Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen is a book that really packs quite a wallop. I listened to it through my OneClick Digital account on Saturday while I went for a walk (my first walk in weeks!) and then as I drove to a lunch date with two of my closest friends from childhood. It weighs in at only seven short chapters, but these are chapters not soon forgotten. It’s the story of a twelve year old slave girl named Sarny. Not old enough yet to be designated as a “breeder” or any of the other slave designations, she is allowed to stay with her mammy (though not her “birthin’ mammy”), the slave woman whose job it is to care for all the children in the slave quarters. Sarny is a perceptive child, so when a new field hand is purchased for the plantation, Sarny soon figures out that there’s something different about him. He is brought to the plantation “bad,” which means he comes not docilely, but literally in ropes and chains and is made to run naked beside the master’s carriage. His back is a network of raised scars, the evidence of many cruel beatings. When he comes to the quarters, Sarny learns his secret: he can read, and he has returned to the South for the purpose of teaching more slaves to read. Thus, Sarny becomes his pupil, but at enormous cost to not just them but also to the one person Sarny loves: her mammy.
Wow. What a riveting, heart-rending, horribly wonderful story. This is, more than anything, a story about literacy and the power of words. It is because John knows the power of words that he risks his life again and again and again to teach others to read. This story does not lighten the blow of the horrors of slavery, so it’s not one that I’m willing to share with my girls just yet: there’s horrible cruelty and violence (to the point that it brought me to tears), cursing, and just plain old crudeness about sexuality. (I couldn’t help but think of The Giver when Sarny explained about some women being “breeders,” which sent me onto a mental tangent about dystopian societies and how the antebellum plantation system might’ve been considered one in some sort of way. Hmmmm.) This isn’t an easy story to read, in much the same way that war stories like Forgotten Fire, Code Name Verity, and especially Rose Under Fire, with its theme of writing as an act of remembrance, are difficult to read. I learned in an interview with the author at the end of the story that Paulsen came to write this book after researching Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave and the purported mother of his children. Paulsen is very passionate about the importance of literacy and education in the slaves’ desire for freedom. This story was made even more poignant for me by the skill of the reader, Michele-Denise Woods, and her beautiful rendering of the slaves’ dialect and Paulsen’s poetic rendering of it. Highly Recommended for the right audience. (1993)