Bourke’s Bookshelf: ‘The true face of America’

In honor of Black History Month, this week's featured reads are "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead and "Dream Big, Little One" by Vashti Harrison.

Two book covers
In honor of Black History Month, this week's featured reads are "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead and "Dream Big, Little One" by Vashti Harrison.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

We’re always told not to dwell on the past — not to let things we can’t change overcome us. We’re told to be optimistic, to live in the present and look to the future. What’s done is done, right?

Theresa Bourke headshot

Maybe so. But our history is what shapes us, what informs who we are. We might not be able to change it, but we can learn from it. We have to learn from it because if we don’t, then we’re no better than those whose missteps begat brutality and cruelty.

Slavery and segregation are a part of our country’s history. As a result, racial injustice continues to plague our society today. These are things we need to learn from, and what better time to do it than Black History Month? February certainly shouldn’t be the only time of year we pay attention to the issues so many people face every day, but it’s a tool we can use to educate ourselves about the past so we can speak up for the future.

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead (2016)

Sometime in the latter half of the 19th century, Cora is a slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Born into slavery and abandoned by her mom at 10 years old, Cora is deemed a stray. With no one to look after her, she doesn’t really belong anywhere and has to fend for herself among the brutality of the Randall brothers.

The possibility of escaping seems a farce. But after one of the Randall brothers singles Cora out, she decides to take Caesar, another boy on the plantation, up on his offer to go with him in the night. Caesar sees her as a good luck charm, being that her mom was the only slave ever known to successfully escape the Randalls. Cora sees it as necessary to her survival


In Colson Whitehead’s imagining of the underground railroad, the route to freedom for slaves is just that — a railroad that runs underground. Hidden behind trap doors in the houses and barns of agents and conductors, the tracks run north, carrying trains of various comforts — rickety box carts, open flatbeds and in some cases comfortable trains with luxurious cushions. Cora has decisions to make every step of the way — get off and make a life for herself or keep running north, farther from Ridgeway, the vicious slave catcher sent to secure her capture and return her to Georgia.

While Whitehead’s story is fictional, the atrocities of slavery depicted were very real, leaving scars — both physical and emotional — that would never heal for so many innocent souls. The account is hard to read, making it all the more important.

Kids pick: ‘Dream Big, Little One’ by Vashti Harrison (2018)

“Wherever you go, whatever you do, be bold and dream big — the world is waiting for you.”

For a quick introduction to some of the country’s famous Black women who epitomize that quote, “Dream Big, Little One” is a great choice for your little ones.

This week's featured read is "The Irish Boarding House by Sandy Taylor."
This week's featured read is the psychological thriller "Behind Her Eyes" by Sarah Pinborough.
This week's featured read is Jennette McCurdy's 2022 memoir, "I'm Glad My Mom Died."
This week's featured read is "A Mango-Shaped Space' by Wendy Mass.
Sale is 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, at Park United Methodist Church in Brainerd.
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The book signing will be 3-6 p.m.
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Many book genres are available including fiction, biography, westerns, history, cooking, crafts, children and young adults. There are hardcovers and softcovers and series by familiar authors.
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This week's banned and challenged book is "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood.

It’s a simple little children’s board book with short summaries of the accomplishments of women like Katherine Johnson, Wilma Rudolph, Maya Angelou, Ella Fitzgerald and Oprah Winfrey. I even learned a few new names, like astronaut Mae Jemison, dancer Raven Wilkinson, painter Alma Woodsey Thomas and film director Julie Dash.

While one kids’ book can’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the influential Black women in history, this one is certainly a good conversation starter for children, and it’s just one of several Vashti Harrison has published. “Follow Your Dreams, Little One” features influential Black men, while her “Little Leaders” books include “bold women” and “exceptional men” in Black history.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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