Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper

Amari’s life isn’t quite perfect: she wishes she could weave as the men do rather than just spin cotton with the women of her village, Ziavi, and her little brother pesters her about her fiance. On the whole, she’s happy with this familiar life in rural Ghana…until the Ashanti bring a group of “milk-pale” strangers, whom her village welcomes with a feast, as they do all strangers. Partway through the visit, the pallid strangers and the normally complected Ashanti open fire on her people, killing Amari’s parents and her brother. She is captured, put in shackles and branded before being sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic to the United States–not just a foreign land but an alien one in a way that no child could possibly understand today, when we are at least aware that there are other countries and continents and people of colors strange to us, and travelers abroad may at least hope to communicate with their families overseas.

She survives the voyage, both physically and with the help of Afi, a woman who’s been through this before, mentally. She is sold to a rice plantation owner for his son’s sixteenth birthday; Amari has a pretty fair idea what’s coming, having been used for sex by the sailors on the voyage from Africa, but finds the reality no less demeaning for that foreknowledge. Her life on the plantation is somewhat eased by friendship with Teenie, the black slave cook on the plantation, and the indentured servant girl Polly, also about fifteen years old. The two are thrown into contact too close for either of their comfort in the beginning when Mr. Derby assigns Polly to teach Amari proper civilized behavior before allowing either into the house to work. This prolonged proximity allows them to gain respect for one another over their weeks together. They not only befriend one another but learn respect for Teenie, and love for her son, Tidbit; he comes to serve as an approximate replacement for Amari’s little brother.

This ends, however, when Mrs. Derby gives birth to an obviously mixed-race daughter, and confesses that she loves, not her husband but her bodyguard/butler/coachman slave. The husband is furious, shooting both the slave father and the infant daughter, and gives Polly and Amari to the doctor, along with Tidbit, to sell elsewhere as punishment. The doctor, while not quite an abolitionist on the level of John Brown or Harriet Beecher Stowe, opposes slavery sufficiently to release the two girls in order to allow them to flee to freedom. Which way to flee? The seemingly logical choice would be to go North, to the states which do not allow slavery, but that is the expected direction and so therefore the direction in which the greatest and most intensive search will be made when their flight is discovered upon the doctor’s return to the plantation. Instead they go south to Fort Mose, Florida; this is a very real small, Spanish-controlled community in a state which was at the time a Spanish rather than a British colony, which provided freedom to anyone who wished to live there.

No easy read, this, though it’s fast for an adult. The addition of a Caucasian indentured servant of Amari’s age provided a considerable depth to the book. While I would not wish Draper to distract or detract from the novel’s central issues of slavery, the alternation of chapters between Polly’s and Amari’s viewpoints once the two arrive at the slave market prior to being purchased by Mr. Derby provides a converging of respect for one another that I appreciate.

Overall, it’s an upsetting book, but then any remotely realistic sympathetic story about slavery in the United States (or elsewhere) must be thus. I can see a school using Copper Sun together with Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Called Disaster as an enthralling AND reasonably accurate to a different time for the one and a different culture for the other.

Sharon Draper


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