Lester, Julius. Day of Tears. New York: Jump at the Sun-Hyperion, 2005. Print.
Pierce Butler, a divorced, Southern plantation owner, deep in debt due to gambling, decides to auction off his slaves in the biggest slave auction in U.S. history. The slave who looks after his children, Emma, is sold away from her family, despite Butler’s promise not to. After several years, Emma’s fiancé Joe meets a white man, Mr. Henry, who helps them to escape across the Ohio River to freedom. Emma encounters Butler’s ex-wife, Fanny Kemble, in Philadelphia and she helps them escape one more time to Canada, for fear of the Fugitive Slave Act. Told from the viewpoints of several characters at the time of the auction and from the future looking back, Lester’s work is based on a true story.
The day of the auction in 1859 and the years preceding and following the Civil War on the Butler Plantation in Georgia, the Henfield Plantation in Kentucky, Philadelphia and Nova Scotia.
Point of View:
1st person (all characters), in dialogue.
Sadness and grief, personal strength, enduring love despite time and distance.
Through the use of dialogue, flashbacks and multiple points of view, Lester recreates a dramatic event in U.S. history, lending a personal side and emotion to the story. The novel depicts the stories of characters from multiple perspectives of slavery: white and black, pro-slavery and abolitionist. The descriptions are rich but not heavy, with an extended metaphor of rain to express sadness throughout the book.
Julius Lester used the primary source writings from several of the characters in the story, as well as records from the actual auction to recreate the event. The humanity and feelings of the characters are expressed openly, making it easier to understand their motivations, even the ones who outwardly seem to be despicable. Lester notes at the end that his purpose for writing this book was to give voice to those who were unable to tell their own stories.
The intended audience of this book is likely upper-elementary or middle school children. The dialogue format is simple and clear, with character changes clearly noted, so most young readers will not struggle with the change in voice. However, the changes in time, through also noted in words and by use of italic font, may pose more difficult for younger, more abstract readers. The book lacks the brutality and violence common in stories about this period of history and instead focuses on grief, also making it more appropriate for a younger audience.
I enjoyed the book immensely, especially once I realized that the story was based on a real historical event, because the characters became more human and three-dimensional to me this way. The use of dialogue was a little strange since it seemed to alternate between 1st person narrative and play-script, and I would have preferred one or the other, but not both. It was a quick-to-read book, but dense in meaning. I have never read another book that had treated the auctioning of slaves as fully as this one did, and I think it would be a valuable piece in fostering an understanding of this part of our history.