Sarny, the “I” of the book, is a slave on the Waller estate; as a girl not yet old enough to menstruate, she is still relegated to children’s duties, tending chickens, working fans and so on. Knowing the fate of those old enough to bear children, she is in no hurry whatsoever to reach full womanhood. In the U.S. South prior to the Civil War, persons of African-American descent were not only enslaved in the sense of being considered property, they were also forbidden education. Not surprisingly, reading brings the ability to find out about things like “In the North, blacks can be free.” which the Southern whites (and no few Northern whites!) wanted to keep from the blacks.
Nightjohn touches on the realization of just how valuable that knowledge of letters, numbers, words and ciphering can be; it brings the ability to break mental chains that can be equally confining to the literal metal chains and metaphoric legal ones. “Nightjohn” is a black man, an ex-slave, who fled North and gained his freedom, but returned South and allowed himself to be recaptured just so he could spread that knowledge.
Nightjohn arrives naked at the plantation, having been purchased by Mr. Waller (as the slaves call him to his face) for $1,000, and is sent straight out to the fields to work exactly as he is, without even a drink of water. That night in the slave dormitory, he asks to trade for a “lip of tobacco”. Sarny has some, as she’s been set to spit tobacco juice on the mistress’ flowers, infested with insects, but wonders what this man could possibly trade, having arrived only that day with quite literally nothing at all. He offers letters, and with it the ability to read. Sarny continues to learn from him, despite her foster mother’s warnings, despite the threat of losing her thumbs, because she recognizes the strength that will give her.
Sarny is caught by the master as she writes letters in the dust, and Waller questions the foster mother, chaining her to the wall of the pumphouse to get information from her. Nightjohn steps forward and confesses that he is the one who taught Sarny her letters; for this, he loses two toes. Even before his toes have healed, he flees, coating his feet with lard and pepper to throw the bloodhounds off his track…and returns under cover of night to finish teaching Sarny and the other slaves to read.
As with the other books of Gary Paulsen’s that I’ve read, this is deceptively simple, misleadingly short. It’s a quick read; I don’t think it’ll appeal to everyone but its length may appeal to reluctant readers who’ve been assigned something about slavery. Mind, that’s no insult. I’m a librarian, though one from the adult services side of the profession, and anything reasonably good that lures kids who would not otherwise have touched a book voluntarily into the world of letters is marvelous.
Freedom to read is only the primary plot point; Paulsen touches on a number of issues here, ranging from ability to pray to using slaves for breeding purposes, even down to such seemingly trivial things as being forbidden to have a light burning in the slave quarters at night.
This is, I hope, one of those books. It’s not a ghastly excuse for a novel that serves up only lessons. The dialect might make it something of a struggle for kids not yet quite fluent in standard written English, spelling or sentence structure, but that may just challenge readers ready for it.