was, the bulk of the text is devoted to an extensive introduction that deals with claims of plagiarism and literary criticism while the tail end is a thorough appendix with stories, footnotes, and resources. (Obviously, I recognize that this isn’t something that can be changed, as the author has long been deceased.) I also feel that the work would have benefited from the inclusion of some photos, maps, or other illustrations.

Overall: 4/5 stars. This work is an essential piece of literature in the realm of slave narratives and absolutely has a vital place in the classrooms of both high schools and collegiate institutions.