Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pemba's Song by Tonya Hegamin and Marilyn Nelson.

Pemba lost her father in the Iraq war and now she has to leave Brooklyn and her friends for a small town in Connecticut. Sure her mother's got a good job and a good deal on a house, but Pemba can't even get cell phone reception. And her friends seem to be getting on just fine without her. She writes in her journal:

I'm secretly wishin' my friends were still cryin',
lost without me, head in their hands,
waitin' for my call. I know it ain't right,
but I'm livin' in a house that feels nothin' like home.
Feelin' like my old life just got erased.
Feelin' like my picnic just got tidal waved.

Worse, the old house her mother bought gives Pemba the creeps, especially after she wakes up in the attic not knowing how she got there. That's why she agrees to help Abraham, a local historian who is researching the history of black people in the town of Colchester. It gets her out of the house and the unpacking and into the library's air conditioning. Pemba discovers that even Northern states like Connecticut once allowed slavery. But the more history she reads, the more vivid the presence in the house becomes.

A slave girl from 1795 is desperate to tell Pemba her story. Each part of the house holds a memory waiting to ensnare Pemba. The ghost too thinks in poetry, though she cannot write, but each glimpse into the slave's life leaves Pemba more shaken by a growing sense of menace. Abraham believes Pemba and, rather than thinking she is crazy, encourages her "gift." The old records in the library seem to bear out part of the story the slave is sharing, but there are missing pieces that only the ghost can supply.

This barely a hundred page novel is a quick read that nevertheless explores feelings of loss and our debts to the past. One of Pemba's poems, "Human Bling" muses on the connections between slave chains and the gold and African diamonds on display at a celebrity hip hop party. "Africans lived and died in the worst ways / for the same stuff we kill each other over now." You can find Pemba's Song on the Teen fiction shelves. For those who want a longer story of a house haunted by a slave, try The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton.

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

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