Priscilla Kipp

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Sam Heughan, known to legions of fans as Jamie Fraser in the popular TV show based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, recently decided it was time to walk the rigorous West Highland Way in Scotland, a long-distance hiking trail that runs from north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. He wanted a solitary challenge and a pause in the acting career he has worked tirelessly at, and packing 96 miles into five days seemed like it would provide the right combination of endurance and introspection. In his remarkable, thought-provoking memoir, Waypoints: My Scottish Journey, he welcomes readers along for the journey.

Before Heughan stepped out the door onto the West Highland Way, he was a runner, not a walker. Marathons, yes; walking slowly, not his thing. His camping and hiking experiences were limited; he even thought hiking poles were “cumbersome” and almost threw them away once he hit the trail. His overstuffed rucksack, complete with whiskey and cigars, weighed him down. The rain in late October almost ruined him on the second day, and he soon chose comfortable wayside inns over his tent. But he was nearing his 40th birthday (making him the same age as the Way) and, despite these challenges, felt it was simply time he got this done.

Bracketing Heughan’s journey is an account of his visit to his dying father in faraway British Columbia, Canada. The man was a stranger who abandoned his family long ago, but Heughan and his brother felt nonetheless compelled to offer a goodbye. Once they arrived, Heughan was stunned to learn that his father had been following his acting career all along. He recorded their visit on his phone, but later, back on the set of “Outlander,” the phone vanished. It was, he writes, “a fitting epitaph.”

The award-winning actor, author, philanthropist and entrepreneur offers plenty of details of his walk to Fort William, including a daunting hike up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. Along the way, Heughan has a clear, precise and entertaining style. He is a funny man, and his encounters with roaming sheep, other hikers and clusters of mushrooms are wonderfully comic. 

If Waypoints were merely about Heughan’s walk, it would be delightful, instructive and enticing. But this is a memoir, after all, and it is his reflection on his life and work, interspersed with the challenges and discoveries of the Way, that lend his story heft and grit.

“Outlander” star Sam Heughan’s reflections on his life and work add heft and grit to his memoir about walking the West Highland Way in Scotland.
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When award-winning British journalist Simon Parkin (A Game of Birds and Wolves) dug through the National Archives in London looking for a story idea, he literally found one: A newspaper called The Camp was mistakenly folded between some pages. Produced by German and Austrian internees at a camp for “enemy aliens” during World War II, the newspaper revealed details about a time and place discreetly buried within a shameful chapter of England’s fight against the Nazis. The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp brings to light a truly extraordinary example of humanity at its best and worst in a country at war, sometimes with itself.

With copious and often heart-wrenching detail, Parkin brings this interlude back to life through the experiences of those imprisoned in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man and their thwarted yet persistent rescuers. In 1938, Peter Fleischmann, a Jewish teenager thought to be an orphan, escaped Berlin via the legendary Kindertransport train and landed in England. Then, in 1940, he was arrested. Suspected of (but never charged with) being a Nazi spy, he was released, then arrested again, as British fears about refugees intensified. Thousands of people, young and old, Jews and Nazi sympathizers alike, were deported or imprisoned in camps on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. 

In Hutchinson camp, the arts were encouraged as an antidote to anxiety and despair, enabling imprisoned painters, composers, journalists, scholars, poets, sculptors and musicians to create “Hutchinson University.” There, Fleischmann flourished. He and many others—such as his mentor, Dadaist pioneer Kurt Schwitters—would later excel in their fields.

Justice seekers like Bertha Bracey of the Germany Emergency Committee kept pressure on the government to end the misbegotten idea of mass internment, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill defended it as a necessary wartime protection. “Most regrettable and deplorable things have happened,” Sir John Anderson said in an address to Parliament in 1940. It was as close as England ever came to an apology.

In addition to the prison newspaper, Parkin’s primary sources include firsthand accounts of the tragic sinking of the SS Andora Star, an ill-equipped former cruise ship that deported hundreds of “enemy aliens” to Canada and was attacked by a German U-boat, and interviews with internees’ friends and descendants. It is a cautionary yet inspiring tale, one that bears remembering.

Simon Parkin brings the shameful history of British internment camps during World War II to life in The Island of Extraordinary Captives.
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Angelina Grimke and her sister Sarah were the white daughters of South Carolina slaveholder John Faucheraud Grimke and his cruel wife, Polly. When the sisters fled the South and, as Quakers, sought redemption for their family’s racist ways, they became celebrated 19th-century abolitionists and women’s rights activists, blazing a trail through the turbulent antebellum Northeast with speeches, writings and protests against America’s “original sin” of slavery. This story looms large in the popular American imagination, but in The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, Tufts University historian Kerri K. Greenidge reveals a counternarrative—one of a complex, conflicted Black and white Grimke family that was often at odds with their country, their own progeny and themselves.

Following the Civil War, white mobs in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York City torched Black homes and churches, lynching people with impunity as they fought to keep the institution of slavery alive. Greenidge unflinchingly relays the horrors that Black Americans endured before the Civil War and during the days of Reconstruction. She also reveals that, during this latter period, the Grimke sisters overlooked their own Black nephews until the boys’ mother, Nancy, who was enslaved by the Grimkes’ brother, begged for help.

The stories of Nancy’s sons—Archie, Frank and John—and their entanglements with their famous white aunts in the postbellum North are rich with ironies. The aunts’ often ambivalent support helped Archie through Harvard Law School and Frank at Princeton Theological Seminary, but there were odd strings attached. For example, the young men had to abstain from flashy clothes and avoid any familiarity with the “negro masses” struggling beneath them. Later, as part of the “colored elite” of the Gilded Age, ​​Archie mingled with Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But these relationships did little to influence Archie’s work as consul to the Dominican Republic and his racist treatment of Black workers there.

Greenidge bookends this history with moments from the life of another Angelina Grimke in the 20th century: Archie’s daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, who was abandoned by her white mother. Family members despaired over her immodest dress and, later, her impassioned voice as a celebrated playwright and poet. Her stories, as well as her ancestors’, belong in the wider Grimke history. Now, thanks to Greenidge’s provocative and well-written account, they are.

Kerri K. Greenidge complicates the accepted history of the abolitionist Grimke sisters with the full, complex story of their Black and white relatives.
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Escape, by definition, is rarely easy, and in Uncultured, Daniella Mestyanek Young illustrates just how difficult it can be. Leaving the Children of God, the cult she was born into, and surviving the U.S. Army, a group she chose to enlist in as a young adult, have both left many scars. Lucky for readers, she found her way through both experiences and then wrote it all down.

The Children of God, founded in California in 1969 by “failed fifty-year-old preacher” David Berg, appealed to members of the counterculture as a spiritual path to inner peace. The author’s mother grew up in “the Family,” as their cult was known, and became pregnant at 14, but Mestyanek Young didn’t learn who her real father was until she was a teenager herself. By then, she had been beaten and sexually abused by various “Uncles,” who were aided and abetted by “Aunties,” who disliked Mestyanek Young’s constant questioning of and growing resistance to their many rules—including “sharing” sex as a form of God’s love. Women and girls were expected to serve men’s demands, and education for children was minimal, which made it especially difficult to transition to the wider world at age 15.

As hard as it is to absorb the grotesque details of her childhood, so unflinchingly disclosed, reading about Mestyanek Young’s life after leaving the cult behind is no easier on the heart. Her career as one of the first female combatants in Afghanistan helped elevate her to a captain, while making her an easy target for soldiers unused to such parity. As the Army slowly learned to accommodate women, she was repeatedly warned, “Don’t get raped.” But what, she wondered, were the men being warned about?

Mestyanek Young ponders not the differences between these two groups—God’s Army and the U.S. Army—but their similarities. Uncultured vividly cautions readers to choose a group in which you can be yourself—and be free.

In her debut memoir, Daniella Mestyanek Young ponders not the differences between the cult she grew up in and the U.S. Army, but their similarities.
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“As a writer, I love change,” the award-winning journalist Eve Fairbanks notes on her website. It’s a good thing, because as the author of The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning, which outlines the depth and breadth of upheaval in South Africa in recent decades, there’s plenty of change to explore. By interviewing the people who were most affected when South Africa dismantled its white supremacist institutions, Fairbanks marries the overarching story the country’s turbulent apartheid history with Black and white individuals’ intimate experiences before and after 1994, when so much—and so little—changed.

Dipuo grew up in Soweto, a treeless, impoverished township of Johannesburg. It was strictly segregated during the years of white-minority rule but became increasingly politically active during the 1970s, as did Dipuo. “We were always told: Freedom first,” she remembers. Her daughter, Malaika, was 2 years old when their world became racially integrated. Malaika started going to a formerly white school, which Dipuo told her was so she could be “empowered, loose, and free” when she grew up.

Christo is the son of a successful white farmer. He joined the South African military at a young age, becoming one of the last fighters for apartheid even as it crumbled. When the laws around security force engagements changed, he simply wasn’t told. So when he shot and killed a Black man during a reconnaissance mission, he suddenly found himself charged with murder. 

Unable to find work in Johannesburg, Elliott became a chicken farmer. The farm’s former white owner had left it in ruins, overrun by antelopes, but Elliott strove to succeed against impossible odds, inspired to prove that Black Africans could be farmers, too, in a country where most land was owned and farmed by white people. 

As Fairbanks vividly demonstrates, South Africa’s complicated past continues to define the lives of Black Africans, white Afrikaners and immigrants from formerly colonized African countries such as Mozambique and Angola. The Inheritors covers a lot of ground, capturing Black heroes like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, as well as castigated white politicians like Frederik Willem de Klerk. She also examines how the rest of the world has handled racism and colonialism before and after 1994, including Angola’s own liberation in 1975 and the ongoing turmoil in 21st-century America. Glimmering throughout is the humanity she manages to find in all of it.

For the inheritors of these seismic changes, distrust and guilt can go unburied, and hope, progress and mutual respect can prove elusive. There are lessons here for readers the world over, especially as South Africa joins the global marketplace and as the U.S. continues to grapple with the human cost of racism. Fairbanks compels us to pay attention, learn and, above all, care.

Humanity glimmers throughout Eve Fairbanks' portrait of South Africa's turbulent apartheid history.
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When rich women seeking a “migratory divorce” headed west by train to states with more lenient divorce laws in the 1890s—maids, lawyers and multiple wardrobe trunks in tow—they hardly looked like revolutionaries. Yet they started something. Historian April White’s exhaustive account, The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier, captures a game-changing cultural moment during the tumultuous years of the Gilded Age.

In the late 19th century, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, required only a 90-day residency before a woman could file for divorce, making it a magnet for those in more of a hurry to get divorced than other states would allow. In New York, only proof of adultery and (still true today) a year’s residency did the trick; South Carolina allowed nothing to break the sacred marital bond. White’s colorfully detailed work follows four women, their families and their paths out of unsatisfying marriages through the courts of law and public opinion to their fates as divorcées—or wives once more.

Baroness Maggie De Stuers traveled with her private secretary, soon to be her next spouse. Mary Nevins Blaine blamed her mother-in-law, not her inept husband, for her marital woes. Blanche Molineux never wanted to marry in the first place. Flora Bigelow Dodge “wanted something entirely without precedent: ‘a legal and dignified Dakota divorce.'” Reporters followed these women, spying on their luxurious suites in the city’s iconic Cataract House, seeking gossip and scandal. Businesses profited from their deep pockets. Clergy denounced them as threats to all that God had joined together. Judges became suspicious. Lawmakers, from local governments to the White House, wrestled with family values and federal oversight—a struggle that continues today, as different states still choose different rules for divorce and as the challenge of defining and upholding women’s rights goes on.

In White’s hands, this slice of history is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

In April White’s hands, this slice of Gilded Age history about women who headed west to states with more lenient divorce laws is entertaining and enlightening.
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Memory is already a slippery thing. And when it’s tangled in family lore and embedded in a country’s violent history, it can prove even more elusive. When Ingrid Rojas Contreras was in her 20s, living far away from her native Colombia, she suffered a head injury and became a terrified amnesiac. Desperate to retrieve her memory and understand the dreams and ghosts that plagued her, she set out for her family’s hometown of Ocaña, Colombia, to find the facts of her family’s history. (Mami heckled her daughter’s use of the word facts: “Can you believe the girl is going to Ocaña to look for facts? To Ocaña! In a family like ours? With the quality of our stories?”)

In Rojas Contreras’ enthralling memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, she finds the historical and genealogical facts she’s looking for, but the stories her family reveals are far more powerful. In fact, they are magical, especially those involving Mami and her father, Nono, who could move clouds “for farmers who needed rain.”

In a dream Rojas Contreras had—the same dream her Mami and two aunts also had—her dead grandfather, Nono, made it clear to her that he wanted his remains disinterred, and so the author’s journey from Chicago to Colombia began. Nono was known as a curandero, or homeopath. He was sought after as a healer and feared as a mystic, endowed with “secrets” such as communing with the dead and foreseeing the future. When Mami fell—or was pushed—down a well as a child, he saved her life, and she seemed to inherit his powers. Rojas Contreras’ head injury also left her with “secrets,” such as the ability to appear in two places at the same time. In her large Colombian family, none of these skills seemed strange, though some members saw them as blessings and others feared them as a curse.

Rojas Contreras’ acclaimed first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, introduced the fraught landscape of Colombia in the late 20th century, when assassins and kidnappers thrived while parents struggled to keep their children safe. Now, in her deftly woven memoir, she makes this history more immediate and personal, with prose that in itself is enchantingly poetic.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras makes the recent history of Colombia immediate, personal and magical, with prose that in itself is enchantingly poetic.
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The Nile’s mythic reputation as the longest river in Africa, and arguably the world, once inspired generations of European explorers to seek its source—and exploit Africa’s vast resources in the process. Now, thanks to this richly detailed story well told by historian Candice Millard, a colorful and controversial chapter in world history resurfaces. In River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, 19th-century explorers’ egos loom godlike over expeditions, their abused local guides save lives and prompt discoveries, and the second largest continent on Earth finally gets mapped.

Millard, the prize-winning author of Hero of the Empire, among others, introduces a cast of characters and succeeds in making each of them unforgettable. Richard Burton, “an army of savants in a single man,” was chosen by the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 to head the expedition to locate the source of the Nile—“one of the most complex and demanding expeditions ever attempted.” But he soon ran afoul of his quirky colleague, John Hanning Speke, and barely survived their quest. It was Speke who earned the discoverer’s fame and glory, though his character flaws (paranoia and narcissism among them) marred his reputation and may have cost him his life. Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the previously enslaved man who guided the expedition and repeatedly saved them from treachery, disease, injury and themselves, didn’t immediately receive recognition for being integral to their success. Burton’s wife, Isabel Arrundell, was a fervent Catholic who defied her mother to marry Burton, a proclaimed agnostic who proposed by dropping off a note on his way to Africa.

Millard excels at describing it all, balancing narrative flow with abundant details that give a vast landscape its weight and power, clarify complicated people and arduous journeys, and add those who have gone largely unseen to the historical stage. Take, for example, such memorable details as a beetle burrowing into Speke’s ear; the thieves, deserters and raiders thwarting these yearslong expeditions; diseases and infections leading to blindness, deafness and death; the hardships of Bombay, who was once traded for cloth; and two huge, breathtakingly beautiful lakes, one of which, it was finally proven, spawned the Nile.

In River of the Gods, a mythic and unforgettable history of the Nile, European explorers’ egos may loom godlike but East African guides save lives.
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Consider all the universal mundanities of caregiving: the endless feedings, diaper changes, cleanups, sleepless nights and confining days, not to mention all the laundry. What if, with the help of journalist, activist and mother Angela Garbes, we could radically reconsider the incredible value of this work? In Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Garbes swoops from the universal to the personal to the downright intimate, offering an all-encompassing vision of a more socially and economically just way of caring for one another that, de facto, would improve our individual and collective lives.

The author of the hybrid memoir Like a Mother, a 2018 NPR best book of the year, Garbes serves up her own experiences as a first-generation Filipina, daughter, wife and mother in her second book. She calls Part I of Essential Labor “A Personal History of Mothering in America” and uses it to delineate her social relationship to motherhood, including her own family’s complicated origins in the U.S., beginning when her parents emigrated from the Philippines in 1970. Part II, “Exploring Mothering as Social Change,” expands into the kinds of activism that mothering can and should inspire to create a more equitable world.

Garbes wants so much more for her mixed-race children than the racialized, gendered immigrant experience that her parents endured—yet there is more to mothering than personal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic, Garbes says, changed how we care for each other, revealing that “mothering is some of the only truly essential work humans do.” She also identifies child care as a political issue—a kind of infrastructure for families that needs bipartisan government support.

At the same time that workplaces gave way to home “offices” during the pandemic, nursing homes became off-limits, schools and child care centers closed, and families were left with the work of finding other ways of caring for young people, elderly people and themselves. The myth of a self-sustaining family was no longer viable, Garbes observes; mothering needed the support of communities and multiple generations. The work of mothering, taking care of ourselves and others, became more essential than ever.

There is a great deal to digest here, and Garbes’ analyses will certainly resonate with people whose caregiving responsibilities increased during the pandemic. Yet by identifying the inherent power of mothering as a force for change, Garbes makes her message relevant to a broader audience. Indeed, as Essential Labor makes clear, all our fates are intertwined.

Angela Garbes swoops from the universal to the intimate as she offers a vision of mothering that would improve our individual and collective lives.
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Getting to know a living, legendary author can be challenging, as their own reticence often prevents readers from venturing too far behind the curtain. Not so with Alice Walker. Her journals have been compiled and edited by the late writer and critic Valerie Boyd, and they fully reveal a complex and at times controversial life. Walker was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 for The Color Purple, and she remains a force at 78. Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000 offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist, philanthropist and womanist—a term Walker herself coined to describe Black feminists.

The youngest of eight in a poor family from Georgia, Walker was 8 when a brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Her injury eventually led to a college scholarship, and after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she returned to the South as a civil rights activist. In 1967, she proposed to fellow activist Melvyn Leventhal, who is Jewish. They became the first interracial married couple in Mississippi, where miscegenation was still illegal, though they divorced nine years later.

Gathering Blossoms Under Fire audiobook
Read our starred review of the audiobook edition.

Motherhood was a fraught choice for a feminist in the 1970s, and after becoming a parent, Walker struggled with feeling distracted from her work as an artist. She applauded childless writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and wrote that her daughter, Rebecca, was “no more trouble to me the writer than Virginia Woolf’s madness was to her.” Such ambivalence shaded their relationship. Meanwhile, her friendships with feminist Gloria Steinem and movie and music producer Quincy Jones fared better. Her romantic relationships didn’t always end well, but through their ups and downs, Walker embraced “The Goddess” and prayed to the “Spirit of the Universe,” who enabled her to celebrate her bisexuality.

It was the success of The Color Purple that allowed Walker to help her troubled family, acquire properties she loved and support causes that were important to her. In the 1993 book and documentary Warrior Marks, Walker drew attention to the practice of female genital mutilation. She has also passionately protested South African apartheid, the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Walker says she keeps a journal “partly because my memory is notorious, among my friends, for not remembering much of what we’ve shared.” That concern vanishes with Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, which contains copious, intimate details about her life. And as with all of Walker’s writings, the stories found in these pages are beautifully told.

This compilation of Alice Walker’s journals offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist and philanthropist.
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Civil War scholar Carole Emberton titled this insightful study of “freedom’s charter generation,” the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated in 1865, after a soothing quote from the Bible (Psalm 119:45). But she is clear: There was nothing easy about this walk away from slavery for the Black Americans of the Jim Crow South. Their stories, gathered in interviews by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression, are carefully retold in To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner, a necessary, judicious correction to previously published accounts.

A project funded under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the FWP sent mostly white interviewers across the South to record the stories of formerly enslaved people who were still living. But before publication, the interviews underwent heavy editing to make them align with a more nostalgic vision of the South’s past. It would take Sterling Brown, a Black poet and FWP leader, to insist on authenticity and restore the interviewees’ words. Almost a century later, here they are.

Emberton’s book especially focuses on one woman, Priscilla Joyner, who told her life story to the FWP. Born in 1858, Joyner was never formally enslaved, yet her struggle to be free lasted for her entire lifetime. After the Civil War, former slaveholders did their best to subvert and sabotage the new, fragile laws of Reconstruction. Shocked when the people they had enslaved walked away without looking back, and fearful of a new balance of power, they thwarted Black voting rights and menaced teachers at newly opened schools—or simply burned the schools down.

Joyner experienced much of this hostility firsthand. The white woman who called herself Joyner’s mother did little to nurture or protect her. Joyner’s darker skin enraged her white siblings, who tormented her until, as a teenager, she was abruptly given away to a Black family. Within that community, Joyner found her people, went to school for the first time, wore ribbons in her hair and dresses that fit, and fell in love. Yet she and her family continued to struggle against inequities in pay, health care, education and professional opportunities.

Emberton’s attention to detail, whether she’s describing an inept FWP interviewer, an intimidated storyteller or the heavy-handed project editor, succeeds in debunking any nostalgia attached to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.

Carole Emberton’s insightful study of the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated is a necessary, judicious correction to Confederate nostalgia.

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