It isn’t often I’m left lost for words, but that’s the way I felt when I finished reading this superb YA novel. I thought making a list of its good and bad points might introduce some balance: but its virtues are many, and the only flaw I could come up with is so minor as to be hardly worth mentioning – I’m not keen on the title. In the end I realised I had only one option, so forgive me while I gush shamelessly.
Virtue number one: Jon Walter’s courage in tackling a subject such as slavery. The story is set in the deep south during the American civil war, most of the action taking place on a Mississippi plantation. It’s familiar territory, and therefore difficult to write about with any originality. But Walter has clearly done an enormous amount of research, and the result is a story that feels entirely new because it digs deep into the period to find the human truth behind the history.
Virtue number two: an almost Dickensian talent for creating character. The cast list is long, and each and every one of them is fully realised, even the walk-on parts. But the book’s central character is a very special creation indeed. We first meet Samuel in an orphanage for “coloured” children, and I challenge any reader not to be captivated by his voice, part Huck Finn, part Oliver Twist, but wholly himself. He tells his story in the first person, and within a few pages it’s like listening to an old friend.
Virtue number three: the good old-fashioned art of storytelling. The rollercoaster gets off to a quick start, with Samuel being tricked into slavery. Everything is taken from him, even his identity – he is renamed Friday, the day on which he is sold. The servitude is bad enough, but Samuel is also desperate to get back to the orphanage and his little brother. What follows is a tale of twists and turns, revelations and reversals, and it will keep you utterly gripped.
Virtue number four: a brilliant exploration of one of the biggest themes of all – religion. Samuel has a direct and personal relationship with God, and starts out believing that if he treads the path of virtue, then the Almighty will take care of him. But the same God is invoked by the slave-owners, who justify their tyranny with biblical quotes. Samuel is forced to confront his beliefs, and there is nothing more poignant than seeing him struggle to hold on to his only consolation.
Virtue number five: the quality of the writing. Samuel’s voice never strikes a false note, never sounds like the author’s mouthpiece. Yet scene after amazing scene unfolds clearly in his words – the slave auction, a slave being whipped by a white preacher, slaves holding a secret religious service in the woods, a lone Union soldier riding across the plantation in the dawn light. It’s epic in scale, but built out of the smallest things – great sentences and great dialogue.
I could go on. You should know there is some use of the “N” word, which is entirely right for the historical context, although it’s still deeply shocking to see it on the page. And as for that title … well, I’m beginning to come round to it.
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