I’ve found one of my favorite books of the year! Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates is a juvenile biography and winner of the 1951 Newbery Medal. It is the story of Ath-Mun, African prince captured by slave traders in 1725 as a fifteen year old boy in his homeland. Through many long years of servitude as a slave, his sense of dignity is never diminished, only enhanced by his own God-given sense of worth. Renamed Amos Fortune, he eventually buys his own freedom and, through time, the freedom of four other slaves. He becomes a tanner, and a good one at that, and at the end of his life of ninety-one years is a well-respected member of his community.
There is SO much goodness in this juvenile biography! I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this one as a history read-aloud at the beginning of the month. Of course, this book offers ample opportunity to discuss the worth inherent in all human beings, regardless of skin color, religion, or ethnicity. The theme of freedom, however, is one that I hadn’t reallly thought about, but it’s the one that runs through every bit of this story. Amos Fortune gets what freedom really is. One of my favorite parts of the story is toward the end when Amos and his wife purchase a girl from a poor black family through a public auction known as a vendue. This whole concept–of indigent people being auctioned off to the lowest bidder, who would then be paid his price by the town to care for the needy person for a year–was new to me. (Louise very astutely drew the comparison between this and foster care, and yes, I had to agree with her that it’s probably the nearest thing we have today to the concept.) Amos and Violet take in Polly, but Polly is really quite dependent on them. She is unable to learn at school, and even the simplest tasks are challenging for her. She is also in poor health. Amos’ goal, however, is for Polly to die free:
Celyndia [Violet’s daughter] started to sob softly. Amos put back his head and Violet saw him shape with his lips the familiar words. “Thank you, Lord.”
Violet turned to him with a question in her eyes.
Amos answered it. “I wanted her to die free. I knew she didn’t have long when I bid on her, but she’s had almost a year of freedom.”
“She wasn’t ever a slave,” Violet reminded him. “She was born free.”
He shook his head. “She wasn’t free when she was so poor.” (160)
Amos is a man of deep faith and understanding:
Hate could do that to a man, Amos thought, consume him and leave him smoldering. But he was a free man, and free at great cost, and he would not put himself in bondage again. So Amos got up from the boulder and walked home and his friend Moses walked with him, the Moses who had followed a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night and kept himself free from the bickerings of his people so he could be their leader. (173)
Like most books written decades ago, I’m sure this book has been the target of criticism and controversy. (For a little more about this, see this review.) However, I did not really look at this book from the perspective of race at all, but rather the spiritual idea of freedom. That’s why I loved it so much. It was really neat to me and my girls, too, to know that Amos Fortune was a real person. Maybe one day we’ll make it to New Hampshire to see his home and gravesite. Highly Recommended. (1950)