FREDERICK DOUGLASS by Peter Burchard

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

For the Great Family of Man
Age Range: 12 & up
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A deeply flawed biography of the abolitionist leader points out the crying need for better sourcing and documentation in children’s nonfiction. Burchard, a writer for both adults (One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment, 1965, etc.) and children (Lincoln and Slavery, 1999, etc.), sacrifices scholarly integrity for character development in his attempt to bring Douglass to life. The early parts of the narrative rely heavily—according to chapter notes, almost exclusively at times—on Douglass’s own memoirs, which many scholars suspect were fictionalized for effect. The author himself notes this in one of the chapter notes, going on to state, however, that “Douglass did not exaggerate agonies of the kind endured by many slaves throughout the South.” Despite this qualification, in the body of the text Douglass’s memoirs are summarized without comment, allowing the reader who does not opt to check the chapter notes to believe that everything described actually happened. This tendency to summarize can at times stretch into virtual paraphrase and results in wildly emotive language that is 19th-century melodrama at its worst: “because Esther was so beautiful, Anthony lusted after her himself and was driven to the depths of jealousy.” All too often the author moves into assertions about his subjects’ feelings and motivations that are not supported by the original. It should be noted that once Burchard moves into Douglass’s later life, about which there are many more sources, the account takes on a much more moderate and objective tone. Still, the sketchiness of the chapter notes (simply referring readers interested in particular subjects to the appropriate volumes in the bibliography without any more specific direction) leaves many assertions virtually uncheckable (“Douglass, with a faint smile on his lips, faced his audience . . . ”—who took those notes?). The narrative takes Douglass and the reader up to the end of the Civil War; an epilogue wraps up the remainder of his life, including discreet coverage of his long affair with German journalist Ottilie Assing. Why is there an assumption that children’s nonfiction need not adhere to the same scholarly rigors as adult nonfiction? They certainly deserve better than this. (bibliography, index, notes) (Biography. 12+)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-689-83240-0
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Atheneum
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2002




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