|Antheneum Books for|
By Sharon Draper
Imagine your whole world and everyone you love disappearing in an instant. You are beaten and dragged away in chains. How would you feel? What would you do? This is Amari’s fate when her village in Africa is visited by strange-looking men the color of “goat’s milk.” At first, the villagers are excited to host a welcome celebration. But their joy is cut short when the celebration turns into a savage and deadly attack. Amari suddenly finds herself shackled and driven on a march to the sea where she is branded and taken aboard a ship, never to see her homeland again. She is now a slave, and her future holds nothing but misery, anguish and grief, unless she can escape.
Perhaps too many Americans think of slavery as a thing of the past, and not the Holocaust that it was—the genocide and enslavement of a people. But through Amari, a character who is far from flat or cliché, the reader can relate to the suffering and loss of the slaves who built America with their blood and tears. Amari is so real, so gentle, and so innocent, that it is hard not to instantly become invested in her fate. But it isn’t just Amari who makes the story interesting. Each character in the story contributes a perspective to this woeful tale that is different but historically significant. For instance, white characters are not a stereotype. They each represent the perspective of a community that made slavery happen. Even the “kind” whites like Sailor Ben, who occasionally takes mercy on Amari, or indentured servant Polly, who could care less for negroes but comes to sympathize with Amari, or Doctor Hoskins, who like so many whites opposes slavery but remains a bystander and does nothing to prevent the abuse, all share guilt for the deaths of many thousands of slaves. Villians like slave-owners Percival and Clay Derby who are on the front lines of purchasing slaves bring the cruelty of the institution to life even when they aren’t being directly cruel. Each of these characters, and their historical counterparts, allowed their prejudice and self-preservation to stand in the way of humanity. Even African characters, like the Ashanti who betray Amari’s village, bear guilt for slavery—no angle is left unexamined. Draper truly reveals the complicated social ramifications of the slave trade in a way that other novels do not.
The novel is very well researched. Readers will be shocked to know that slaves in the field rarely lasted more than five years before they died and were replaced, or that the knowledge of slaves often far exceeded the expertise of the master. Perhaps most disturbing is the number of slave women who were raped by masters and other whites with power over them. Yet, despite its gritty detail and shocking truths, the story is as easy to understand, exceedingly interesting, and accessible for readers who struggle.