Book Bag: ‘On Hurricane Island’ by Ellen Meeropol; ‘SOS — Calling All Black People’ edited by John H. Bracey Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst

Last modified: Friday, March 06, 2015


By Ellen Meeropol

Red Hen Press

Part political thriller and part examination of civil liberties in post-9/11 America, “On Hurricane Island” is the second novel by Easthampton writer Ellen Meeropol, who knows something about the debate about national security: Her husband, Robert Meeropol, is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who in 1953 were convicted of committing espionage for the former Soviet Union and executed.

“On Hurricane Island” wastes no time getting started. On the eve of an approaching anniversary of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, math professor Gandalf Cohen — her pregnant mother named her that after reading “The Hobbit” during an enforced bed rest — is preparing to board a routine flight out of New York City when she’s seized by federal agents. Her new destination is a secret interrogation center on an island off the Maine coast.

Both terrified and furious, Professor Cohen wants to know what she’s supposed to have done. The FBI agent in charge of her case, Henry Ames, also doubts her involvement in any terrorist activity, but his second-in-command, Tobias, is convinced of her guilt — and is willing to do whatever it takes to get that information, even as a hurricane moving up the East Coast threatens to unleash havoc on the island.

“If she knows something, we’ll find it,” Tobias vows.

“And we’ll do it by the rules,” Henry says sharply.

“Which rules are those, Boss?” Tobias counters. “The rules have changed.”

Told from the perspective of a number of other characters, from both sides of the country’s political divide, “On Hurricane Island” poses tough questions for our society. How far should government go in the name of protecting national security? And what happens to civil liberties and individual freedom in an era of “enhanced” interrogation and government surveillance?

Ellen Meeropol will read from “On Hurricane Island” Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Anyone wishing to join the book signing line is asked to buy a copy of the novel from the store. To reserve a seat for the event, email or call 534-7307.


Edited by John H. Bracey Jr., Sonia Sanchez and James Smethurst

University of Massachusetts Press

As the editors of a new anthology outline, the term “Black Arts Movement” (BAM) arose in the 1960s, coined by poet and playwright Larry Neal to describe a flowering of politically engaged art by African-Americans — something of an artistic counterpoint to the Black Power movement, with writers’ workshops, dance troupes, cultural centers, and magazines all showcasing new ideas and energy.

Published by the University of Massachusetts Press, “SOS — Calling All Black People/A Black Arts Movement Reader” is co-edited by John Bracey, a longtime professor of Afro-American studies at UMass; James Smethurst, also a professor in the department; and Sonia Sanchez, a poet and playwright and professor emerita of English at Temple University.

In compiling the 640-page book, the editors note that BAM is a broad term that embraces all manner of artistic expression — poetry, fiction, plays, song lyrics, interviews, music criticism, political essays. Covering a period from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s, the book includes contributions from dozens of artists and writers. Thematically, the work is linked by what the editors call “a belief in the need for personal and social transformation of African Americans to determine their own political and cultural destiny.”

Sometimes sifting through weathered copies of original manuscripts and publications that were hard to decipher, the editors say they wanted to gather BAM’s collective stories in one place before some disappeared. “We felt there was no real access to the important writings of the Black Arts Movement, (which) is not well served by the major anthologies of African American literature,” Smethurst writes.

Among the selections in the reader are works by or interviews with people like Max Roach, the legendary jazz drummer and pioneer of bebob; poet Gwendolyn Brooks; Amiri Baraka, a poet, novelist and dramatist, to whom the book is dedicated; and playwright and novelist Alice Childress. Another is actor/social activist Ossie Davis, who gave a famous eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X, assassinated just over 50 years ago in New York City.

“What Shall I tell My Children Who Are Black,” a 1968 poem by Chicago artist and writer Margaret Burroughs, sums up much of the spirit of the collection. The poem’s narrator, having “drunk deeply ... from the fountain of my black culture,” promises to pass on her pride to her children: “I will lift up their heads in proud blackness / with the story of their fathers and their father’s fathers ... and knowledge of his heritage shall be his weapon and his armor; / It will make him strong enough to win any battle he will face.”

The editors of “SOS” will stage a reading Wednesday 7 p.m. in Hooker Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. The event is co-sponsored by the Odyssey Bookshop.


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