This week, we’re discussing Amos Fortune Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates or “Famous Amos” as I’ve been referring to it the last two days.
Jake’s Review: Amos Fortune: Free Man is the story of a slave, the 1951 Newbery winner, and a reminder of how – what’s the word? – stupid our country was (in fact, if ignorance is based on wide-spread mistreatment of other races, then our country has only been semi-intelligent for roughly forty of the roughly 240 years that the United States, as we know it, has existed). More specifically, “Amos Fortune” is the story of a fifteen-year-old African king stripped from his small tribal home and sold into slavery in Boston where he is “fortunate” to have two kind masters and eventually earn his freedom. More of a brief summary of Amos‘s life, it lacks the driving suspense a more time-focused story might have. Furthermore, this means the text consists less dialogue and more large, clunky paragraphs summarizing parts of Amos‘s life. In fact, one chapter covers forty years. For this reason, I don’t believe the story possesses the attractiveness of a modern Newbery, nor would it even to a child in 1951. I would, however, have no problem recommending this book to an adolescent who is an avid reader but not quite skilled enough to read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas”.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t some attractive features about this novel. Though Amos is a fairly flat protagonist, one can’t help but fall in love with his good-natured disposition, his desire to comfort others in harsher circumstances, and give freedom to others by buying them from their masters. Due to his moral uprightness, he is much like an Atticus-type character. An interesting thematic idea in the story is “freedom”. Sold into slavery in 1725, Amos is sixty-five-years-old when when the white citizens around him begin to discuss their freedom from Britain. Always, there is the contrast between the white man’s “deserved liberty” and the black man’s lack of such, simply because of his skin color.
An interesting overview but possessing a very mundane style and little to no suspense, “Amos Fortune” is, at best, decent but nothing earth-shattering, surrounded by much better literature in its genre. Benji and I both found ourselves wondering what the author’s purpose was, why this story needed to be told. Amos was one of the only slaves that constantly found himself serving under benevolent masters. This and other elements of the story seem to take the spotlight off how bad slavery was and, in fact, made it seem pretty okay. I think 2.5 Newbery pies is generous, and I’m feeling generous today.
Benji’s Review: Let me start out by saying that I think the children on the 1950s must have been very confused about slavery. First they get the movie The Song of the South which came out in 1946. They see Uncle Remus whistling with the bluebirds, singing songs and telling stories all the time. Seems like a pretty good life. Then in 1950 Amos Fortune comes out. It’s the story of an African prince who was kidnapped by slavers, taken across the ocean and sold into a Quaker community. He never had a cruel master, was able to earn his freedom, and became a respectable member of his community. Not so bad, right. Slavery must have been ok, right?
I get that maybe Elizabeth Yates found some documents about Amos Fortune, was fascinated and decided to write a psedo-biography, half-fiction half-fact novel, but Amos Fortune was in a very small minority group. Quakers didn’t believe that slavery was right, so very few of them owned slaves. The odds of a slave being sold to a kind Quaker man were very low. The story is a very poor representation about what American slavery was like, and when you’re writing for children, you have to keep impressions in mind. This could have been the very first slavery story that many children of the 50’s read, and the impression they probably took away from the book was a positive one.
That being said, I didn’t think the book overall was very good. A story about a slave with a decent life becoming a free man isn’t very exciting. There wasn’t a whole lot of conflict going on. The main character was incredibly flat. He was a really good guy, but really good guys living peaceful lives make terrible stories.The author was unnecessarily descriptive at times. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was getting detailed descriptions of the African jungle vegetation as Amos was being dragged from his home.
There was one chapter that I thought I liked at first. It was the last one. Amos gets ripped off by a white man who won’t pay him the whole price for his work. Amos, a man who has been kidnapped and owned by several men in his life, gets angry for the first time in the book. Then he decides that anger is just another form of slavery and lets it go. There was probably a moral or something there, but I was just excited that our main character was finally getting into some conflict, and was finally going to stick it to the man, and would probably pay for it, but at least he would have fought. Then he just lets it go, and the last chapter ended up being as disappointing as the rest of the book.
I disagree with Jake. I would never recommend this book to a student. There are several other, better novels about slavery and freedom out there, starting with Christopher Paul Curtis’ Newbery Honor winner, Elijah of Buxton.
Good news is, it wasn’t very long and we can move on to the next book now.
2 out of five Newbery pies.
Next up: Bridge to Terabithia