Stories about real people, especially those written for children, often err in one of two major ways. Either the author attempts to cram as many facts as possible into the narrative, making it too long and boring; or, the author pads a perfectly interesting true story with all kinds of fictional details in an attempt to liven things up.
Elizabeth Yates follows a third way in Amos Fortune, Free Man, the story of a black man who lived and worked in Colonial America having been kidnapped from Africa as a fifteen-year-old tribal prince. Amos Fortune was an actual person, and Yates drew her tale from the documents of his life, many of which she includes in their original form within the book.
Employing both fictional narrative and factual account, Yates follows Amos from the night of his kidnapping while enjoying a tribal celebration in the African jungle, to his sale in Boston to a kindly Quaker who teaches him to read and write, to his sale to a good but hard man who trains him in the trade of tannery, to the final years of his long life.
Central to the story is Amos's desire for and love of freedom. He loves it so much that once he saves enough money to buy his own freedom, he helps as many people as he can overcome their chains and receive their liberty. Most of those he helps are women in unfortunate circumstances, his motivation being the lame sister from which he was separated so long before.
In Africa, Amos was called At-mun. His sister Ath-mun was beautiful but lame, a twelve-year-old girl saved from infanticide by their chieftain father who had mercy on her. Throughout his sojourn in America, Amos frequents slave markets and auctions, searching for his sister to make her free.
That he never finds her doesn't diminish his joy in helping others. His joy, after all, isn't merely the joy of doing good—Yates states explicitly more than once the fact that Amos's joy and his good deeds are rooted in and motivated by his deeply held Christian faith, and involvement in his local church.
Amos was clearly a believer, but one element in the story will cause many to raise at least one eyebrow. On several occasions, Amos asks God for signs as to what he should do next, and these signs are always forthcoming, though to readers it's never plain how Amos gets the answer he's looking for. This is tantamount to saying that God offered Amos direct revelation outside the Bible, and that Amos interpreted omens, something the Bible clearly condemns (Leviticus 19:26).
One of the best aspects of Yates's book are her descriptions of Amos's work as a tanner. Once he obtains his own property, Yates provides a detailed (though not exhaustive) account of the tanning process, following a hide from its raw state to its finished form as leather. The book is interesting throughout, but this part is especially fascinating.
Yet again, we see that there was a time, shrouded in the mists of yesterday, when the Newbery Medal was awarded to books that genuinely deserved it, not simply to texts that furthered a postmodern, all-inclusive worldview. Amos Fortune, Free Man is an excellent book, and one that children and adults alike will value as long as liberty and personal goodness are valued.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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