Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fiction, Slavery, and Didacticism

I’ve been teaching a unit on the forced immigration of Africans during the time of the transatlantic slave trade for many years and can say that it is definitely the hardest topic I teach and, for many of my 4th grade students, the hardest for them to learn. The idea that living people took other living people in bondage, treated them as less-than-human, kidnapped young children from their families without a thought, were complicit in acts of murder and violence, and more is very hard for my 9 and 10 year-old students to take in. As is understandable at their age, they put themselves in the position of the children they are learning about. And so, when reading The Kidnapped Prince, Ann Cameron’s adaptation of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography or the draft of my forthcoming Africa is My Home: The Story of Sarah Margru Kinson, students will ask with such pain — did his parents go after Olaudah? Did they try to get him back? And what about Sarah — did she ever see her parents again? Or, most heartwrenchingly — would my parents come after me?

Reading a huge variety of primary and secondary sources on the topic as well as a variety of historical fiction over the many years I worked on Sarah’s story made me incredibly aware of the challenges we adults have as we figure out how to communicate to young children such difficult historical truths. Especially when we choose to tell them as historical fiction as Kimberly Brubaker Bradley did for Jefferson’s Sons, the story of  Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally HemingsHaving firsthand experience with research of this period I can say that I have tremendous admiration and respect for Bradley’s research and her efforts to tell this story for children. She does an excellent job giving young readers a sense of life in Monticello at the time. Considering her young audience, she is judicious in communicating horrors —the whippings and the selling.  By doing so she creates scenes that pack incredible emotional punches. The ending, in particular, is absolutely harrowing.

But. As a teacher, someone who spends her days giving lessons, the book seemed one big lesson to me. Beverly, Maddy, and Peter felt familiar to me — not as children of their time, but as children of my time, asking the questions my students would be asking, speaking as they would, responding as they would (in a 2011 vernacular and sensibility rather than ones more in keeping with the actual historical period). And then there were the teachers in the book acting as my colleagues and I would, earnestly and honestly attempting to answer the children’s questions as clearly and thoroughly as possible.  Mostly this was Sally,but there were others  too — say Beverly when he is older, Miss Ellen, Uncle John, and Jefferson himself (in an oddly removed way).  Over and over it felt like the child characters were standing in for the 2011 readers, asking their questions as they would rather than as someone in 1805 would (and would probably not because these seem to me to be 2011 questions not 1805 questions anyway). And the answers felt 2011 too, caring adults like ourselves patiently explaining a situation to 2011 readers more than the actual 1806 children. At least that is how it felt to me. Here are a few examples:

“She [Miss Martha] loved to come to Monticello and act like the boss of everything.”  (5)  Very 2011 vernacular.

“This was news to Beverly.  ‘Are you a slave, Mama?’” (22)  While I can certainly imagine my 2011 students asking this question I have a hard time imagining Beverly being so surprised in 1805.

“Mama,” Harriet said, “why are we slaves?” (33) Sally responds with just the sort of lesson I might do or a parent might today.  (This is just one example of what happens often in the novel. Sally is usually the one responding with the lesson, but others do on occasion too.)

“Enslaved people,” Mama said. “That’s what she [Miss Martha, Jefferson's daughter] meant. Don’t worry about it.” (53)  This really stuck out for me for the 2011 language in addition to being an explanation for the 2011 intended audience rather than her 1805 son.

“But I’m the same people she is,” Beverly said.  “I’m her brother.”  (53) Again, this is more a 2011 child speaking as it seems very unlikely to me that he’d voice this idea of being Miss Martha’s brother in such a way in 1806.

“If you and Master Jefferson got married,” he asked Mama, would you make Miss Martha stay away?  (68)  What, I wonder would make Beverly possibly imagine that Jefferson, president of the United States, would marry his mother?  Another question that I’d expect of my 2011 students more than of an 8 year-old boy living in 1806 Monticello.

“If she acts prissy,” said Beverly, “I’ll punch her.”  (74) That last bit — totally for the 2011 child audience. Would a child in 1806 speak that way?  I can’t imagine it.

“…France never allowed slavery.  In France, people with dark skin aren’t automatically seen as inferior to people with light skin.” (105)  Hmmm… I am very dubious that there weren’t racist people in Paris when Jefferson and Hemings were there. And France was quite active in the slave trade elsewhere into Napoleon’s time.  And Sally’s language — she sounds like a teacher yet again. Was she schooled by Jefferson to speak this way?

“It’s Greek,” Miss Ellen said.  “Aristotle. Know who he is?”  (136) in Maddy’s section we get Miss Ellen (one of Jefferson’s grand-daughter’s) as another teacher in addition to Sally.

“…but all I’m allowed to do is get married and have a dozen babies.  Like I’d want babies, or a husband. It’s stupid.” She [Miss Ellen] glared at Maddy.”  (138)  Yet again this is language and a view point for 2011 children not 1812 children.

“You want to know if great people can own slaves?” Uncle John asked. “Can a person still be great and still participate in evil?” He tapped on Maddy’s shoulder. “That’s what you are asking?” (255) Another lesson for the 2011 young readers, this time from the father-figure, Uncle John.

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7 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Newbery, Writing

7 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fiction, Slavery, and Didacticism

  1. An interesting and thoughtful post. I haven’t seen this specific criticism discussed anywhere else.

  2. Great thoughts. While in the Vermont MFA program in writing for young readers, my reconstruction-era novel received exactly the sort of critique you’ve given Bradley’s book: 2011 vernacular doesn’t belong in historical fiction. Viking has purchased my novel (anticipated release of 2013), and I’m now working on revisions with my editor there. She, like faculty members at Vermont, brought me to task for a few passages too-quickly written to appeal to modern readers. Better to remain true to the time period and allow some passages to raise questions for today’s readers. At the same time, some of my scenes were written so tightly from the point of view of my 1867 character that my editor has asked for more information–a few sentences grounding the character in his setting. Now my job is to describe (for the reader) details that the character would not describe or focus on, but would take for granted. I’m working on it, and I think I can do it. The balance is tricky.

  3. Fascinating post, Monica. As “absestrick” says above, the balance is tricky.

  4. abwestrick, I know exactly what you mean.I too struggled to keep Sarah’s voice of her time yet also provide the necessary context for readers today.

  5. Misti

    I just finished Jefferson’s Sons last night, and while I enjoyed it, I had the same feeling that the characters’ attitudes and dialogue were a little too 2011. Thanks for taking the time to pinpoint what I couldn’t. I also couldn’t help but compare it to Wolf By the Ears by Ann Rinaldi, which deals with many of the same characters and events, but from Harriet’s perspective (and for a slightly older audience). I felt like the characterization in Jefferson’s Sons was a little lacking, but I thought perhaps it was just me as an adult reading a children’s book, comparing it to a book that I read as a teen and really liked.

  6. In contrast, I thought Geraldine Brooks did a wonderful job of giving an authentic-sounding 17th c. voice to her characters in “Caleb’s Crossing” – which is an adult book, but the best historic fiction I’ve read this year.

    The whole heavy-handed didactic approach turned me off several of the older Newbery winners, like “The Door in the Wall”.

  7. Pingback: Fusenews: “Don’t Let the Pigeon Die Alone” « A Fuse #8 Production

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