47, by Walter Mosley; Little, Brown
and Company: New York, 2oo5; $16.99
Walter Mosley pulls you into the heart of slavery in 1832. He depicts the brutality of slavery and the true meaning of freedom, through the eyes of Forty-seven, an orphaned fourteen-year-old slave. As a child, Forty-seven was taken under the wing of Big Mama Flore, a house slave, who sheltered him from the realities of slavery. The day arrives when Forty-seven is old enough to work in the cotton fields. He now faces the painful realities of slavery Tall John, a mysterious runaway slave, enters Forty-seven’s life. He helps Forty-seven see beyond the fate of slavery and teaches him to believe in freedom.
I have never experienced the brutality of slavery, but as I was reading Mosley’s descriptions, I could feel Forty-seven’s pain; his burned shoulder from a branding iron, his infected hands from picking cotton, and his bleeding flesh from being bullwhipped. This book made me think of the grim stories that my grandparents passed on to me regarding the Armenian Genocide. Although there are obvious differences between slavery and genocide, there are some similarities—both groups of people suffered at the hands of others, and both lost freedom. Throughout this book, I could not stop thinking about freedom. Freedom, to me, is having independence and having the right to make decisions and choices. I find it incomprehensible that freedom was taken from some individuals and some still do not have it today.
Forty-seven craves freedom once Tall John introduces him to it. He experiences freedom in two ways. First, Tall John informs Forty-seven that by considering yourself a slave, you are. If you say that you have a master, then you do. Forty-seven finally learns that he “ain’t got no mastuh ’cause (he) ain’t no slave.” A second way that Tall John introduces freedom to Forty-seven is by taking him to “paradise.” In paradise, Forty-seven is elated and shocked that such beauty and tranquility exists. This is where he tastes freedom for the first time. Now that he learned the meaning and the taste of freedom, Forty-seven is willing to risk everything to acquire freedom for himself, and for the ones he loves.
Walter Mosley’s writing style captivates me. He takes one character, such as Tall John, and changes his personality. When Forty-seven and Tall John first meet, Forty-seven is overwhelmed with his language skills and forwardness. When white men confront Tall John, he is reserved. His personality changes again when Tall John talks to the men in the slave quarters, this time in a humorous way Mosley gives Tall John a sense of humor to lighten up the cruelty of slavery. Tall John’s changing character is a creative feature of Mosley’s writing style which is very well portrayed in the novel.
As much as this book absorbed me, I did not like how Mosley combined two genres—historical fiction and science fiction. The science fiction portions of the book caught me off guard and took away from the shocking historical truth about slavery. With all of these painfully unsympathetic scenes in the book, the supernatural scenes do not fit.
47 is a great read for those who enjoy historical fiction narratives with deep meaning. Mosley’s comprehensive characters pulled me into Forty-seven’s world and let me think about emotions that I never thought about before. Tall John helped Forty-seven, as well as me, uncover the true meaning of freedom.