What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that the way slaves are treated is disturbing -- they are beaten into unconsciousness, treated like animals with no feelings, and separated from their families. Readers will encounter the whipping of slaves, a forced fight in which a slave loses an eye, the death of a baby in a rainstorm, and a suicide.
What's the story?
In 1857, Pierce Butler, a plantation owner deeply in debt due to a gambling habit, held what became the largest slave auction in American history to raise the money to pay off his debts. Author Julius Lester takes this real historical event and tells the story through the eyes of those involved, black and white, both at the time and reflecting back on it years later.
Some of these characters are: Emma, a child slave who takes care of the Butler children and is sold despite a promise to her mother not to sell her; Sampson, a slave who believes in slavery and the inferiority of his race; Sarah, oldest Butler daughter, who takes after her mother in despising slavery; and Jeremiah, a white abolitionist conductor on the Underground Railway, who sets in motion more than he had planned.
Is it any good?
Julius Lester tells the story in the form of snippets of scripted dialogue, thoughts, flashbacks, and quotes from an historical pamphlet that gives the names and prices of those sold at this auction. Though it sometimes can be a bit confusing when read silently, the format makes the story very accessible to elementary-age children, as does the author's careful avoidance of the more sensational and lurid aspects of the story.
This format, though, creates an emotional distance that robs the novel of some of the raw power one might expect from the subject matter. The author skips from character to character, and time to time, never letting the reader identify too strongly with any one person. Perhaps the author felt this was necessary to avoid overwhelming young readers. In any case, this is a fascinating and engrossing look at a little-known historical event that encapsulates the institution of slavery.
Explore, discuss, enjoy
Families can talk about the historical background of the American slave system.
How could people who considered themselves to be good, decent peoplehave treated others in this way?
How could the slaves endure it?
Howcould Sampson, a slave, come to identify so strongly with being a slavethat he resisted freedom?