Wednesday, October 28, 2009
A Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue
Julian Lester's thought-provoking book, A Day of Tears, builds a fictional story out of of a real event: the day when the most slaves in American history--over400--were sold at one auction. The place is Savannah, Georgia, the time is 1859 and the slaveowner is Pierce Butler who is "forced" to sell his slaves to pay off his gambling debts. Known afterwards as "The Weeping Time," the four days were marked by torrential rain; thus the tie-in to the title of the book.
Many fine books have been written depicting the harsh and unjust conditions surrounding slavery. Jester's novel distinguishes itself by giving voice to each character who plays a part in the drama. As a result of sparse narrative, the reader is engaged in the immediacy of the setting and conflicts. Instead of the traditional novel format, Lester relies primarily on monologues to tell the story. Readers hear the voices of Pierce, his abolitionist wife Fanny Kemble, their two daughters (with two very different points of view on slavery), the auctioneer, several slaves (also with different perspectives on slavery), and the man who helps some of the slaves escape to Cincinnati. Interludes within the main story fast forward the action as the characters reflect upon the years and events that transpired after that pivotal day. The reader watches as families are torn apart--both slaves and their owners--over an issue that divided our country.
I listened to the book on CD and found the acting compelling. Even without much actual physical description of the characters, I could imagine them talking directly to me.
Since the book candidly shows a variety of perspectives on the same event, it makes an excellent Social Studies resource for classes studying the Antebellum Age in the south. In addition, language arts teachers should point out the different uses of syntax, word choice, and dialect to make the voice of each character distinct and powerful. Given the way it is written, this would be an excellent choice for readers theater in middle school or high school classrooms.
The author's notes at the end include glimpses into some of the resources which Lester used to write the book. Since I am researching my own historical novel, I was particularly interested in his resources. He cites a pamphlet "What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation?" which is in the Library of Congress and can be viewed online. Written by an observer to the entire event, it provides "up close and personal" details of the auction and makes a terrific companion tool to this book.
A Day of Tears, Julian Lester, African American history, antebellum South, book on CD, books for boys and girls, historical fiction, readers theater, teaching history through literature, slavery