Edmonia Lewis was a noted African-American sculptor whose career begins in this verse novel set in the late 1800s.
Edmonia, who is of African-Haitian and Ojibwe descent, is attending the newly racially integrated Oberlin College in 1862. The story opens immediately with a secret romance that barely has a chance to blossom, as a startling scandal arises when Edmonia is accused of the attempted murder of two white female students she had befriended. Though she is acquitted, Edmonia’s character is permanently scarred by the event, and she is forced to leave Oberlin before graduating. Fate connects Edmonia to mentoring from accomplished sculptors, which leads her to travel to Rome, a place where she flourishes to become an internationally known sculptor. From sparse historical records, Atkins creates a memorable, poetic tale that offers a fictional account of what life may have been like for Edmonia, backgrounding this with solid research into the era. Stories of doomed love, in particular the biblical tale of Hagar, act as thematic touchstones, and her determination to sculpt Cleopatra forms the story’s spine. Atkins’ compressed verse evokes both the racial realities of the time, including violence, and the artistic process: “Art is made of questions and craft. / What she doesn’t know shapes her work / along with the hope that someone believes / in her.” Atkins describes her process in an author’s note.
A fascinating, tantalizing glimpse. (bibliography) (Verse historical fiction. 12-18)