Again and again, in a prodigious and distinguished body of work, Julius Lester has addressed the great horror at the heart of the African-American experience: the inescapable legacy of slavery. His latest book, Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, centers on an historical two-day auction in 1859, the largest ever recorded, when Georgia plantation owner Pierce Butler cashed in 429 lots of "chattel" to cover his gambling debts: this abomination came to be known as "the weeping time."
The novel is written as a prismatic array of fictional dialogues. We witness the event primarily through the eyes of Emma, age 12 at the outset and charged with looking after Butler's two young daughters (Butler's wife, the famous British actress Fanny Kemble, left him when he refused to emancipate the vast population of slaves who supported his lavish lifestyle). "Master" has promised Emma that she will not be among those sold off.
Lester gets inside the souls of 25 characters, ranging from a career auctioneer to a broken old man too easily dismissed as an Uncle Tom. The author's gift is such that we come to understand them all, villains and victims alike. And in following Emma through the course of a long, difficult and ultimately rewarding life, he provides a vital link to the past. Having known the devastation of being wrenched from her own family, she still manages to summon the courage to create one anew and forge a better life for those who follow.
In this riveting reading experience, Lester once again brings history to life.
Sandy MacDonald is based in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Copyright 2005 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2005 Fall
In a dramatic program of monologues and conversations (with simple stage directions), Lester imaginatively reconstructs what could have been going on in the minds of fictional slaves and owners on a Georgia plantation on the concluding day of the largest slave auction in American history. The story provides a frequently surprising variety of responses to the events. An author's note discusses the historical record. Copyright 2005 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2005 #4
In a dramatic program of monologues and conversations, Lester imaginatively reconstructs what could have been going on in the minds of slaves and slave owners on a Georgia plantation on March 3, 1859, the concluding day of the largest slave auction in American history. The auction itself and the plantation owners are part of the historical record (Lester appends a note), but otherwise the story and characters are fictional, albeit credibly imagined. With the characters voicing their situations directly to the reader (the master: "It's either sell off my slaves and pay my gambling debts or go to prison"), the book feels more like a historical pageant than a novel, but there is enough action (an escape, for example) to keep the book alive. The speeches are theatrically effective, and Lester provides a frequently surprising variety of responses to the events of the day and their larger import, giving even the most heinous actors some understanding if not sympathy. Simple stage directions will assist with classroom performance or readers' theater. Copyright 2005 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 March #1
On a day when rain came down "hard as sorrow," George Weems sets out to sell more slaves at one time than anyone ever had. Pierce Butler must sell off hundreds of slaves to cover gambling debts and 12-year-old Emma is one of his victims. Named after Lester's grandmother, whose mother was a slave, Emma is part of a large cast of characters--slaves, owners, businessmen and abolitionists--who tell their own stories, in their own voices. Interludes occasionally have characters return in old age to reflect on their lives since the auction, a brilliant technique that demonstrates, in some characters, the persistence of racist belief. Other, good-hearted, characters, white and black, act towards each other with respect and dignity and affirm the possibilities of conscience and common humanity even in the worst of times. This important novel, based on an actual slave auction in 1859, begs to be performed, though teachers and performers may be hesitant to utter the racist language of the day. Powerful theater and one of Lester's finest works. (cast of characters, author's note) (Fiction. 12+) Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2005 August/September
This book describes the biggest slave auction in America through the eyes of those in attendance. The slaves, the owner, and the seller give their thoughts as the day progresses. Each story is sadder than the next. Much of the book centers around Emma, a 12-year-old slave girl who is especially valuable because she works in the house and takes care of the master's two daughters. The book is entirely dialogue. Although there is very little explanation of what is going on, there is no problem understanding what is happening. While the master says Emma and her parents are not for sale, the slave seller is calculating that Emma will be, if the price is right. The owner (master) and the slave seller are the villains, although they do not see themselves as such. The master has lost a lot of money gambling, so he rationalizes that he can't help what is happening. The slave seller is trying to make a name for himself and imagines being famous and rich. When readers get a glimpse into the characters' future lives, they are glad to see things did not work out as planned. This is a fast moving book with personal dramas unfolding on each page that will hold reader interest until the end. Recommended. Nancy Keating, Library Media Specialist, Library Services, Yonkers (New York) Public Schools © 2005 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2005 May #3
Unfolding like a play, Lester's novel in dialogue-based on actual events-cannot help but be informed by his research and writing for his 1969 Newbery Honor book, To Be a Slave. In many ways, the scenes here beg to be dramatized upon a stage; many sections read like monologues, but each contributes to a powerful whole. Some readers may initially have trouble connecting Emma, the children's nursemaid, to her parents, Mattie and Will, the master's manservant. As the book progresses, however, the relationships become crystal clear. The book opens as, in Mattie's words, "The rain is coming down as hard as regret." Master Butler is about to hold an auction to sell off 429 slaves in order to repay a gambling debt. Other details unfold, as Will mentions how he and Master Butler grew up together ("He used to look up to me like I was his big brother"); Emma mentions that Mistress Fannie left her husband a year before, and an author's note explains that Fannie Kemble, who opposed slavery, married Pierce Butler not knowing that he owned slaves. The ultimate betrayal occurs when Master Butler agrees to sell Emma, the only person whom Sara, his oldest child, trusts. Lester poignantly conveys how the auction polarizes the two sisters: Sara who detests slavery, and Frances who sides with her father. Some of the flashback sections (particularly that of the "slave-seller") interrupt the flow of events, but the novel provides a compelling opportunity for children to step into the shoes of those whose lives were torn apart by slavery. Ages 9-13. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 April #4
PW wrote that Lester's novel, "unfolding like a play, and based on actual events, provides a compelling opportunity for children to step into the shoes of those whose lives were torn apart by slavery." Ages 12-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2005 March
Gr 6-9-This powerful and engaging historical novel is told in dialogue and through monologues. It also moves around in time, from the period when the story takes place to "interludes," in which the various characters look back on these events years later. It begins with a factual event-the largest slave auction in United States history that took place in 1859 on Pierce Butler's plantation in Georgia. The book introduces Butler, his abolitionist ex-wife Fanny Kemble, their two daughters, the auctioneer, and a number of slaves sold to pay off Butler's gambling debts. Emma, a fictional house slave, is the centerpiece of the novel. She cares for the master's daughters and has been promised that she will never be sold. On the last day of the auction, Butler impulsively sells her to a woman from Kentucky. There she marries, runs away, and eventually gains her freedom in Canada. Lester has done an admirable job of portraying the simmering anger and aching sadness that the slaves must have felt. Each character is well drawn and believable. Both blacks and whites liberally use the word "nigger," which will be jarring to modern-day students. The text itself is easy to read and flows nicely. Different typefaces distinguish the characters' monologues, their dialogues with one another, and their memories. Still, middle school readers may have some difficulty following the plot until they get used to the unusual format. Altogether this novel does a superb job of showing the inhumanity of slavery. It begs to be read aloud, and it could be used in sections to produce some stunning reader's theatre.-Bruce Anne Shook, Mendenhall Middle School, Greensboro, NC Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2005 June
Although slavery is studied in history lessons in school, most students never learn about the largest slave auction in American history, which took place on March 3 and 4, 1859, in Savannah, Georgia, an event known as "The Weeping Time." Rather than deliver a third-person narrative in a history-book style, Lester takes names, some fictional and others not, and gives a solemn, heartfelt voice to a cast of people whose lives are affected by slavery and the auction. Plantation slaves tell their stories as do slave owners, abolitionists, and children who grew up in slave and slave-owner families. Through dialogue, memories, and thoughts, the many facets of slavery are presented in a thought-provoking manner. One narrator is a slave who believes that the security of slavery provides him a better life than freedom. No apologies for either the white or black characters are given; instead the reader is given the chance to consider and discuss why the characters feel as they do. Woven into the stories of slavery are themes of devotion, family, humanity, and pre-Civil War zeitgeist in which all men were not equal in the eyes of American law By not limiting the book to one viewpoint and by using an alternate format, Lester makes this book highly appealing to all readers. Whether the reader agrees with the characters' thoughts, there is no dispute as to the poetic, lyrical quality of the writing or the inability to feel any one thing about any one of the characters.-Carlisle Kraft Webber 5Q 5P M J Copyright 2005 Voya Reviews.