by Paul Fleisher
Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, the Gallows and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, Candlewick Press, September 2012, ISBN978-0-7636-4792-6 (Ages 12-up)
One of the least-known stories from our nation’s history is that of the widespread Black resistance to enslavement. From the very beginnings of European settlement of the new world, Africans and their descendants fought against the cruelties of slavery with every means available to them: work slowdowns and sabotage; escape from plantations to native settlements or communities of free Maroons hidden in the wilderness; and even desperate acts of suicide and infanticide.
Young Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds need to hear these stories, to gain a more complete understanding of our shared history, as well as the current state of our union. Richmond author Gigi Amateau has bravely taken up this task with her new historical novel for young people, Come August, Come Freedom. Amateau tells the story of the enslaved Gabriel, who lived just outside Richmond, Virginia. Gabriel, a skilled blacksmith, learned to read and write as a child. As a young man, he was inspired by stories of the American patriots who had recently rebelled against the English king, as well as contemporary reports of the Black general Toussaint L’Ouverture and his successful revolution against the French slavemasters of Haiti. In 1800, with the support of his beloved Nan and a small core of family members and others from neighboring farms, Gabriel planned a daring armed rebellion to win freedom. He secretly began forging swords and other weapons. He and his followers would seize arms from local armories, capture Virginia’s governor, James Monroe, and demand freedom for the enslaved people of Virginia. Their motto was “Death or Liberty.”
His smithy’s craft enabled Gabriel to move throughout central Virginia, as he “hired out” to various farms and plantations. As he traveled, he recruited people to his cause. Eventually, hundreds of recruits were ready to follow him. Gabriel believed poor whites and Native Americans would also join the rebellion once it began. Had it not been for the confusion created by torrential rain and flooding on the assigned day of the revolt, Gabriel’s scheme might very well have succeeded. Instead, the plan was postponed and betrayed. More than two dozen of the plotters, including Gabriel himself, were captured and hanged.
Amateau imagines Gabriel’s life from infancy through its violent end. Her storytelling is historically accurate and detailed. Much of the book centers on Gabriel’s love for Nan, a worker enslaved at a neighboring plantation. These sections provide the deepest glimpse into Gabriel as a person. Unfortunately, there is almost no remaining record of his actual words. Gabriel must surely have been a powerful, charismatic leader, but Amateau imagines less of this aspect of his character than we might like.
Although she is writing for young people, Amateau doesn’t hide the brutalities of slavery. The story she tells includes beatings and floggings, the hunger and deprivation enslaved people were forced to endure, the sale and separation of families, and even references to slave breeding and the threat of rape by white slaveholders. Her story will help young readers understand that surviving such abuse was a regular part of the lives of enslaved people. Amateau chooses her words carefully—for example, she rarely uses the term slave but rather identifies Africans as the people or bondsmen. Although Gabriel and Nan’s story is brutal and tragic, Amateau manages to tell it in terms suitable for adolescent readers—at least those willing to face the painful facts of our nation’s history. Historical documents—some authentic, some imagined—interspersed throughout the text help complete the story. And her writing turns lyrical at times, as she describes the natural beauties of the James River, and the hills and fields where the enslaved people find respite.
Come August, Come Freedom tells an important American story, in an honest and uncompromising way that will touch the hearts and open the eyes of many young readers. Amateau’s new novel should generate some challenging, and much needed discussions in our country’s living rooms and classrooms.