Yesterday, I read Freedom Over Me, Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan. This was one of the books most recently read by the American Library Association. Honestly, I need to send them a thank you note because until I saw this book on the award list, it had escaped my notice.
As the title makes clear, this is the story of 11 slaves. What the title doesn’t tell you is that these are 11 people who have molded themselves into something of a family. They have the work that they do for the master — carpentry, sewing, cooking, farming — and many are so talented that they are “hired out” and bring even more benefit to the estate. But they also have their lives out of the master’s eye. They have means of using their gifts to benefit their fellow slaves and dreams of how they might use these gifts in the future.
Doesn’t feel especially fresh when I tell it like that, does it? But it starts with a poem from the POV of the master’s wife. He has just died. His widow is afraid to manage their estate alone because she has heard about slave revolts. Instead, she will sell them and move home to England were she will feel safe among her own people.
Read that part again. Safe among her own people.
Do you see how powerful this set up is? From the widow’s worries and words, we move on to the lives of the slave people who are once again being offered for sale which will surely mean that they will lose the families they have built. And all of this will happen after losing their African families.
The impact is profound largely because of how Bryan set up the story. The poor grieving widow is afraid. She has lost her husband and although he built this estate, she feels she must sell it and move home. Where she will be safe.
Turn the page and you are looking at 11 people who are being auctioned off. Eleven people who will very soon not be safe. They will, once again, not be among their own people
Now think about your own work-in-progress. Do you have a set up this powerful? If not, what might you do to rock your reader back on their heals? To make them see things in a new light?
Think about it.