Two YA Novels About Slavery

Somehow I missed out on Anne Rinaldi when I was a historical-fiction loving tween. How did this happen? No matter, I am making up for lost time now. In college I even met her at a Colonial Williamsburg book signing.

In honor of Black History Month, here are short reviews of two of Rinaldi novels that deal with slave uprisings and the uneasy relationship white Americans had with their slaves. She did a good job of capturing the paternalism, friendship, rationalization, and fear that went through slave owners’ minds. Her slave characters also inhabit a complex social world. Their enslaved friends have conflicting ideas about loyalty, obedience, and freedom. These books offer young readers a more nuanced view of early American society than I have seen in a long time.

That being said, their plots could be better. The spunky young heroines have life-altering adventures in convoluted ways. Oh, and the use of very modern phrases startled me. (Maybe I am just a grad student snob 😉

Here’s a brief summary of each.

In The Letter Writer, young orphan Harriet Whitehead is growing up on her relatives’ Virginia plantation. She spends her days writing dictated letters for her aunt and being BFFs with her maidservant. Nat Turner is an enslaved preacher in the area, and her interest in his work leads her to be an unwittingly assist his violent plans. The scenes of his uprising’s killing spree are truly horrifying.

But once the dust settles, we get a completely contrived fairy-tale ending involving some surprise paternity. BFF maidservant gets freedom, but Harriet’s opinions on slavery are otherwise unchanged. At the novel’s end, her enslaved staff assure her she has the makings of a fine plantation mistress. As repulsive as this arrangement might be to us readers, it is more historically probable than Harriet becoming an abolitionist.

The Color of Fire, on the other hand, is written from the view of young slave girl Phoebe. Her story is set during panics about slave rebellion in 1750s New York, events that I had never heard of. Phoebe’s wealthy master trusts her, and so she has enough mobility to get involved in the drama of mob violence and helping victims of the “witch hunt.”

The ensuing dilemmas and dangers are gripping, but there is just too much happening too fast. In a few short chapters, readers abruptly encounter secret priests, possible euthanasia, the grotesqueness of burning at the stake, and slaves seeking freedom as indentured servants to the Indians. Rinaldi drops readers straight into the action, leaving them without a mooring.

These are not Rinaldi’s best books, but they have some value in spite of their narrative flaws. It’s good to see historical fiction that addresses antebellum and even colonial slavery. Both stories left me eager to explore non-fiction about the events in them. Supplemented with more contextual history, these novels could help middle schoolers contemplate how early Americans negotiated race relations and how there was inherent tension in the system of slavery.

What stories about black history would you recommend to YA history buffs?



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