Synopses & Reviews
On March 2 and 3, 1859, the largest auction of slaves in American history took place in Savannah, Georgia. More than 400 slaves were sold. On the first day of the auction, the skies darkened and torrential rain began falling. The rain continued throughout the two days, stopping only when the auction had ended. The simultaneity of the rain storm with the auction led to these two days being called "the weeping time." Master storyteller Julius Lester has taken this footnote of history and created the crowning achievement of his literary career. Julius Lester tells the story of several characters including Emma, a slave owned by Pierce Butler and caretaker of his two daughters, and Pierce, a man with a mounting gambling debt and household to protect. Emma wants to teach his daughters-one who opposes slavery and one who supports it-to have kind hearts. Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to survive, Pierce decides to cash in his "assets" and host the largest slave auction in American history. And on that day, the skies open up and weep endlessly on the proceedings below.
Using the multiple voices of enslaved Africans and their owners, Julius Lester has taken a little-known, all-true event in American history and transformed it into a heartbreaking and powerfully dramatic epic on slavery, and the struggle to affirm humanity in the midst of it.
"Unfolding like a play, Lester's novel in dialogue based on actual events cannot help but be informed by his research and writing for his 1969 Newbery Honor book, To Be a Slave. In many ways, the scenes here beg to be dramatized upon a stage; many sections read like monologues, but each contributes to a powerful whole. Some readers may initially have trouble connecting Emma, the children's nursemaid, to her parents, Mattie and Will, the master's manservant. As the book progresses, however, the relationships become crystal clear. The book opens as, in Mattie's words, 'The rain is coming down as hard as regret.' Master Butler is about to hold an auction to sell off 429 slaves in order to repay a gambling debt. Other details unfold, as Will mentions how he and Master Butler grew up together ('He used to look up to me like I was his big brother'); Emma mentions that Mistress Fannie left her husband a year before, and an author's note explains that Fannie Kemble, who opposed slavery, married Pierce Butler not knowing that he owned slaves. The ultimate betrayal occurs when Master Butler agrees to sell Emma, the only person whom Sara, his oldest child, trusts. Lester poignantly conveys how the auction polarizes the two sisters: Sara who detests slavery, and Frances who sides with her father. Some of the flashback sections (particularly that of the 'slave-seller') interrupt the flow of events, but the novel provides a compelling opportunity for children to step into the shoes of those whose lives were torn apart by slavery. Ages 9-13." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Neither quite poetry nor a play, the book gives the voices of each character life and brings the reader closer to understanding, on an individual basis, the legacy of slavery and its impact on whites and blacks alike." Children's Literature
"[T]his book does what history texts are not designed to do: it humanizes the people involved as a Georgia plantation owner made history, having orchestrated the largest slave auction to ever take place." KLIATT
"Lester imaginatively reconstructs what could have been going on in the minds of fictional slaves and owners on a Georgia plantation on the concluding day of the largest slave auction in American history. The story provides a frequently surprising variety of responses to the events. An author's note discusses the historical record." Hornbook Guide to Chuildren
Told through flashbacks, foreshadowing, and shifting first-person points of view, this novel about slavery in America follows young Emma, who along with readers will discover that every decision has its consequences, and final judgment is passed down not by man, but by his maker.
Emma is the property of Pierce Butler and has taken care of his daughters, Sarah and Frances, since their parents divorced. Emma wants to raise the girls to have good hearts, like their mother's, even as a rift in morals has ripped the Butler household apart. Sarah and her mother oppose the inhumanity of slavery, while Frances and her father believe in the Southern way of life and treatment of blacks.
Now, to pay off mounting gambling debts, Pierce decides to cash in his "assets" and host the biggest slave auction in American history. At the price of his humanity, he reaps just over $300,000 as the skies weep nonstop on the proceedings below. For although Butler had promised Emma's parents not to sell her, money, desperation, and greed enable him to justify any misdeed. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, and shifting first-person points of view, readers will travel with Emma and others through time and place, and come to understand that every decision has consequences, and final judgments is handed down not by man, but by his maker.
Julius Lester, a master of storytelling, transforms this little-known piece of American history into one of the most dramatic and impressive works of his brilliant career.
About the Author
Julius Lester turned to writing after spending time as a photographer, musician, and political activist in the 1960s. His more than forty books for adults and children have garnered many awards, including ALA Notable citations and a Coretta Scott King Honor. To Be a Slave was a Newbery Honor Book, and John Henry received a Boston Globe-Horn Book award and a Caldecott Honor.