Friday, April 4, 2008

Amos Fortune: Free Man

I did not expect to like Amos Fortune: Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates, at all. After all, it ranked even lower than James Daugherty's Daniel Boone in the Allen County opinionated librarians' list - and I hated that Boone "biography" so much that I didn't think it should even be on the shelf in my local library (see here).

Well, the good news is that I didn't hate this book as much as I did Daniel Boone. There were a lot of interesting bits, historically speaking - I really liked the descriptions of tanning. The story was basically one of perseverance and of the life of a kind, gentle (and for most of the book, fairly old) man. It was sometimes boring, but I thought that was infinitely better than the pompous declarations that littered Daniel Boone.

Though the Allen County librarians' comment from the website above was right on target: "If Pollyanna was a slave... The things that come out of his mouth are invented at best, offensive at worst."

Like Daugherty's Boone, Amos Fortune was filed in the (non-fiction!) biography section, when really, it is more fiction than not. Very little is known about the real Amos Fortune (but see here and here for what there is). There were a handful of documents, a house and barn, and a couple of grave markers in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and Yates took this information and created a prince named At-mun who is captured by slavers in western Africa, stoically endures the Middle Passage, and is sold in Massachusetts.

At-mun becomes Amos, who is extraordinarily (and unbelievably) fortunate in his owners, who treat him with respect and Christian kindness. Then Amos - who really is rather ridiculously complaisant and cheerful about his different situations in life - goes on to become a tanner, buys himself and several wives out of slavery, and prospers, leaving a small legacy to the church and school in Jaffrey, NH. It's a good life, which happens because Amos is humble, trusts God, and just has such a darn good attitude about it all, Yates implies:
"Once, long years ago, I thought I could set a canoe-load of my people free by breaking the bands at my wrists and killing the white man who held the weapon. I had the strength in my hands to do such a deed and I had the fire within, but I didn't do it."

"What held you back?"

Amos shook his head. "My hand was restained and I'm glad that it was, for the years between have shown me that it does a man no good to be free until he knows how to live, how to walk in step with God." (p. 161-162)
Ok, then.

It's interesting to compare this story to Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, which won the Newbery a generation later than Amos Fortune, and is similarly based on a few historical facts concerning the trans-Atlantic slave trade - but is classified as fiction. Amos Fortune's capture and passage to America is not particularly brutal as Yates describes it (not when compared to The Slave Dancer or Alex Hailey's Roots, anyway), and although she goes on about freedom and dignity at some length, I don't think kids really get the idea of how horrible the Middle Passage or slavery in general was from this book. Amos Fortune's life appears to be much like that of any hardworking servant or apprentice in colonial New England in Amos Fortune: Free Man - and really, that's not right.

I think kids (and adults) would be better off reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (which was published in 1845! It's even more classic than Amos Fortune, and it was written by someone who actually experienced what he wrote about), or Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton (which won Newbery Honors in 2008).


Sandy D. said...

And what is with this horrible cover? I'm going to have to blog about the various covers over at my site again. I think this one was the worst. It's like he has little men climbing on his shoulder.

Sandy D. said...

Check this out, it's Amos' & Violet's graves.