Friday, February 11, 2011

Slave Girl's Diary Makes History Intimate, Impactful

(Image from Indiebound)

Even though 12-year-old Clotee is forbidden from reading or writing, words thrill her, each one filling her mind with pictures. "Home" brings images of the Belmont Plantation, an elegant property near Richmond, Virginia, where Clotee has lived all her life. "Kitchen" conjures herbs hanging from the ceiling, pots bubbling over the fire, and the kind face of Aunt Tee, the best cook in the state. "Family" calls up memories of her mother, who died after being sold away by heartless Master Henley. But "Freedom"? That one's a blank. "Spelled right or wrong," says Clotee, "freedom got no picure, no magic. Freedom is just a word" (17).

Still, Clotee knows enough to take advantage where she can. For the last two years, she's been fanning William Henley while his mother teaches him to read. The young master may be the same age as Clotee, but she's a much more willing student. Unbeknownst to the mistress, who would skin Clotee alive if she knew, the slave girl can decipher enough words to read most anything and she can write well enough to keep a diary. The Henleys would beat Clotee if they knew, so she must keep her secret hidden not just from them, but from anyone who could rat her out. No matter how vigilant she is, Clotee knows she could be discovered at any second ...

When things really start getting crazy at Belmont, Clotee must decide where her loyalties lie. Should she whisper slave secrets to her mistress in exchange for pretty things? Can she sell out a man who's been nothing but good to her in order to save the boy who's the closest thing she has to a brother? And, most importantly, should she make a run for freedom when she has absolutely everything to lose?

A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl by Patricia McKissack was originally published in 1997, then reissued in 2011 as part of Scholastic's efforts to breathe new life into the Dear America series. McKissack based the story on her great-great-great grandmother, a slave woman who not only learned to read and write, but also used her knowledge to teach others. Clotee's story is similar to others about slavery, and yet it still manages to be both intimate and impactful. I did want a little more from our heroine, who is, after all, kind of the same ole clichéd slave we always find in historical fiction. Still, I enjoyed the story, easily devouring it in a matter of hours. The Dear America books continue to delight me, as they will any history lover, young or old.

(Readalikes: The Dear America books are similar to The American Girl series; this one reminded me of Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, Day of Tears by Julius Lester, and other stories about slavery.)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence and vague references to plantation owners sleeping with their slaves

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of A Picture of Freedom from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I really like the new covers they're doing for this series.

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