Tuesday, April 29, 2008

To Be a Slave...random thoughts

To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester. You know how every once in a while you run across a book that makes you think, "This is a book everyone needs to read."? Well, this is one of those books. Though it's a Newbery Honor Book, I'd never even heard of it until a couple weeks ago. I immediately ordered it so Annie and I could read it for our history unit this quarter.

It's a moving, tragic, horrifying book. Yes, it had me tears on multiple occasions, and it also had me literally sick to my stomach. I remember at one point thinking that I shouldn't make Annie read this, that is was just too hard to handle emotionally. Luckily, I immediately came to my senses and realized that that is exactly why she needs to read it. Why everyone needs to read it. Yes, we all know that slavery is an abomination, especially slavery as it was practiced in the United States where the treatment of these human beings was horrific beyond adequate description. But to read about the condition of being a slave in the actual words of those who lived it, is something else altogether.

Julius Lester spent hours upon hours upon hours researching and reading interviews from the 1930s done with ex-slaves. I can't imagine what a heart-wrenching task that must have been. But what he put together is a wonderfully told account of life in the United States for those who lived as slaves. His narration is skillfully interwoven with the actual quotes and stories told by the ex-slaves themselves.

Scattered throughout the book are some incredible images created by Tom Feelings. The artist wrote that when he was given the manuscript to read and asked to create artwork to go with it, he was afraid. Afraid he could never do this powerful book justice. Oh, but he did. His work is powerful. It's beautiful, and moving, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

In a introduction piece written in 1997 and titled "Thirty Years of To Be a Slave," Lester writes, "Of course, my underlying and hidden purpose was simply this: If a child could experience slaves as human beings, then it might be possible for that same child to look at the descendants of slaves and also see another human being, no more, no less."

More reviews:
*Nymeth at Things Mean A Lot
*Annie at Words By Annie


Ana S. said...

wow. I don't think I had even heard of this book before. Thank you, Debi, for this beautiful post.

After doing the Themed Reading Challenge on WW2, I'm thinking of doing a personal continuation on the theme of slavery. I realize that that makes me sound like the biggest masochist there is, but I feel that I need to know more about these things, you know? I feel that trying to make sense of them is essential for me to make sense of the world. Anyway...all this to say that this book will definitely be on my list for that project.

PS: Good news! There were several copies of this on BookMooch. Now there's one less :P

Anonymous said...

I just bought this book a couple of weeks ago and a library sale. I'm really looking forward to reading it and was glad to find your review. Thanks!

Debi said...

It's definitely one of those books where you can't quite use the word "enjoy"...just like you said about Night. But I do hope you'll be as glad you read it as I am. It's a really fast little read, but it certainly packs a punch.