Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Historic Fiction: Nightjohn by Gary Paulson

Bibliographic data
Paulson, Gary. Nightjohn. Delacorte Press, New York, 1993. ISBN: 0-385-30838-8

Brief plot summary
When a new slave is brought to the plantation, Sarny knows he is different. One night she learns that he can read and write, knowledge that has bloody consequences. Although she knows the dangers, she allows him to start teaching her how to read and write, and a whole new, dangerous world is opened for her.

Critical analysis
In Nightjohn, Gary Paulson takes the reader to a side of slavery that is rarely written about in fiction books, life before the Civil War. Gary Paulson writes, "Except for variations in time and character identification and placement, the events written in this story are true actually happened." In Nightjohn, Sarny is a young girl who has no choice in her future, but realizes that she can change the quality of her life through letters. The first paragraph states, “This is a story about Nightjohn. I guess in some ways it is a story about me just as much because I am in it and I know what happened and some of it happened to me but it still seems to be most about him.” Readers will get to see a different side of Gary Paulson as he creates a pair of characters that go through so much and yet are still so real. Taking the events and writing them from Sarny’s point brings the story to a emotional level that students are rarely able to find in young adult fiction.

Review excerpts
a. School Library Journal- "Nightjohn should be required reading (and discussing) for all middle grade and high school students."
b. Publishers Weekly- "Among the most powerful of Paulsen's works, this impeccable researched novel sheds light on cruel truths in American history as it traces the experiences of a 12-year-old slave girl in the 1850s."
c. Kirkus Reviews- “Still, the anguish is all too real in this brief, unbearably vivid book.”

Connections
A. Related Books:
Sarny By Gary Paulson
B. Activities:
In order to help the students understand the different roles of slaves, I would have them split into groups and research the different ones that Paulson discusses. I would also have the student research the different accounts of a slave’s life in order to compare points of view.

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