Again and again, in a prodigious and distinguished body of work, Julius Lester has addressed the great horror at the heart of the African-American experience: the inescapable legacy of slavery. His latest book, Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, centers on an historical two-day auction in 1859, the largest ever recorded, when Georgia plantation owner Pierce Butler cashed in 429 lots of chattel to cover his gambling debts: this abomination came to be known as the weeping time.
The novel is written as a prismatic array of fictional dialogues. We witness the event primarily through the eyes of Emma, age 12 at the outset and charged with looking after Butler's two young daughters (Butler's wife, the famous British actress Fanny Kemble, left him when he refused to emancipate the vast population of slaves who supported his lavish lifestyle). Master has promised Emma that she will not be among those sold off.
Lester gets inside the souls of 25 characters, ranging from a career auctioneer to a broken old man too easily dismissed as an Uncle Tom. The author's gift is such that we come to understand them all, villains and victims alike. And in following Emma through the course of a long, difficult and ultimately rewarding life, he provides a vital link to the past. Having known the devastation of being wrenched from her own family, she still manages to summon the courage to create one anew and forge a better life for those who follow.
In this riveting reading experience, Lester once again brings history to life.
Sandy MacDonald is based in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts.