09 June 2009


I reviewed Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen earlier this year and was really impressed with it. I think that dealing with such a subject as slavery in a way that is approachable for younger readers and truthful is a gruelling challenge for an author, yet Paulsen does so admirably well. (See the publisher's author page for more info on Paulsen and his many historical works.)

I got a copy of Sarny for myself to find out what happens after the events of Nightjohn. In the course of the story Sarny matures, becomes a mother, a widow, and then a heroine as she unshackles herself and pursues her children, who have been sold away from her. Her pursuit of her children with her friend and fellow ex-slave Lucy in tow to assist was gut wrenching for a mother to read; and the friendship she had with Lucy was a good counterbalance to the pathos of finding missing children. In the course of events, Sarny learns more about privilege and the reliance she can have on a community than one would normally expect from such inauspicious beginnings. There is a Forrest Gump quality about the way Sarny ends up in the midst of historical events; though gratefully the author does not push it so far as to lose credibility, and also fortunately Sarny is far too smart to settle for Gumplike platitudes in describing her fate. She does offer a few gems of wisdom:
"The brain don't forget," Sarny says in reflection upon her life; her characterization is completely unforgettable.
Again, I read the book rapidly - in two sittings, as the story is so compelling. The setting of New Orleans was a brilliant one, as such a cosmopolitan city provides excellent contrast to Sarny at the start of her time there. I would have enjoyed learning more about Sarny's benefactor Miss Laura, and thought that featuring such a character in the story was both a risky and rewarding choice. My understanding is that Paulsen created these composite characters to represent an amalgamation of persons who would have existed at the time, and that there actually was no such person as Sarny. However, understanding and empathizing with Sarny is a valid way of understanding the historical period and the terrible legacy of slavery for an individual such as she.