I’ve been asked how I pick the books I’m going to talk about. Well, the truth of the matter is I don’t pick them, they pick me. I usually have two or three books going at a time, and I just pull them off the shelf … I don’t go searching the shelves for books that might “work together,” it just happens. And so it is with Beyond Freedom by Patricia Q. Wall and Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon.
Beyond Freedom, the sequel to Child Out of Place, is about Matty Smith, the only child (daughter) in a freed slave family. Beyond Freedom is Matty’s first-person account of life in Boston during the summer of 1812. Matty lives with her father, the town blacksmith, her paternal grandmother, a great uncle, and several tenants they have taken in.
The Zora in Zora and Me is Zora Neale Hurston. Zora’s classmate and best friend Carrie Brown is our narrator. The story, drawn in large part from Zora’s writing, is set in the summer of 1900 in Eatonville, Florida, where the girls grew up. As noted on the back cover of my ARC: this is the first fiction project, not written by Zora Neale Hurston herself, to have received the endorsement of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust.
Both of these books are slim, fictionalized biographies of young African American girls. The stories are nearly 100 years and literally a thousand miles apart, but they are very, very close. By reading them together, it is interesting to see how little had really changed in our country at the time.
As you might expect, friendships plays an important part in the story. The dynamics of their relationship are nearly parallel, despite the differences of place, time, social standing, and ethnicity.
From Matty we have the contrasts of a black family living in a largely white city. As Beyond Freedom opens, Matty is walking home from the Boston Commons. She has disobeyed her father and grandmother, because she knows the Commons is an area that is off limits to blacks. Several white boys are taunting and chasing her. She runs down an alley and immediately hears a whisper and an offer of help. Lydia Bainbridge, the daughter of a wealthy Beacon Hill family, saw what was going on, whispered to Matty from her hiding place, and the girls ran off to a safe place together. When Lydia saw that Matty’s dress was torn, she insisted on getting her sewing kit to fix it. In short order, Lydia secured a job for Matty as a servant. Lydia’s big birthday party was just a week away, and the family needed help since one of the white women on their staff had broken her foot and was immobilized. Despite Lydia’s generosity, Matty was leery of the overtures and skeptical of her motives. Every time Matty came to work, Lydia constantly asked questions about Matty’s family and her life.
In 1900, the black families of Eatonville kept to themselves. It was a semi-rural community, and adults often walked miles on foot to their various jobs or to the next town over to shop. Even among the children, though, there were strata. “[Talking to the four] daughters of professional men – a doctor, a dentist, a tailor, and an undertaker – you would have thought they were the duchesses and countesses and princesses of Eatonville. They carried themselves like every day was Easter.” Neither Carrie nor Zora were considered royalty. From the get-go we get hints that Zora is quite the storyteller, as several of the “cool girls” tease Zora about her theories of an alligator man living in the swamp. Carrie shares some of their skepticism, but she is loyal to Zora and knows that nothing Zora says is ever 100% false.
Patricia Wall, Victoria Bond, and T.R. Simon do an incredible job drawing out the skepticism and racism of the adults as well, but not always in ways you would expect. Where Lydia’s mother “faints” at the sight of a black person and the staff is largely disdainful, Lydia’s father and George (the butler) are more open – and in fact push for – a diversified household despite the limitations set by Mrs. Bainbridge. George works diligently to treat Matty fairly, give her space to be with Lydia, and still busy with jobs that keep her out of sight of Mrs. Bainbridge.
Preacher John Hurston, Zora’s father, has no tolerance for Zora’s expressive imagination and her lack of fear about vocalizing her thoughts. For example, at dinner one evening, when the adults were talking about the murder of a turpentine worker, Zora offered that she knew who the culprit was and was passionate that the person should be punished.
“Do you — do you think you white?” Mr. Hurston was shaking with anger. His face was twitching. “Wanting to talk about death – right here at the dinner table! That is the kind of thing white folks do.”
The authors showed that racism cuts both ways but that so does understanding. It is interesting that in both books, that trait comes from the older generation. Mr. Ambrose, the white doctor there at Zora’s birth, is a grandfatherly figure who engages the girls as a neighbor would, listens to their ideas, and then guides them to the right choice. Matty’s grandmother Bess, who knew nothing but slavery her entire life, drew on her own experiences to help Matty prepare for the new job. When Matty asks her grandmother why Mrs. Bainbridge hates her, she bursts out “Oh why did I have to be born black! It’s so unfair.”
“Now you listen here, young lady,” said Bess, drawing away and angrily pounding her fist on the table. “I won’t have you saying such a thing, mocking God. You’re blaming the color of our skin for white people’s hatefulness. But they’re in the wrong, not us!”
When her uncle comes in, he explains to Matty that she is dealing with the “black folks’ second struggle – the struggle that comes after we get free of slavery. We’ve managed to get our bodies free, but for some of us there’s still that struggle to get our minds free.”
What kept me reading was not only the relationships and the philosophy handed down to the next generation, but the stories themselves, too. In Beyond Freedom, Maddy and Lydia decide to do something about the Boston Directory. Both were angry that even as tax-paying citizens, the African people were listed in a separate section in the back. They concoct a plan whereby Maddy comes to church with Lydia to plea for change in front of the congregation. I kept hoping that there would be good news on the next page, so I kept reading and turning.
Although this is a biographical story, there are subplots in Zora and Me that give it extra depth. Zora, Carrie, and their friend Teddy were bound and determined to exorcise the Gator Man (half gator, half man) from the swamp. Two people had been killed, and they were certain Gator Man was the culprit. They had befriended the turpentine worker just before he was killed, and were shocked to later discover that a white woman they had recently met was actually his sister. With everyone laughing at them, how could they ever convince the authorities that they had solved the crime?
I highly recommend both Zora and Me and Beyond Freedom. There were several spots in both books where I just winced when I read the words on the page. Through the authors’ skillful presentation, my response was not caused by stereotypical expressions of racism, but just the opposite.
- I was so angry at John Hurston’s remarks. How could he treat his daughter like that and still call himself a Christian man? How did he know “white people” talk about death at the dinner table?
- I was also angry at myself for being instantly skeptical of Lydia’s motives. She’s a 15-year-old girl; why wouldn’t she have expressed her curiosity about something new to her? Isn’t that the way kids learn, by asking questions?
Hate, distrust, and ignorance in the mirror is ignorance, distrust, and hate … and the authors made sure we saw it reflected back upon itself. I cannot say enough positive about these two books. They are meant for a middle grade audience, but would do equally well as read-alouds with an upper elementary audience and Young Adults, too. Their reading levels make them excellent choices for a High Interest/Low Readability audience, too. Because of their separation in time (19th century and 20th century) and place (Northeast and Southeast United States) readers have interesting contrasts and parallels to reflect upon.
Patricia Q. Wall
Fall Rose Books, 2010
Audience (reading level): 10 and up (3.7 Flesch Kincaid)
As a note. I did not read Child Out of Place, and though I am sure I would enjoy it, I didn’t feel “left behind” in starting with the second book.