Friday, January 22, 2010

Day of Tears by Julius Lester

In a format that feels like a play script, Lester gives voices to those who were sold in 1859 at the biggest slave auction in American history. Pierce Butler was one of the wealthiest of slaveholders till his gambling debts forced him to sell hundreds of slaves over three rainy days in Savannah. Lester uses records from the sale and the description of the plantation written by Fanny Kemble, Butler's abolitionist ex-wife, to imagine the fates of those torn from their families "to pay the price for another man's weakness." So says Will, who grew up with Pierce but, when his daughter is sold, is reminded, "we aren't brothers."

The storyline mainly follows Will's daughter Emma who had been caring for the Butler children after their parents were divorced. Interludes let us follow the lives of others present at that auction where it rained so hard it was ever after called "the weeping time." The auctioneer, for example, hoped the fame of the event would make his fortune but instead loses a leg in the Civil War. The Butlers move back to Philadelphia but never regain their fortune. Other slaves attempt to locate loved ones after the war with varying results.

Emma is taken to a small farm in Kentucky along with Joe who's been sweet on her. Joe wants to "jump the broom" but Emma will not risk bearing a child who might be taken from her. They make contact with the underground railroad and escape across the river, eventually arriving in Philadelphia. There they encounter Fanny who persuades them to go on to Canada out of the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act. We are left with the satisfaction of Emma as the matriarch of a successful family though saddened that her parents never knew what became of her.

Lester treats each of his characters fairly, acknowledging that good and bad are not confined to any race. He shows that even the "good masters" were nevertheless in denial about the humanity of their slaves. He tackles the difficult task of exploring the motives of a slave who clings to slavery and plans to betray others. He clearly depicts the corrupting influence of the master-slave relationship which so appalled Fanny Kemble that she left her husband and daughters.

Though it is based in fact, Day of Tears can be found on the Teen fiction shelves. For a longer treatment of the moral issues of slavery, try M. T. Anderson's The Pox Party.

Today we also have a book review featured on the Virginian-Pilot's Bookmark book blog.

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