Night John

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Sarny, a 12-year-old slave girl in the ante-bellum south, faces a relatively hopeless life. Her chief duties at the plantation of Clel Waller are serving at table, spitting tobacco juice on roses to prevent bugs, and secretly conveying intimate messages between Waller's wife, Callie, and Dr. Chamberlaine. Then Nightjohn arrives. A former runaway slave who bears telltale scars on his back, he takes Sarny under his wing and, in exchange for a pinch of tobacco, secretly begins to teach her to read and write a crime punishable by death. "Words," he says, "are freedom. Slavery is made of words: laws, deeds, and passes." He starts by drawing letters in the dirt and cautions her that no one must know. At her baptism, Sarny steals a Bible that belongs to Waller's son, Jeffrey, and practices reading by lantern-light in the slave quarters. The same Bible serves another purpose when, on a blank page taken from it, Nightjohn forges a pass for Outlaw, a young slave, to use in escaping to freedom in the North with his beloved Egypt, a slave on another plantation. Waller finds the Bible and demands to know who stole it. Delie, who cared for Sarny as a child, fears for her now and accepts the blame. However, Nightjohn forestalls the lashing Delie is to receive, saying he is the one, for he can read. He tries to run away but is caught and his hand is tied to a chopping block. With an ax, Waller delivers the severing blow, exacting the brutal penalty for Nightjohn's literacy. As he is dragged off to be sold, he tells Sarny, "When they cut off one hand, the other hand grows stronger." The historical references used in the movie were accurate in a sense that if Sarney were a real person she would have experienced life just as he described it. His portrayal of an abusive slaveholder and the forbiddance of an education to slaves are mostly correct when comparing it to the narrative of Fredrick Douglas’ experiences. Although Gary Paulsen may have exaggerated at times, I feel as if his...
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