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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fourth of July African American History Focus: A Novel About Fort Mose

I first learned about Fort Mose from a historical novel called Pirates of Savannah by Tarrin Lupo.  I was intrigued by Lupo's brief reference to Fort Mose and wanted to know more.  It was a settlement of escaped slaves in 18th century Spanish Florida that was the first community of free African Americans in the United States.  This was not something I'd ever seen in history books.  I am happy to be posting about this on Fourth of July because I think it's patriotic to heighten awareness of aspects of American history that should be better known.

When I saw that there was a novel available on Net Galley about Fort Mose I thought that this is my opportunity to become more educated on this topic. So I downloaded The Other Side of Free by Krista Russell for review.


I could see from the description that Krista Russell had written a coming of age novel about thirteen year old protagonist, Jem, who was sent to Florida so that he could be free.  Fort Mose was an unfamiliar environment for him. This meant if he didn't understand his new environment , I could learn right along with him.  That's an advantage of  having a young protagonist.  Yet I don't think this is really children's fiction despite the marketing label.  The level of complexity and sophistication in the historical background, and in the lives of the characters could be appropriate for a YA audience however.
 It became increasingly clear over the course of the novel that Spanish authorities weren't allowing the community at Fort Mose to exist in their territory out of kindness toward African Americans or because they were opposed to slavery.  The people at Fort Mose were compelled to swear an oath that they would fight the English if they were to invade Florida.  This coincided with the interests of these former slaves because they knew that they would be returned to slavery by English troops.  The Spanish had invited slaves in the English colonies to Florida hoping to incite a mass exodus that would de-stabilize English society in North America.  It would be interesting to speculate about how different life in North America would be if they had succeeded with this strategy.  Certainly, the United States of America as we know it would not exist today.  So this novel deals with a pivotal moment in American history.

Animal lovers will enjoy Jem's relationship with an infant owl who had a broken wing.  Jem shows compassion by adopting the injured young owl.  He named the owl Omen in response to the attitude of others toward him, but Jem saw the owl as a friend.  The owl got up to some hilarious antics that provide some comic relief in what is otherwise a book with a very serious tone. 

Jem is generally portrayed as naive, but that's appropriate considering his age.  I liked the fact that he did mature and come to understand more about the people in his life.

There was a funeral ritual called "teijami" performed in this book which involved using a mortar and pestle to grind rice into flour as an offering for the dead.  Since I was interested in its origin, I ran a search on "teijami" and located a description of a documentary The Language You Cry In which identifies teijami as a Mende funeral ritual from Sierra Leone.  The text of the teijami song which inspired the documentary is included in both the original Mende and translated into English.  The title of the documentary comes from a Mende saying "You know who a person really is by the language they cry in."  I don't think I've really discovered the entire truth about the people who lived at Fort Mose, but The Other Side of Free has provided me with some more clues.

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