keeperNightjohn by Gary Paulsen
Release Date: January 1, 1995
Publisher: Laurel Leaf
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: starstarstarstarblank_star
Buy It: Amazon | IndieBound

Sarny, a female slave at the Waller plantation, first sees Nightjohn when he is brought there with a rope around his neck, his body covered in scars.

He had escaped north to freedom, but he came back–came back to teach reading. Knowing that the penalty for reading is dismemberment Nightjohn still retumed to slavery to teach others how to read. And twelve-year-old Sarny is willing to take the risk to learn.

Set in the 1850s, Gary Paulsen’s groundbreaking new novel is unlike anything else the award-winning author has written. It is a meticulously researched, historically accurate, and artistically crafted portrayal of a grim time in our nation’s past, brought to light through the personal history of two unforgettable characters. – Goodreads

Yet another book read for my literacy course. My professor calls these books YA, but they are most definitely on the younger side of middle grade. Which is fine. I love middle grade just as much as YA. This is the first novel that’s really dealt with a heavy social issue. It’s written by a white man, which I tend to be wary of, not because white people can’t write about the experiences of people of color, but because I feel as though a lot of the time, white people don’t have the information or emotional experience to give any justice to that character. This book is full of dialect, and the narrator, Sarny, repeats herself a lot. For example, in the first chapter: “But it ain’t so that I’m dumb. I’m just quiet and they be thinking because I don’t make noise and go twattering all the time that I be dumb. But I ain’t. I just be so quiet and listen all the time that I learn things.” Dialect drives me nuts, so I had to get used to it at first. This book is all of 112 pages, and a good quarter of that is a sort of book club discussion they have in the very back. So it’s a quick read, if you can decipher what Sarny is saying.

We learn first that Sarny’s mother, who she doesn’t remember, was sold when Sarny was four. Sarny calls her mother her “birthing mammy” and refers to some of the slave women as “breeders.” This made me unbearably sad. Humans are not “breeders.” A lot of horrible things are described in this book: rape, physical violence, abuse. We all know that slavery existed, but to read about it up close is pretty awful. So this book isn’t a fun read, but it is quick, and it’s important, and it will probably stick in the minds of the younger kids who read it. People are punished and maimed for something we take for granted, something some of us don’t even enjoy: reading. Nightjohn is punished in terrible ways, Sarny herself is hurt, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to learn and it doesn’t stop John from wanting to teach.

The message of this book is kind of complex. It’s about slavery overall, the injustice, the horror, the brutality, but it’s also about a young girl on the brink of womanhood. A young girl who learns about the power of letters and the power of a man willing to escape then come back just so he can teach.