This book won the Carnegie Medal in 2015. It follows the story of Charlotte, a young black slave living on a plantation in the Deep South. she is an orphan and the only family she knows are the other slaves that surround her. After the American Civil War the anti slavery laws are brought in and all the slaves are emancipated overnight. I’m sure that in Washington this sounded like a humane and clever thing to do, but the reality (as we learn through Charlotte) is that the slaves had no idea what to do once they had been emancipated. They had no money, nowhere to live and no hope of getting a job. This is the grim reality for Charlotte and her ‘family’.
After witnessing the hanging of the other two slaves and a narrow escape she decides that she needs to leave and the only safe way to do this is to disguise herself as a man. The changes of her staying alive are greater, and she won’t be raped. Her next move after trying and failing to earn a living is to join the army. she reinvents herself as Charley and join the Buffalo Soldiers; a group of black men defending the frontiers from marauding Indians and protecting the new settlers as they journey west. She falls in love but the man (thinking she is also a man remember?) panics and runs away. The irony of black men defending white men from Indian men is not lost on the reader, which I think is the point.
Bearing in mind that this a book written by a white English lady the tone and pathos (look it up people!) of the book is fab. The main narrator is a girl living in a very difficult time, in a man’s body and she is a likeable, warm person who you want to have a happy ending. She is living in a time in America where there was a lot of change and lawlessness, it kind of brings home to you how BIG America is; there are huge parts of it that no one lives in and that are not controlled by anyone – mob rule only. it also shows the lack of respect that the black soldier got from the rest of the army; this lazy, deeply embedded racism that seems to be the norm amongst them even though they are doing exactly the same job and at the end of the day, the enemy is going to kill them all no matter what colour they are.
I want to tell you that the ending is happy but I think it suits the book. It has enough reality to make it believable. It reminds you that we are very lucky to be living in the age we are with the rights that we have – and a good historical read into the bargain. Further reading would include anything about the American Civil War, Roots by Alex Haley and 12 years a slave by Solomon Northup.