In this fictional diary aimed at young readers, a young slave girl recounts a dramatic year in her life.
In 1717, Ruby Jo, who’s around 12 years old, is a slave at the Jasmine Manor Plantation near Charles Town, South Carolina. She works in the “Big House” looking after Missy Linda Sue, the younger of the plantation owners’ two daughters. At night, Ruby and other slaves illegally learn reading, writing, and simple arithmetic in a “Pit School”—a secret clearing in the forest—taught by “Mars Chester.” (“Mars” is patois for “Master,” so Chester must be a white man, but his role at Jasmine Manor isn’t explained.) Mars Chester gives Ruby Jo her own diary, which begins after harvest time with a story of an exciting barge trip to Charles Town; there, the travelers—Miss Kate, her daughters, and Ruby Jo—see the pirate Blackbeard and his men. Ruby Jo records illnesses, deaths, feasts, and work; her growing crush on Taleteller Frank, a boy her own age; and unsettling news about runaways and a possible spy among the slaves. As the book ends, Letitia Belle’s wedding day in Charles Town is ruined when Blackbeard and his pirate ships blockade the harbor. Slave narratives are often catalogs of horrors, but McWilliams’ (Diary of a Black Seminole Girl, Ebony Noel, 2016, etc.) series installment emphasizes the protagonist’s adolescent emotions and sense of fun. Some people will feel that the author’s take sugarcoats the reality of slave life; others will appreciate how it celebrates the slaves’ creativity. The style is breathless and lively, full of capitalizations and exclamation points, giving readers a sense of Ruby Jo’s dialect while not overdoing it. However, a few anachronisms and inconsistencies mar the story; for example, the slaves sing “Silent Night,” composed in 1818, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” composed in 1868. Also, Ruby Jo can spell the difficult word “caterwauling” but writes “through” as “thru.” And although a revelation of literacy can mean death for a slave, Ruby Jo allows her mistresses to see her “Kin Quilt,” which features family names written in stitches.
A lightweight, unevenly written historical tale for children.