Tuesday, December 28, 2010

191 (2010 #56). Amos Fortune: Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates,
read by Ray Childs

This book won the Newbery Medal in 1951.  Mistakenly classified as nonfiction, it is really a biographical novel or, more accurately, historical fiction.  Amos Fortune (c. 1710 - 1801) was a real person, but very little is known of his life.

Indeed, in an interview in The Writer in March 1998, author Elizabeth Yates said she was inspired "when I was standing by the stone that marked the grave of Amos Fortune in the old cemetery in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Reading the eloquent though brief words about a man whose life spanned from Africa in 1715 to America in 1801, I wanted to know more, to find the story within those lines."

About all that was available was Fortune's homestead (now private property), a beaker purchased by the local church with a bequest from his will, and some documents at the Jaffrey Public Library, such as his will (written and signed in 1801), some receipts (for loans, medical services, and purchases, including those that bought the freedom of two wives), two letters of apprenticeship of young men to Amos the tanner, and an unsigned letter of manumission for Amos, written by Ichabod Richardson in 1763.  Yates adds another owner and another wife for Amos, as well as a king father and lame sister in Africa, but there is no evidence for any of these.

This book wasn't thrilling, but it wasn't boring either.  It provided insights into life in colonial New England.  Descriptions of the processes of bark tanning and the vendue of the poor were particularly interesting - the latter was something I'd never heard of before.  The audiobook narrator Ray Childs' bass was perfect for Amos Fortune, but not so good for the female voices.

This book has received a lot of criticism, particularly since the early 1970s, for being racist and/or white-supremacist, primarily because Amos is so accepting of his situation. You can read more about this in my post on the book at the Newbery Project.  I agree with critics who feel that books with other viewpoints about slavery should be presented along with this book.  Suggestions include Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, (a Newbery winner in 1974), The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton (a Newbery Honor Book in 2008),  and Julius Lester's To Be A Slave  (a Newbery Honor Book in 1969).

In the same 1998 interview mentioned above, Yates tells of a question from a group of fourth-graders:
"Have you ever regretted anything you've written?" came the next question. Again, I sent my mind back over the years and their books. The answer was at hand, and it was No, for I have had a rule with myself that nothing ever leaves my desk unless it is the best I can do at the time with the material I have. Then I go back to Amos Fortune as an example.
The idea that took hold of me as I stood by that stone in the old churchyard and that became the book Amos Fortune, Free Man was written in 1949 and published a year later. All the pertinent, reliable material that I could find went into the book and became the story. It could not be a biography but an account of a man's life, with facts assured and some imaginative forays based on the temper of the times. The research, the writing, was done long before the Civil Rights upheavals of the 60's. I might today write a very different story, but that was then.

It would be quite interesting to read a different version of Amos Fortune's story, one that might address some of the concerns of the critics.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and a hardbound copy for reference were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

3 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Ugh, need to remember to check my login name... Anyway, "Mistakenly classified as non-fiction"? Does that mean I need to reclass it? Just let me know.

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  3. Melissa, the mistake was made way back in 1949 or 1950. :) Amos Fortune is a real person; that's why it was put in nonfiction. It's just that this is very much a fictionalized biography. There are lots of other children's books that are fictionalized biographies that aren't in PZ either. But I do wonder if there is an LoC record out there that puts this book in the PZs.

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