Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Summons: The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome

Monday:The bell rings,
and no sun in the sky.
Daddy gathers wood.
Mama cooks.
We eat.

In the dawn a girl watches her family, Mama, Daddy, and brother Ben, go off to work with Master Tucker's other slaves, while she stays with the kids too young for field work with Miss Sarah Mae.

But on Wednesday morning something is different.
Ben surprises me
first with a kiss on the cheek,
then whispering
in my ear.

Ben has gone to the fields with his friends Joe and Little Sam. But at night they don't come home.

Master Tucker knows that they have "run," and the girl wakes on Thursday to the sound of the Overseer hitting Mama and Daddy. The girl hides.
Mama cries
all the way to the fields.

On Saturday they hear dogs barking and horses coming, and Joe and Little Sam, caught, are whipped, but there's no Ben.
Sunday We pray
Ben made it.
Free like Moses.
No more bells.

In stark but elegant free verse, James E. Ransome's The Bell Rang (Atheneum Books, 2019) tells the story, not of the runaway, but  from the witness of a little girl, a member of the slave family left behind, their sadness at the loss of a son, the fear for his safety, and the hope for his freedom. It's a powerful narrative, heightened by Ransome's stunning paintings which reveal much that cannot be said in mere words, however powerful. What is communicated are many truths about slavery's history and the wrenching human loss for families of those who dared to escape it, much as Ransome did in his 2017 award-winning story of young Harriet Tubman, Before She was Harriet (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Books). and Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass (Paula Wiseman Books).

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