A black teen finds himself sold to a brutal chain gang in post-Reconstruction Georgia.
The period following Reconstruction in the American South was particularly difficult for blacks, many of whom worked on plantations as sharecroppers. Cy Williams and his father, Pete, work for John Strong as he tries to eke out a living on a once-thriving plantation. Cy’s mother has abandoned the family, forever changing Pete. The one friendship Cy has is with Travis, Strong’s young son, who fears his often drunken father. After an enraged Strong abuses the horse beloved by the boys, Travis flees with the animal, and Cy tries to retrieve them—a venture that ends with Travis dead and Cy in peonage, a system by which blacks were sold to work camps or chain gangs for minor infractions or no charges at all. Cy’s life changes from tough to nightmarish as he is linked to other men and boys with little hope of release. This is a story of relentless brutality, with the prisoners enduring almost every possible indignity. There are too few instances of story tension to lift the narrative, with the result that it often feels flat despite the horrors described. Characters are primarily victims and villains, and the use of derogatory racial language is used often to make that point.
A tough, important read, though many readers will need prior background knowledge to fully understand it. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)