Brief Description: 12 yo African American orphan boy, a former slave, and his older brother, a runaway and a Union veteran of the Civil War, set out from their South Carolina plantation to claim their own Forty Acres. Along the way to Georgia they are joined by an 8 yo slave girl and others. They eventually create a successful farm, but are threatened with loss when the rules are changed.
Date Range: 1865
Original Publication: 1998
Suitable for Grades: 4-7th
Target Audience: Middle Grade
At the end of the Civil War, a twelve-year-old African American orphan boy belatedly learns of the Emancipation Proclamation from his runaway brother Gideon, who had joined the Union Army. Pascal invites eight-year-old orphan Nelly to join him and Gideon, who is determined to obtain forty acres and a mule per General Sherman’s wartime field order. As they journey along the rural roads of South Carolina towards Georgia in search of a Freedmen’s Bureau from which to claim their land, Pascal forges a family with an elderly black carpenter and his newly found granddaughter and befriends a white Baptist family also in search of their own forty acres.
The author does a good job of illustrating the difficulties of newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction. They faced harassment by plantation owners, desperate for labor. Many were forced back to work under the very same pre-war slavery conditions the nation fought so hard to end. After Pascal and Gideon and their “family” obtain their new farm land, and after much effort and labor, the title is tragically rescinded and the farm given over to white people. But not all is lost: Pascal has learned a powerful lesson about freedom, and he and Gideon vow to keep trying.
The writing style seems a bit old-fashioned, and the characters don’t behave realistically. I was especially jarred by Pascal’s and Gideon’s mild reaction to the injustices they endure. Nevertheless, this novel is an important depiction of life for newly freed African Americans and the uphill battle they faced against racist white Southerners. Back matter includes an author’s note which gives valuable historical context.