Tuesday 16 April 2024

47 by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

An alien among the alienated: young adult novel puts sci-fi twist on slave story to comment on freedom and equality.

In Walter Mosley’s young adult novel 47, a slave story collides (or intertwines) with colourful little people, ghouls, lasers shot out of eyes, and magic devices. 

The tale begins with 170-year-old first-person narrator 47 revealing that he’s going to reflect on his experiences as a slave in 1832. This framing device strengthens the author/reader connection, reinforces the authenticity of the tale, and lends the novel a genuine “Let me tell you a story” feel.

The story takes place at the Corinthian Plantation, where a slave named Flora (aka Big Mamma) has managed to keep protagonist 47 – that’s his slave name – free from the brutality of the slave life by limiting his milk and meat intake and therefore stunting his growth. Finally, they can no longer sustain the charade, so fourteen-year-old 47 gets sent over to the slave cabin. There he gets to know his fellow captives, including compassionate leader Mud Albert, the biggest and strongest slave Champ, and 84, a justifiably surly female. The slaves fear the killing shack, where Master Tobias Turner’s sadistic plantation overseer Mr. Stewart tortures slaves.

The most influential character that 47 meets, however, is Tall John, another fourteen-year-old boy who claims to be from “beyond Africa” and who shakes things up when he arrives at the plantation. John, with his copper skin and silver tongue, is a confident young man and a benevolent figure able to disarm the nastiest master, the angriest slave and even vicious animals. 47 gradually learns more about Tall John’s origins and his yellow bag of curious objects. Eventually, the story introduces otherworldly malignant forces into 47’s world.

One wonders whether putting a sci-fi spin on a slave story detracts from the seriousness and rawness of that period. At times, the novel feels as if a Star Trek episode crash-lands in the middle of 12 Years a Slave. Then there’s the other side of the argument. Perhaps Mosley reflects the quest for freedom from slavery when he adds the sci-fi element. Which is brilliant. 

Despite this debate, Tall John’s message of self-empowerment will lead 47 to question how he sees himself and others, encouraging him (and hopefully Mosley’s young readers) to not think of himself as above or beneath others but rather as their equal. Moreover, since narrator 47 is 170 years old, it seems that he represents not just an individual but also an entire culture.

47 also illustrates Mosley’s strength at revealing just the right amount of detail to plunge the reader into the story without becoming overwhelming. Examples include the smells of sweat and vomit in the slave cabin, or the description of one slave’s brown and broken teeth. He also captures the slaves’ differing responses to their captivity; while some are compassionate, others seek to inflict on others the same indignities they’ve had to suffer. Douglas J. Ogurek ****

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