Thursday, December 25, 2008

47 by Walter Mosley

Main Character: 47, a young slave boy
Location: Early 19th-century Georgia
Time period: Before the Civil War
Genre: YA Fiction, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

Since I am a librarian, my young patrons believe that I have read and know intimately every book on my shelf. I cannot begin to tell you how far that is from the truth. I read reviews, I select books for purchase based on those reviews, patron requests, and what I feel will be necessary to fill my patrons current and future needs. When new books come in, I pull some to read, but there are so many more than I can possibly read (even if librarians do just sit around reading books all day long as so many patrons think.) Sometimes I need a nudge to pick up an overlooked book.

That's what happened here. I was reading one of many book-related blogs that I subscribe to when I ran across an entry on this book, Walter Mosley's 47. (Sadly, I cannot remember which blog it was. If I find it again, I'll add a link down below.) The description of a science-fiction novel which centered on slaves in the deep south was too intriguing to resist, and lo and behold, there it was on my shelf.

47 is a young slave boy who has never been given a name. Because his mother had been a favorite of the plantation owner's wife, he has been allowed to grow up near the house, protected and coddled by Mama Flore. But when the owner deems him big enough to work out in the fields, he is sent down to the slave quarters and given the number 47--in fact it is branded into his shoulder. One day he encounters a new man who calls himself Tall John. Tall John appears to be an escaped slave from a neighboring plantation, but he tells 47 that he is really a creature from another planet who has come to find 47, knowing that 47 will one day be the salvation of his planet.

Fortunately, the science fiction aspect does not detract from the slavery story, but it does allow Tall John to teach 47 that he is a slave as much because he believes it as because Mr. Tobias says it's so. Once 47 learns the lesson to think of himself as a man instead of a slave he is able to recognize the first steps to freedom.

One balancing act that books about slavery for young readers have to master is how graphically to describe the conditions the people lived under. (Books about the Holocaust have the same hurdle.) How much can you describe? If you don't go deep enough, you run the risk of the reader thinking "well, that's not so bad," but if you get too graphic then you are no longer appropriate for your audience. Though Mosley does not shy away from some physical torture, like the branding of 47's shoulder, he shows more the psychological enslavement. What could be more dehumanizing than not even getting a name? Not only are the slaves known by their numbers, but the numbers are interchangeable--Tall John is given the number 12 because the previous number 12 has just died. Names give you an identity; 84 is a bitter and angry slave until Tall John names her Tweenie. Watching her transform under John's attention shows 47 that she is a person. (Maddeningly, 47 never gets a name of his own--Tall John says that he has one, but we never learn what it is.)

This is not a feel-good book or a science-fiction adventure romp. You have to be in the right mind-set to appreciate it. It is a thought-provoking (oh, that overused term!) piece of literature. And for those who are in the right mind-set to have some thought provoked, it is a rewarding read.


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


smaileh said...

Thank you. I'm glad you're enjoying it--I'm having a lot of fun doing it.