Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi
|Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A fictionalised account of Phillis Wheatley, the first female black American poet. It's vivid and beautifully researched and makes for a fascinating read, although the closing chapters do lose some focus.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: October 2008|
Born Keziah in Senegal, Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped for the slave trade aged just seven, and bought by the Boston Wheatley family, who named her after the slave ship upon which she arrived. The Wheatleys were kindly, Christian folk and under their auspices Phillis learned to read and write, and received the kind of classical education typical of the time. The young Phillis thrived under their tutelage and her formal poetry eventually earned her the plaudits of her (white) peers.
Ann Rinaldi's vivid portrayal of the first African American poet is set against the backdrop of the American War of Independence, so there is a double theme of the search for liberty. Rinaldi's Phillis is feisty and independently-minded and fixated not on her poetry, but on her own emancipation. She understands her good fortune in living with the Wheatleys, but - understandably - it's not enough. She doesn't want to be the prodigy "nigra"; she wants to be free, whether or not that freedom will also bring financial hardship. At the same time, she feels a strong loyalty towards her masters. And even the Wheatleys themselves don't find it easy to have her poetry published.
The backdrop is full of revolutionary fervour and the intricate politics behind the war are skilfully explained. Phillis did travel to London, and she did meet both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and these supporting characters are also well-drawn. The Wheatleys, as merchants, are required to play a delicate game of courting both sides in the conflict and it's fascinating.
Rinaldi ends her story abruptly, preferring to leave poor Phillis's ultimate early demise in poverty to a brief author's note at the end. I think this was a reasonable decision - the poet is the focus of the book, not the later woman in poverty. However, the main fictionalisation in the narrative is Phillis's unrequited love for Nathaniel Wheatley and he marries some time before the story closes so that Rinaldi can include the famous meeting with George Washington. This means that the final chapters do lose some of the earlier narrative drive. Aside from that, this is a vivid and energetic portrait of a fascinating historical figure and an interesting reflection on the times in which she lived.
My thanks to the nice people at Walker for sending the book.
The child interested in black American history could look at Nobody Gonna Turn Me 'Round by Doreen Rappaport, which deals with the civil rights movement. M T Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a fabulous novel of huge scope and also centres on the life of an educated slave in 18th century Boston.
You can read more book reviews or buy Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi at Amazon.com.
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