Saturday, April 16, 2011
NIGHTJOHN by Gary Paulsen
"Late he come walking and nobody else knows, nobody from the big house or the other big houses know but we do. Late he come walking and it be Nightjohn and he bringing us the way to know."
Sarny, a young slave girl, lives on a plantation with many other slaves. This young girl is an observer. She doesn't say much therefore she sometimes is mistaken for being slow, but that's not the case. Her mother was taken from her at birth, just like all of the other babies born on this plantation. "Breeders" did just that. They were chosen to have children and then they were usually sold to other land owners. The babies were nursed and kept by a chosen lady who worked on the lands. Sarney called this woman Mammy. Mammy was the children's mother, she was the one who cooked and served, and she was the one who nursed those individual slaves that were physically tortured needed medical attention.
One day Sarny saw a man being brought in in ropes. He was naked and she could see that he was beaten many times from the scars that he bared. He didn't speak, but he was immediately taken to the fields, naked, and forced to work until dark.
When he came in to the quarters where many of the slaves, including Sarny and Mammy, lived he fell to the floor in exhaustion. But, as the night came, he spoke. He asked anyone for tabacco. Sarny had some tied to the inside of her clothing, but she knew better than to just give something to someone with getting something in return. Sure enough that is what happened. The man offered to trade something, and Sarny agreed to the trade. She would give him tabacco if he taught her a letter each day.
Sarney and the man developed a relationship. He told her his name and he taught here a letter each night that he wasn't too exhausted from the days work. Unfortunately, Sarny did not heed her Mammy's warning about learning how to read and write. Mammy told her that anyone caught learning or teaching would be severely punished! Accidently, Sarny wrote a word in the dirt...Bag. The owner, Clel, caught her doing this. After kicking and punching her in the stomach and head many times, Sarny was asked who taught her. She refused to tell him by saying she saw this word on a bag of feed. He didn't believe her. He ended up taking Mammy and putting her in shackles all day before tieing her to a cart and making her pull it as he beat her. John witnessed this and spoke up saying that he was the one who taught Sarney the letters. John was immediately taken and tied. He was held down and his big toe was chopped off both feet.
After being nursed back to health he decided to run. Mammy asked him if he had ever run before and he told her yes. He got away, too, but he wanted to go back each time so that he could continue to teach slaves how to read. He told her that that was the only was that people would eventually know their story and it needed to be recorded. Mammy understood, and John did end up running. But, one night Sarny was woken up by John. John took her through the woods to a place that he called a school. Sarny saw other children from other plantations that John brought to learn. This is how John got his name "Nightjohn."
Gary Paulson blew me away with this book. Unfortunately, I read reviews by a few people stating that such a tale of slavery coming from a white man could be considered offensive. I will review more on this subject so that I can make my own mind up to the validity of the alligations.
I highly recommend this book!