In this YA novel, a young, freed slave describes his family’s move from a plantation to the city of New Orleans.
In April 1865, the former slaves of Moss Manor Plantation celebrate their new freedom with three days of music, dancing, visiting, and shouts of joy. Darien, a boy of about 12, begins his journal with “We FREE! We FREE! We FREE!,” and this tone of irrepressible liveliness remains throughout his account—even when the realities of making a living are harsh. His large, extended family of three adults and nine children leaves Moss Manor to find work elsewhere; Darien’s father, called “Pappy,” is a skilled carpenter who doesn’t want to eke out a living sharecropping. The family arrives at the Great Piney Woods, where a sawmill provides employment. There, they enjoy Saturday frolics and also mourn Lincoln’s recent assassination. But after a dispute between Pappy and his boss, the family moves to New Orleans via riverboat, joined by a woman named Mammy Marie and a pretty girl named Solange, whom Darien likes. The energy, music, and food of the French Quarter help energize the family as they tackle new jobs. Pappy makes coffins, the girls sew, and the boys try working in a shop but are too rambunctious; then, for a time, they’re exploited as chimney sweeps for low wages. Eventually, Pappy sets up his own business as an undertaker, and the family thrives. McWilliams (Diary of a Black Seminole Girl, Ebony Noel, 2016, etc.) employs the same voice in this novel as in her series’ other offerings—one that’s full of exclamation points, capitalized words, dialect usage, and naive vocabulary; for example, Darien nearly always describes laughter as “hee hawing.” This outing’s setting, during the early years of emancipation, is intriguing, as it’s one that isn’t often explored in YA fiction. By taking freedom as a starting point instead of an endpoint, the book is able to provide a valuable perspective on the challenges faced by freed slaves. Darien’s point of view is entertaining throughout, despite his and his family’s struggles as they confront injustice.
An exuberantly told tale of one family’s efforts to craft their own destiny.