47 Library Binding – May 22 2008
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From School Library Journal
Grade 6-10–Esteemed adult mystery writer Walter Mosley has written a compelling story (Little, 2005) for young adults about life on a Georgia plantation in 1832, including a futuristic interpretation of the slave trickster tale, High John the Conqueror. The late actor Ossie Davis narrates with authority in his distinctive, rich baritone, imparting dignity and vivacity to each of the characters using subtle changes in his gravelly voice. Slaves often didn't have real names, but were called by their assigned numbers. A slight boy of 14, Forty-seven is sent to live in the slave quarters and to work in the cotton fields after having lived under the protection of another slave since he was orphaned at birth. Forty-seven meets and becomes friends with a young runaway slave, Tall John, whose constant refrain to the teen is neither master nor nigger be. Tall John explains that he came from another world in a sun ship hundreds of years ago to find 47, who is destined to save the world. After the plantation owner's daughter falls ill, Tall John convinces him that he can find herbs in the woods to save her. When they take too long to return, a fight ensues and harsh punishments are meted out. Subsequently, Tall John and and Forty-seven try to organize an escape to freedom. Mosley brilliantly documents the day-to-day life of slaves. The story is built on the themes of friendship, loyalty, freedom, and responsibility. Where it seems to falter and become confusing is in the futuristic plot of other worlds and battles to come. Perhaps that hints at a sequel and might be a good hook for young adults. A good listen for those who want a solid historical fiction story about American slavery, and for fans of Nancy Farmer and Gary Paulsen's Nightjohn and Transall Saga.–Jo-Ann Carhart, East Islip Public, NY
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Gr. 7-10. In his first YA book, acclaimed mystery writer Mosley tells a stirring story of escape from slavery in which sf and African American myth blend with the realism of plantation brutality and the courage of resistance. A boy today remembers himself as a 14-year-old slave named 47, living in Georgia in 1832. He recalls being chained, branded, and whipped until the runaway Tall John inspires him to fulfill his destiny and lead his people to freedom. Like the mythical figure High John the Conqueror, the runaway comes from "beyond Africa," and he shows the boy the secrets of the universe. Above all, 47 takes in Tall John's repeated lesson ("Neither master nor nigger be"), which is finally what sets him free. The magical realism allows for some plot contrivance, but Mosley brings the harsh facts and anguish very close, and the first-person narrative shows and tells how "slavery is the most unbelievable part of this whole story." Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
It would be easy for those who read the book's opening to focus on old wrongs rather than valuing freedom to choose. Mr. Mosley heads off that risk by adding a science fiction character, Tall John, from another part of the universe who needs to learn about the realities of slavery while 47 (the unnamed slave who had his number branded into his shoulder) learns about the world beyond his plantation.
The book sets up terrific ethical conflicts such as choosing between saving oneself and saving someone else who you love . . . and someone you only feel an obligation towards. I'm sure every reader feels tugged in both directions at the same time. It's a wonderful exercise in ethics.
I was impressed by how much history Mr. Mosley was able to build into his story while upholding timeless human values as a contrast. It's a very powerful story. I hope he will do more like this one.
Bravo, Maestro Mosley!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Powerful words. And a prominent theme running through the remarkable book, 47 by Walter Mosley, an African-American writer best known for his Easy Rawlins series of detective novels-one of which, "Devil in a Blue Dress"-was made into a major motion picture starring Denzel Washington.
This is Mosley's first novel for young adults, but there's plenty in 47 for a grown-up to ponder. Set on a cotton plantation in the South in 1832, it is the first person narrative of "47", a 14-year old slave, brand new to the fields, as he's just gotten big enough to work (slaves don't receive names, only numbers). The up-close look at the institution from this particular perspective is a revelation. Using his hero as an instrument, Mosley describes the physical, psychological and emotional effects the "lifestyle" has on those in its clutches, and who have known nothing else. He does it in simple, stark, powerful words. The reader sees the deep and lasting effect of being raised from birth in a society that is convinced you are inferior, is in your face about it, and has engineered an entire society based on the fact.
I don't have room for details, but rest assured that 47 is an intelligent, heroic young man, capable of great feats of bravery and compassion, as he proves time and time again in the course of the novel. Yet even though this is the case, halfway through the book he still honestly believes, that "All I knew was how to be lazy and how to work like a dog." When he has to kill a white man in self-defense, he immediately looks up to the sky "looking for God's retribution". These and other like insights add up to create a powerful indictment of societal conditioning, and illuminate the folly of judging a people as intrinsically inferior. Where Mosley's genius shines through is that these perceptions never seem forced. We don't feel preached at. Instead, he makes such thoughts and feelings an integral part of characters we care for, which makes the attitudes all the more stunning.
One of Mosley's main purposes in writing this book is to let young black people hear a voice contrary to society's negative stereotypes regarding their culture and heritage-to assist them in forming pride regarding who they are and where they come from. This includes issues of image and beauty. For example, our hero is absolutely smitten with Eloise, the white slave master's daughter, whom he considers "the most beautiful girl in the world." This is a marked contrast to how he views women of his own race. One in particular, 84, he describes as being "black and ugly with nappy hair and liver lips. She couldn't hold a candle to Miss Eloise." Only after spending time listening to the mysterious russet-colored stranger, Tall John "from beyond Africa" (more on him in a minute) does 47 begin to see the beauty of 84 and other females working the fields.
Oh, and it's a science fiction novel, too.
Tall John, whom we first meet as a runaway slave with an uncanny ability to heal the sick, turns out to be a visitor from another planet, who is here to liberate 47 and steer him toward his destiny as no less than the savior of the universe. The interstellar enemy here are the Calash, giant albino tentacled things that are right out of a pulp magazine. They're from Tall John's home planet, a planet that we visit by way of 47's visions. It's a colorful landscape-quite literally-as Tall John in his true form is part of an interplanetary race as varied and bright in hue as the rainbow.
Turns out the Calash can make themselves look like normal people and are working on planet earth, along with their zombie-like human agents. Part of the exciting climax of the story is how 47 steps up to the challenge of saving the world with the help of Tall John and a handful of slaves. The suspense is doubled because all of our heroes have become runaway slaves in the process, which means that they are in constant danger of being caught by their owners (and Mosley does not flinch in showing the bloody horror that transpires when a slave does get caught and is brought to the master's "killin' shack").
As I am a bit of a genre enthusiast, I was somewhat surprised that I found myself distracted by the more far-out plot points, which surface most prominently in the last third of the book. Mosley explores such substantial themes in the first two-thirds of the story, that the most overt science fiction and fantasy elements seem lightweight and clichéd by comparison. Tall John is a more compelling character when he is the mysterious stranger who shatters 47's perceptions about himself and his people. When he fully reveals himself and recruits 47 to be the point man for a kind of Battle Beyond the Stars, it feels somewhat trite and anti-climactic, if not a little tacked on.
However, if this kind of sub-plot is what it takes for young people to digest this book, then I say more power to the writer. The book has an important message, and it needs to be conveyed to impressionable minds however it can. The book is set up so sequels could easily be written, and it would be interesting to see where Mosley would take the story.
"Never say master. Not unless you are looking inward or up beyond the void."
It's a message for everyone, especially in this day and age.
On another note, Ossie Davis did an outstanding job with the narrative; I will always treasure this as one of his great works of art.
-- P. Walker-Williams, PageTurner.net
The teenage protagonist has been protected from the brutal realities of slave life for approximately 14 years by his surrogate mother Big Mama Flore. When he is sent to work in the fields, he is branded with the number 47 which becomes his only name.
He encounters Tall John, a run away slave who implies he has been looking for 47 for a long time and the two are already linked in friendship and spirit. Tall John instructs 47 to "neither master nor nigger be!" He demands that 47 reject his acceptance of slavery and begin to look at the world and the universe through new eyes.
47 marvels at Tall John's magic yellow bag which can conceal them from enemies and heal their wounds and learns that Tall John is from another world. He is fighting beings called the Calash who are present on Earth in human form and 47 has been called to free his own people from the anathema of slavery and to fight the other forms Evil takes throughout the ages.
Initially I had some difficulty catching all of Ossie Davis's narration but now I cannot fathom experiencing this book in any other way. Davis is the voice and heart of this story.
Part historical fiction, part sci-fi, part folk tale and legend, 47 is one of the most original stories I have experienced.
47 lived a relatively sheltered life as a slave until he was put to work in the cotton fields. Tired from being overworked in the fields, isolated because other field slaves felt he has had it too easy in life, and hurt by his sense of betrayal because the woman who raised him, Big Mama, wouldn't keep him out of the fields, 47 feels dejected, alone and exhausted. All that changes when he meets what he initially thinks is a runaway slave, but later learns is an extraterrestrial being, Tall John. Tall John, who is from beyond Africa, has supernatural powers and has come to help 47 fulfill his destiny. The two form an immediate bond, and in spite of the fact that it takes 47 a while to realize it, fate has brought them together. 47 is awestruck, not only by Tall John's powers, but also by his strength, and for a while he believes that Tall John has come to save him and other slaves. Little does he know, Tall John is only a teacher, sent to share his wisdom, and to prepare 47 so he can someday realize his full potential.
This book is one that is difficult to review because it does so much so well. Mosley seamlessly merges history and fantasy and the result is a page turner that will leave you breathless. While this book was written with a young adult audience in mind, adults are sure to love it as well. The plot is intelligent, thought provoking and a true testament to Mosley's creative mind. The characters are thoroughly and thoughtfully drawn, so much so, that even when they accomplish unfathomable feats, such as flying, it is believable. Rarely can you find a book that will inspire both young and old to think, feel, and most importantly, dream like 47.
Reviewed by Stacey Seay
of The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers
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