Brief Description: 12 yo African American girl is taught to read by Nightjohn, an escaped slave who knows the value of education

Geographical Setting: , ,

Historical Era:

Date Range: 1850s


Original Publication: 1993

Suitable for Grades: 7th and up

Target Audience: Middle Grade, Teen

Librarian's Review

Twelve-year-old Sarny, an enslaved girl, is raised by another woman because her own mother was sold when she was four.  Because she is so quiet, others consider her a dummy.  She is an obedient girl that helps Mammy around the slave quarters, preparing meals for the field hands and watching over the babies.  She has no great expectations of herself, but dreads the coming future of the breeding shed, to be treated like common livestock.

Mr. Waller has no illusions about his attitude toward his slaves, no need to pretend to treat them fairly.  He chooses to oversee them himself with unmitigated cruelty, smiling while setting his dogs upon them or whipping them, sometimes to death.  The author does not shy away from depictions of cruelty.  This is a hard book to read.

One day newly purchased Nightjohn is brought to the plantation, driven naked in and shackled front of Waller’s horse, back bleeding and scarred.  Nightjohn has one purpose in life, a desire so strong that he endures cruelty and risks, to teach the other slaves how to read and write.  Slave owners understand that literacy is a dangerous weapon; any slave caught exercising this skill will be severely punished.  When Nightjohn teaches Sarny her first letters of the alphabet, she catches on quickly – she is no dummy.  She is so excited and inspired by her new power that she almost endangers the endeavor.  But her hope and perseverance win.

Although the character of the plantation owner is one-dimensional, the other characters have more nuance.  There is great educational value in the  depiction of the indignities of daily plantation life for African American slaves, how they are underfed, expected to dine like pigs at a trough, exhausted, overworked, bred.  A teacher’s guide can be found at the publisher’s website: .  The author wrote a sequel continuing Sarny’s journey: Sarny, A Life Remembered.

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