Book: Nightjohn

Author: Gary Paulsen 

Cover Illustrator: Jerry Pinkney

Publisher: Laurel Leaf, reprinted 1995

ISBN-13: 978-0785736561 Hardcover

ISBN-10: 0785736565 Hardcover

ISBN-13:‎ 978-0440219361 Paperback

ISBN-10: 0440219361 Paperback

Language level: 3

(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)

Recommended reading level: Ages 12 – 17

Rating: *** 3 stars

(5 stars=EXCELLENT; 4 stars=GOOD; 3 stars=FAIR; 2 stars=POOR; 1 star=VERY POOR; no stars=NOT RECOMMENDED)

Category: Historical fiction

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

Disclosure:  Many publishers, literary agents, and/or authors provide free copies of their books in exchange for an honest review without requiring a positive opinion.  Any books donated to Home School Book Review for review purposes are in turn donated.  No other compensation has been received for the reviews posted on Home School Book Review.

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     Paulsen, Gary.  Nightjohn (Published in 1993 by Delacorte Press, New York City, NY  10036; republished in 1995 by Laurel Leaf Books, an imprint of Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York City, NY  10036 ).  It is the 1850s, and Sarny is a female slave, about twelve years old, at the plantation of mean, old master Clel Waller and his wife Margaret.  Her birthing mammy had been sold when Sarny was four years old, and the girl is being raised by another slave, old Delie, whom she calls Mammy. Sarny first sees Nightjohn when he is brought to the plantation with a rope around his neck, his body covered in scars.  He had escaped north to freedom, but he came back to teach slaves reading.  Knowing that the penalty for reading is dismemberment, Sarny is still willing to take the risk to learn.

       When and how does Nightjohn do his teaching?  What happens when Waller finds Sarny making letters in the dirt?  Can Nightjohn escape in time?  Author Gary Paulsen’s novel is said to be a meticulously researched and historically accurate portrayal of a grim time in our nation’s past.  The slaves do believe in God, and old Delie prays frequently.  However, in addition to near vulgarisms such as “horse crap,” “wiping butts,” and the term “bastard,” the “d” and “h” words are used.  Sarney chews tobacco for her job of spitting on roses to kill the bugs, and she trades some of it to Nightjohn for the lessons.  The darkest aspect of the story is the references to “breeding slaves,” which amounts to the rape of children, so caution should be exercised in handing this book to kids below age 12.

     The biggest complaint which I saw about the book was by someone who wrote, “It is loaded with extreme historical inaccuracies, and makes slavemasters/overseers/drivers look like such cartoonish monsters that it actually makes the real sufferings of slaves unsympathetic.  Breeding is a myth created by abolitionists, and…white male on slave rape is apocryphal.”  Well, now.  It is true that not all slave owners were cruel monsters who treated their slaves inhumanely.  But it is documented that some of them were evil and that such practices did occur.  This book was made into a 1996 American television drama film.  And there is a sequel novel entitled Sarney.  Paulsen has also written three Newbery Honor Books, including Dog Song which I did not like, and Hatchet which I did like.

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