I’ve been working on my first book for the last two years now. I am trying to write it for a 6th to 8th grade level and in such a manner as to fit within a curriculum on runaway slaves in particular and slavery in general. The story is inspired by real people- two slaves named Betsey and Welcome– although I have taken liberty with the facts (let us call it artistic license) to fill in large gaps in their story. In many ways I’ve tried to include modern scholarship to show what the experience of an average slave was like. However, such is near impossible for the average experience of a slave was quite different depending on where they lived (Mississippi vs. North Carolina), their job (field vs. house), their individual master (a whole gamut running from benevolent to malicious), and a host of other reasons. Consequently, I decided on writing a story that would accurately reflect the conditions, choices, and struggles that many slaves faced during the antebellum period in the American South.
I’ve tried to include as many aspects of slavery as possible- the well known and the not so well known. Also the contradictions and the competing loyalties take center stage quite often as characters negotiate difficult relationships: friendships that exist within the boundaries of the slave system’s social order, a master who considers himself benevolent but learns otherwise when his authority is challenged, familial bonds that kept some slaves from running away while others who chose to runaway fought with and lived with the memories of family members left behind, and the pain of loss at the extreme cruelties of the slave system that led many to choose deprivation, hunger, and even death over a life of enslaved misery. The story is difficult to read at times, but it is important to know and understand how the slave system impacted the lives of everyday men, women, and children. Why? Because it is easy to get lost in statistics. As Joseph Stalin once said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Through some odd quirk the death and suffering of many is easier to understand, process, and push aside than the death of one person. Perhaps it isn’t an odd quirk though, since we usually come to know and understand the one person better. We can hear about their life, their accomplishments, their dreams. The million dead merge into one tangled mess that we often don’t have the time or energy to explain or understand. Their dreams, hopes, accomplishments, and loves are lost with them. Part of my goal in writing this story is to resurrect some small part of those great hopes and deep anguishes in a way that allows modern readers to connect with a slave girl who isn’t just a statistic.
Let me know what you think in the comments section. I haven’t done a lot of editing yet as I am still writing my way through the first draft. So don’t be too surprised if you catch a typo or even a dozen. I’ll post the first chapter on Monday. Here is the Introduction which will hopefully catch your interest. And be honest. Most books gain or loss their reader’s interest in the first paragrpah or page, so let me know if you were left wanting more or not. Thanks!
On Toward Freedom
Main Character: Betsey
Master: James Allen
Master’s Daughter: Susan Allen
Overseer: Jesse Bryant
Slave 1: Tom (Jerry Gaskins)
Slave 2: Simon
Slave 3: Abram
Patroller 1: William Tanner
Patroller 2: Bryan Godwin
A quiet fell over the house as Grandma Bryant sat down in the old rocking chair, its wooden legs creaking as she slowly rocked. The children sat in awe of the octogenarian as she moved her arms wildly in the air with the vigor of a woman half her age. Grandma Bryant was in the middle of one of her yarns about the old days— stories she told about the unbelievable things her long dead ancestors had done. When she told her stories, everyone listened. It was hard not to, because when she told them, the usually quiet, subdued, and slightly hunched over little old lady sat straight up and turned as wide eyed as a child with the booming voice of a megaphone.
This particular time was no different. Michael, Shawn, and Eva sat motionless, eyes fixated on Grandma. They did not want to miss a single word. As they leaned in closer she smiled and said, “You three chilluns’ are awful nice to be so attentive to an old woman’s stories.”
“We love your stories Grandma!” Michael blurted out.
“Well that’s good Michael, cause I love telling them. Matter of fact, there is a story I ain’t told ya yet. A story from long, long ago, back before we were free, back in the slave times.” She leaned back as far as the chair would go as a broad smile grew across her face. The kind of ear to ear smile she always got when remembering a real good story. Michael, Shawn, and Eva noticed that grin and almost jumped out of their socks with excitement.
“Now I must warn you chilluns’, some of what you hear, well it might scare ya.”
Shawn blurted out defiantly, “Nothings gonna scare me grandma.”
“Well now Shawn, a smart child knows there is plenty in this world to be scared of. And in the times I am gonna tell you about there was even plenty more to be scared of.”
“Was it really that bad grandma?” The young girl asked.
“No, it was worse. Black people were hunted like animals and had to risk the worst of dangers just to try to be free— even if only for a short time. You think you children can handle that?” Shawn swallowed nervously and Michael, too scared to speak, just shook his head yes. “What about you Eva, wanna hear about Betsey and her father Welcome, and their time as a slaves?”
“Welcome? What kind name is that?” Eva giggled at the name.
“Welcome was the name his master gave him, he ain’t had no say in it so it ain’t proper makin’ fun of him for it. And Betsey, she was a little girl just like you Eva. Matter of fact she even looked a lot like you, about the only thing difference was her name. She had blue eyes, sandy colored hair and her skin had a yellowish complexion. I reckon she was the prettiest girl in the state. My grandma told me she was also smart as a whip too.”
“Yeah, my grandma. She was your Great-Great-Grandmother. She was the one who told me this story. She lived on the same plantation with Betsey and her family, you could say they was mighty close.”
Grandma rocked forward and laughed, “I reckon you won’t believe a word I tell ya, but it’s all true. Every last word.” The children scooted closer, a couple inches from their grandmother’s slippered feet.
“It all started when…”