Thursday, 26 September 2019

Freedom by Catherine Johnson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

A couple of years ago, through reading David Olusogo’s wonderful history, Black and British, I was introduced to the story of Olaudah Equiano, the ex-slave who bought his own freedom. To the horrific story of the Zong massacre, and to Granville Sharp, the lawyer who worked with Equiano and others to prosecute the ship’s owners. These abolitionists – many of them Africans and ex-slaves – preceded the more famous Wilberforce by several decades and laid the foundations (not least in the court of public opinion) for the subsequent abolition of the slave trade.

These stories are not taught in schools and are far too little known in Britain. It is therefore a delight to find that the winner of the 2019 Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction is Catherine Johnson’s Freedom. Through the engaging tale of Nat, a boy born into slavery in Jamaica and brought to Britain by his owners, Johnson brings the brutalities of the slave trade and the courage and determination of these early abolitionists vividly to life.

Set in 1783 – over twenty years before Britain gave up the slave trade and fifty years before slavery was abolished in British held territories in the Caribbean - the story opens on the morning that Nat’s mother and baby sister are sold away from the plantation where he was born, without him even being able to say goodbye properly. Nat works in the garden of the big house – a relatively easy job compared with being a field hand like his mother. But Johnson doesn’t shirk from showing the brutalities of the regime. Old Thomas, the head gardener, once tried to run away and had half his foot off to make sure he never tried it again.

Nat finds himself on a ship to England with his master, entrusted with the care of the precious pineapple plants they are taking as a gift for the master’s bride. From one of the ship hands, he learns the story of the Zong – the notorious ship, overcrowded with slaves, overcome with illness, whose owners jettisoned over 140 slaves – murdering them in order to save water – and then tried to claim insurance on their lost ‘property’.

Once in London, circumstances – and his own bravery and ingenuity – draw him further into the story, as we meet Equiano, Sharp and others.

This is a fabulous adventure tale, with the added edge of being grounded in real history. Should be read by adults and children alike.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:  [Children]Dodger by Terry Pratchett, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave / [Adults] The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, Black and British by David Olusogo

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded of Britain’s central role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Perfect Accompaniment: A slice of fresh pineapple.

Genre: Fiction for 9-12 year olds

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