Monday, November 9, 2009

My Name Is Phillis Wheatley; My Name is Henry Bibb by Afua Cooper

These two fictionalized biographies are both subtitled "a story of slavery and freedom". Each follows an historical personality from their early childhood through the horror of slavery until they finally arrive at freedom. The original Canadian titles are The Young -- instead of My Name Is-- and I think those are more appropriate, as these are really about the persons' childhood and young adulthood.

Phillis Wheatley's early childhood was idyllic. She is being trained as a Griot, a singer and important personage in her village; she is schooled at the mosque and is learning to read. She has a loving family and friends. Until one horrible night her village is attacked by slavers and she is taken away on a horrific journey. When they arrive in the Colonies, she is left to die; too ill to be sold. Mrs. Wheatley buys her and nurses her back to health. The Wheatleys are unusual for slave owners and when they see she is willing and interested in learning, they teach her all they can and supply her with tutors. They consider her a miracle and promote her poetry to their friends and neighbors. Eventually, Phillis travels to England to find patrons who are willing to print her poems. She is successful, but chooses to return to America and slavery when Mrs. Wheatley falls ill. While she is nursing her mistress, she is given her freedom. After her mistress dies, she chooses to stay with Mr. Wheatley and care for him also. Only after his death does she set out on her own, marrying John Peters, who is also free and educated. A brief afterword tells us that she eventually died in childbirth and most of the poems from her unpublished second manuscript have been lost.

The second story is far more harrowing. Henry Bibb's father was a white man and his mother was "an enslaved mulatto woman" i.e. mostly white but "black enough" to keep her in bondage. He suffered horribly at the hands of various masters, but never abandoned his dream of freedom and his desire for education. Eventually, after his own daughter is born, he follows his dream and escapes. The epilogue tells us that although Bibb was able to free his mother and was reunited with some of his siblings, he failed to rescue his wife and child, despite repeated attempts. His memoirs were widely read and he was greatly influential in the abolitionist movement, eventually founding a newspaper in Canada.

The reader is not surprised to learn that Afua Cooper is a poet, for these stories are full of rich and deeply emotional language. They are beautifully written and excellently balance the characters' reflections with the action of the story. I was fascinated by these historical characters' lives and devoured their stories as fast as possible. Historical fiction can be a difficult sell, but readers who enjoy the Dear America series (which I would guess influenced the change of title) will devour these with enjoyment and pause for reflection on the often overlooked aspects of early United States history.

However, despite how much I enjoyed these stories and the excellence of the writing, I am also...well, disturbed isn't quite the right word. Dissatisfied perhaps? My two pet peeves in historical fiction is first; behavior, language, and thoughts that are not consistent with the historical context (I could mention, for example, a certain highly popular series which includes expensive accessories....) second, the fictionalization of historical characters and events. In regard to this second, I was very uncomfortable with these characters. After I'd devoured the books, I found myself wondering "Is that really the way Phillis Wheatley grew up? what are her "childhood memories" based on? Do we know where she came from? Would her master's son actually have come into her ship cabin and held her hand to comfort her? That last sounds particularly unlikely." I was happier with the Henry Bibb narrative, perhaps because I am more familiar with this time period in history and have enjoyed reading personal narratives and literature similar to his memoirs, and the story had a definite flavor of a classic capture-and-redemption narrative of the time period.

However, I'm not saying that all historical fiction is wrong, or that historical characters should not be fictionalized. What I'm dissatisfied with (argh, should have chosen a different word, that one is hard to spell!) is the lack of context. Being the somewhat obsessive person that I am, I want to know which parts are true and which are guesses. In two historical fiction narratives I reviewed recently, Selene Castrovilla's works, there was extensive bibliography, sources, and author's notes on which parts of the story were guesswork and which were based on fact. I would have liked something similar in these books so I could get a better understanding of how much of the story was from the author and how much was based on historical facts. Afua Cooper appears to be a well-known authority on this time period and I am disappointed that she didn't share more with the reader.

Verdict: I'm interested in hearing what you, O Faceless Internet Readers, think. Is a good story a good story no matter what? Do you demand context, bibliographies, and sources in your historical fiction? Are you uncomfortable with fictionalized biographies, a genre which used to be standard in children's literature?

My name is Phillis Wheatley
ISBN: 978-1553378129; Published September 2009 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by publisher through Raab Associates

My name is Henry Bibb
ISBN: 978-1553378136; Published September 2009 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by publisher through Raab Associates

1 comment:

Terry Doherty said...

I had not heard of Henry Bibb, though I had seen a biography of Phillis Wheatley. Ironically, the subtitle of it was "Revolutionary poet." The version we read was an updated version of "the little orange books" from the 1940s. You raise an interesting point about how original sources are (or aren't) incorporated into the story.

There are times when a good story is a good story, but like you, I squirm when you link the word "historical" and then take great liberties with the facts.