Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Working on the Chain Gang: Cy In Chains by David L. Dudley

A light but urgent touch on his shoulder woke him out of sad dreams. He flinched, but then he recognized Uncle Daniel's voice whispering in his ear.

Uncle Daniel put his hand on Cy's shoulder. "I know you boys got you a secret hideout somewhere not too far off. Ain't I right?"

How did Uncle Daniel know? Cy and Travis did have a place, down on the river, but they'd sworn a blood oath not to tell anyone.

"I's right, ain't I?" Uncle Daniel asked again.

"I bet if you go there, he follow you home like a little lost puppy. Please, Cy! Go and fetch him home!"

Yes, Travis would listen to him, but Cy felt uneasy. This was between Travis and his father. How many times had his own father said that the black man must never get in the middle of white folks' business? If he did, when everything was settled, somehow the black man was the one who ended up in trouble.

In a drunken rage, John Strong beats his horse for losing a race upon which he had wagered everything, and his twelve-year-old son Travis steals the horse out of the barn and hides him out in a place by the river. Thirteen-year-old Cy reluctantly goes to try to bring the younger boy home, but when Travis' father discovers them together and tries to beat them both, Travis jumps into the river and despite Cy's efforts to save him, drowns. That night Cy learns that he should have heeded his father's advice.

Cy was swimming to reach Travis, whose body kept floating away from him, just beyond his grasp. The force of rough hands woke him from his nightmare.

He looked up into Jeff Sconyer's eyes, and their gray emptiness frightened him. Cy tried to sit up, but two more hands forced him back. Burwell Sconyers. Cy struggled, but the brothers flipped him face-down and bound his hands.

"Quit, 'less you lookin' to die, which would be a shame after how hard you worked to save that sorry kid this morning," sneered Sconyers.

Cy in trussed and thrown into the back of a wagon and taken to Georgia, where he is sold to Cain, the boss of a chain gang of young boys clearing palmetto thickets, all supposedly serving sentences for minor offenses. Treatment is brutal, and the half-starved boys are chained as they work and as they sleep and whipped for any infraction.  After three years of brutal life under Cain and his overseers Stryker and Prescott, Cy has almost given up any hope of release.  When an epidemic of whooping cough spreads in the close quarters, Cy comes near death and several of the boys die.  As he recovers, Cy realizes that all of them will likely die there one way or another, and there is no way out except to plan an escape.

Fear was the master, not white men with whips, horses, bloodhounds, guns. Get past the fear, and Cy and the others could be free. Or die trying to be.

Life and death were hard in the post-Reconstruction South. Set in the 1890's, David L. Dudley's Cy in Chains(Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2013) is a grim narrative which may open the eyes of readers to the injustices of that world that came before the story of the civil rights movement that they know so well. Dudley spares few of the facts of life on a chain gang in a lawless time in this novel, which reveals brutality, caring, and ultimately great courage in an almost forgotten time. With searingly realistic detail and vivid and moving characterizations, for mature young adult readers this one will be a hard but memorable read.

Dudley's earlier books are The Bicycle Man and Caleb's Wars (see my review here).

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