Drums. War drums.
Benin against Hausa.
Yoruba against Ashanti.
Mandingo against Wolof.
The foreigners against all.
The Drums spoke of treachery–
Pumpumpumpum pumpum pum pumpumpum.
Dinga, heard the Drums’ song,
But it was far away and had nothing to do with him.
So he didn’t worry.
He wasn’t careful . . .
McKissack has crafted a wonderful original folktale that pays homage both to the resilience of the Taken and the families who mourned them. It’s told in a series of free verse poems such as the one above. The language has musicality and rhythm, wonderful images and sensory details, and the ability to touch the soul–in short, it has all the strengths of poetry–yet it’s also perfectly suited to that African blend of storytelling that incorporates singing, chanting, and dancing.
Betsy likened this book to the Broadway musical, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, and I do see that comparison. I’m also going to mention a couple books from my own Newbery year that could almost serve as sequels to this book. One is Jacqueline Woodson’s SHOW WAY which follows the story of generations of women out of slavery and into the present day. The other is Julius Lester’s THE OLD AFRICAN (with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney), another powerful original folktale about slaves being so fed up with their present situation that they walk into the ocean–and back to Africa. All of these stories feature the theme that love and family can ultimately triumph over injustice, or as McKissack puts it, “Kings may come and go, but the family endures forever.”
Besides the tender portrayal of the father-son relationship, I also appreciated the nontraditional models of family and gender.
Though Dinga was a gifted blacksmith,
First among the first,
He is remembered
Best for being a loving father.
When his wife dies in childbirth, Dinga refuses to take another, or give his child away, despite the disapproval of the villagers.
He tied his baby on his back
Like a woman
And headed for his forge.
Dinga doesn’t need a village to raise his children, but . . .
With the Mother Elements by his side
Dinga danced late into the night,
Celebrating the new family that had been formed.
When the boy, Musafa, becomes old enough he apprentices to his father, who indulges his special talents . . .
“Musafa makes pretty things, yes!
But useless!” Dinga complained to the Mother Elements.
“All he needs is time,” hissed Fire.
“Be patient,” said Earth.
“One day his hammer will find a song,” Water added.
And so Dinga allowed Musafa
To continue hammering out beautifully decorated,
McKissack does a wonderful job of showing how very precious Musafa is to his father–he’s even willing to flout village tradition and practical work experience in his own forge–and it’s genuinely heartbreaking when he is taken.
As I mentioned previously, I would definitely spend one of my seven Newbery nominations on this title, but I do have a couple of reservations about that text that presently keep it from joining AMELIA LOST and I BROKE MY TRUNK! in my top three. I’m going to pose them as questions and perhaps you can help me work through my issues.
First, as a seventh grade World History teacher last year, I taught about not only West African civilizations, but also the slave trade. My understanding is that black Africans captured other black Africans in the interior and then marched them to the coast where the slaves were sold to white Europeans at large forts on the coast. The Europeans then conducted the Middle Passage, taking them to various auction blocks across the New World. The quote at the very beginning not only alludes to this civil strife between warring African tribes, but correctly implies that the foreigners instigated it all. Nevertheless, the prelude seems to suggest that Europeans sailed up the Niger River and did their own kidnapping, and later in the book on the spread with “Earth’s Lament,” the illustrations seem to reinforce this. I’m not pretending to be an expert here, but the latter scenario strikes me as unlikely–although perhaps not impossible? I think it’s a purposeful oversimplification that serves the direct thrust of the story, but I’m not sure that it’s accurate or clear presentation of information.
Second, at the end of the book someone tells Musafa that his master plans to free him to which the boy replies that he’s always felt free in his mind. It must be a very difficult thing for an author to leave a child in slavery at the end of a story, but I question why somebody would tell him that he would soon be free. African Americans were initially brought over as indentured servants, but that was in the early 1600s, not the early 1700s. Why would a master free a slave with such a valuable skill set? Personally, I rationalize it the same way others have rationalized Doug: It’s the author’s way of saying it’s okay–for now. But it still strikes a minor false note for me.
This is a top ten book for me, perhaps even top five, but in order to move it into my top three I would need to resolve both of those concerns. I’m sure that some of McKissack’s research might shed some light on these issues, but there’s nothing in the author’s note. Then, too, maybe you can help me out. Am I making mountains out of molehills?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at email@example.com
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