Twelve year old Sarny has lived on Clel Waller’s plantation all her life. Although she’s seen a few books, she’s never been able to read or write – and she never had desire to learn until the day that John is dragged in chains onto their plantation. He offers to give her a letter in exchange for a tobacco leaf. She accepts the bargain, and from that night on he teaches her the alphabet.
But their lessons must be conducted in the utmost secrecy. Sarny’s master has decreed that any slave who learns to read or write will be beaten with whips. Will Sarny and John be able to continue their nightly lessons? Will Sarny’s master persecute her for her thirst for knowledge?
The only good thing about this story (other than its worth as an historical novel) was the fact that Sarny credited God for bringing about certain circumstances and she and her Mammy occasionally pray to Him. Apart from that……
Nightjohn contains a great deal of violence. This was to emphasize that it was no game that Sarny was playing; beatings and torture were a very real threat. But I found that Paulsen took it a little too far, especially for a children’s story. Slaves undergo torturous beatings, amputations are administered (as punishment), and runaways are set upon and ripped to shreds by fierce tracking dogs. I’ve read plenty of Hentys and other war novels without being bothered in the least, but the descriptions in Nightjohn literally made me cringe, they were so bloody.
Sarny says that people think she is capable of “witchin’”.
Several of the slaves are stripped naked for punishments.
This book contains the invective use of several curse words [‘h—’, ‘d—’, and ‘b——’ (all fully spelled)].
Conclusion. All of these elements combine to make a novel far too mature for its reading level (which was quite easy). While it no doubt depicts some of the realities of slavery, its imagery was very strong and would likely haunt younger readers.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret