I had grave misgivings before I began reading this book. It won the Newbery Award, yes, but it won in 1951, and it’s a book about a black man written by a white woman. In 1950. That’s enough to give me a bit of a pause entering into the reading experience.
On the whole, the book was not as racially insensitive as I thought it would be. That doesn’t mean that it’s a shining example of careful research and subtle characterization, just that it’s not as bad as it could have been. Which is something.
It’s interesting to me that being free is such an integral part of who Amos Fortune is, and is clearly one of his most vividly held beliefs, and yet slavery is generally shown to be not that bad. All of the slaves in the book want to be free. But when his original owners, who were going to offer him freedom, he denies it because “he’s not ready”. And later when the male owner dies and his widow and child sell Amos on the auction block to pay off their debts, Amos is not upset about this because he knows that it is his duty to help out his friends in paying the debts. Um, I’m sorry, but when your “friends” consider it perfectly acceptable to put you up on the auction block, a humiliating experience that could possibly result in physical and mental danger depending on who buys you, that is not friendship. That is not doing your duty. That is one set of people who have not been able to reach out a true hand of friendship and therefore still see you as chattel when push comes to shove and the good times end. Amos should have felt betrayed. Even if he understood why they felt they had to sell him, he should have felt something more than just cheerful to do his part.
Because the book spans nearly one hundred years, I had a hard time connecting to the emotional life of Amos. Each chapter covers a decade or more in his life, leaving very little time to truly feel the impact of any one decision or life event. The only major incident that is brought up throughout the book as a painful memory is Amos’s sister Ath-Mun. And that memory made me angry, because it was so obvious that he was being incredibly idiotic about his continued search for a 12 year old girl. That a man as smart as Amos spent decades looking for his little sister before he realized suddenly that she would no longer be 12 seemed unrealistic.
This is supposedly a biography, but it falls into the category only vaguely. It would not be published as such today. It lacks any sort of bibliography or resources to indicate how the author did her research. It also takes liberties, with the narrator claiming to understand what Amos was thinking or feeling, when there is no way to really know that. This was common in children’s biographies of decades past (Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, also a Newbery winner from the ’50′s, is written in a very similar vein. Actually, that book covers a very similar time period, though from a completely perspective. Both books are about men who worked hard to “make something of themselves” though, which is interesting from a cultural perspective.) but it’s still frustrating to me as a modern reader who would like something more.
The overt Christianity in the book annoyed me a bit too. Amos’s people are pagan at the beginning of the book, but it’s made clear that they’re the “good” kind of pagan that even though they aren’t Christian don’t resort to wanton violence. That’s patronizing. There’s a fine line between a character believing strongly that his good fortunes are from God and that his misfortunes are God testing him, and the author signaling that that is clearly her worldview and all else must therefore spring from it. This book goes over the line.
With all of that criticism, there were still some good aspects. Although I found bits of the book patronizing, or misrepresentative, or otherwise flawed, I could see that the author was trying to show that African Americans were equal in intelligence and ambition to every other type of American, and for 1950 just the fact that she was trying counts for something.
I’m not entirely certain what the committee saw in the book. I don’t think the themes were necessarily carefully expressed throughout the book (Amos loves freedom, but isn’t upset when it is denied to him, twice, by owners who are supposed to care.) The characters go through so much of their lives that they are not terribly well drawn, more glimpses into their lives. The setting is well done, I’ll give them that.