I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly ReviewI Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, A Freed Girl
by Joyce Hansen
Scholastic, Inc., Oct., 1997.
Hardcover, 197 pages.
Ordering information: Amazon.com
This sixth in the Dear America series vividly brings to life the end of the Civil War through the journal of a young slave girl, Patsy. By law, Patsy is not supposed to know how to read or write; however, she learned by playing school with the niece and nephew of the owners of Davis Hall, the plantation where she was raised and continues to live and work as an orphan.
Patsy, a house slave, is small for her age, limps, stutters and thought to be slow. Little does anyone guess that she is literate, and she carefully hides both her secret and her journal given to her as a joke by the white children. Through her writings we learn of the confusion of both slave and master caused by the end of the war, the continued inequities of plantation life, the bringing together of families displaced by war and slavery, as well as Patsy's own search for her identity and place in the world.
She watches as the only people she has known leave the plantation one after the other. As in our own age of downsizing, more and more of the work must be done by the few ex-slaves who stay. They stay because they have been promised land, wages and a school or because they are too old to start over or, like Patsy, they have no where else to go. Though increasingly exhausted by the extra chores, Patsy still finds a few precious moments a day to write in her journal of her hopes and dreams for the future. She feels the first stirrings of what it means to be free. She desperately wants to go to school, and she wants a name of her own, both first and last instead of being just Patsy, the slave girl.
One day during the Sunday gathering of the ex-slaves in the bush arbor, the first Black chaplain in the United States Army, Henry McNeal, who works for the Freedmen's Bureau, enthralls everyone with his talk of not being ashamed of being enslaved. He tells them about Black people doing great things, and his hopes that all men will be brothers. The remaining freed slaves are inspired to begin to turn the plantation spinning house into the long-awaited school.
Unfortunately, month after month goes by with no teacher or books in sight as they have been promised. This disappointment inspires Patsy to decide she must overcome her stuttering so she can reveal her secret. One day while she and Ruth, her good friend, are cleaning the library, Patsy reads a passage out of one of the books. Ruth is amazed and elated and asks Patsy to start teaching her and her son, Luke, the alphabet that very night. The miraculous news spreads among the plantation workers, and Patsy begins teaching almost all of them to read and write in her spare time. She reads the newspaper for meetings on Tuesday nights and becomes a valuable link to the world for the ex-slaves. Since there is no real teacher, Patsy becomes the teacher, and the others do her chores so she can teach the children in the mornings.
Finally, books arrive from Rev. McNeal's church up north. Patsy gets her very own books and with them, she finds a name for her new self, a name she can be proud of: Phyllis Frederick. She chose Phyllis for the first American Black female poet, Phyllis Wheatley, who, like Patsy knew nothing of her early life and loved to read and write, and Frederick for Frederick Douglass, another slave who taught himself to read and write in secret.
Patsy's journal ends as the remaining freed slaves decide to band together to buy their own land and leave the plantation after the agent from the Freedmen's Bureau brings the papers for them to sign on as sharecroppers at Davis Hall for another year. They do not receive land or a school as promised and one man cries out, "If it wasn't for that sweet little Patsy none of our children would have learned their letters." That's when Patsy writes in her final journal entry, " Friend, my soul did rise and fly. His words still sound in my ears." She knows she is free. She knows she must learn to ask for what she wants. She knows she is young. She knows she can read. She knows her name, Phyllis Frederick.
Patsy's journal ends, but Ms. Hansen has included an epilogue telling what happens to all of the characters. Phyllis (Patsy) goes to school in Charleston to finally receive the education she craves. She eventually marries a man from her former plantation and returns to a town founded near Davis Hall where she teaches until her death in 1930.
Ms. Hansen accurately portrays the feelings of a young adolescent girl of any time through the device of Patsy's journal, but it is particularly revealing of what one lonely girl had to endure even as the slaves were freed. It is hard to imagine not being able to read and write, much less being punished for it. The journal subtly weaves the sharing of Patsy's thoughts along with descriptions of plantation life, society and rank among the slaves as well as showing how the plantation owners react to the end of life as they know it. It is a very effective device, and one which middle grade children will enjoy as many of them are writing diaries and journals for the first time. Besides, it is always fun to be privy to someone else's thoughts and feelings.
This book also is noteworthy for the succinct essay after the epilogue describing life in America in 1865. It discusses in easy to understand terms the steps taken by the U.S. government to ease the transition from war to civilian life, an era known as Reconstruction which was not well taken by either the North or the South. As Ms. Hansen notes, the struggles begun during Reconstruction did not really legally end until nearly a century later with the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
The photographs and drawings from the time make it all come alive especially for children who are so visually oriented. It is hard to forget some of the haunting images she has chosen for the end of the book.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is well worth buying or suggesting for your child even if he or she only reads Patsy's journal. The epilogue, history and pictures included at the end might go ignored, but Patsy's journey to find herself in her new world just might inspire some reluctant young readers to keep turning the pages to take a peek at some of our country's most important history.
-- Nancy Littlejohn
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