"Me and That First Word:" Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen
I wrote it down in the dirt with a stick and mammy gave me a smack on the back of the head that like to drove me into the ground.
"Don't you take to that, take to writing," she said.
"I wasn't doing it. I was just copying something I saw on a feed sack."
"Don't. They catch you doing that and they'll think you're learning to read. You learn to read and they'll whip you till your skin hangs like torn rags. Or cut your thumbs off. Stay away from writing and reading."
So I did.
Gary Paulsen's "historically accurate" account of 1850's slave America puts the reader back into a brutal, almost unrecognizable world. When Master Waller brings in a new field hand with a back ridged with healed lashes, twelve-year-old Sarny has no idea that this man, nicknamed Nightjohn, will change her life. John had been a successful runaway who returned to the South to teach slaves to read and write by night, only to be captured and sold again to Clel Waller. Sarny becomes his first student at the Waller plantation, but when she is caught excitedly practicing her first word, "bag," in the dirt, her mammy is savagely beaten until John stops the lashing by confessing his responsibility. Despite the revengeful amputation of his toes, John again escapes from Clel Waller, only to return and continue by night his impromptu "pit schools" for pupils from nearby plantations.
Late he come walking and nobody else knows, nobody from the big house or the other big houses know but we do.
Late he come walking, and it be Nightjohn, and he bringing us the way to know.
Sarny's story is continued in Paulsen's sequel Sarny, in which 94-year-old Sarny looks back over the years in which she marries, bears two children, and loses them to a slavetrader who, in the chaos of the last days of the Civil War, sells them to an owner in New Orleans. Sarny follows to claim her children and goes on to become a teacher in her own right in the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow South.
Acclaimed, award-winning author Gary Paulsen has written soulfully about the power of the written word in his own life and in the lives of his millions of readers. Nightjohn, written in his typically spare but emotionally charged language, should be must reading for mature young readers who need to know where our nation has been and how far we have come since those days.