Thursday, June 4, 2020

"Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule" by Harriette Gillem Robinet

I didn't realize, when I pulled this book off my TBR shelves last week, just how perfectly timed this read would be.  As our nation grapples with difficult problems stemming from racial wrongs and misunderstandings, books like this that can teach adults and children alike some hard truths about our nation's history -- and its present -- are especially valuable.

What a poignant, approachable book this is!  As you know, I've been writing a book, One Bad Apple, that takes place in the 1870s and has a diverse cast -- all but a handful of the characters are black.  Many of them are former slaves.  So I've been trying to find and read as many books as possible, fiction and non-fiction, to help me understand a viewpoint so unlike my own.  And to get a better grasp on aspects of American history I didn't get taught much about in school.  Which is why I picked up this book at a book store a while back.

It's not why I'll be handing it to my kids, though.  That'll be because this book beautifully and gently presents the problems that black people faced all across the South, in particular, during Reconstruction.  Problems that reverberate in our society still today, as we're seeing so clearly this past few days.  Problems that stem from attitudes, misunderstandings, unwillingness to face change, fear, and anger.  I could not have pulled this off my shelf at a better time.

Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule follows a little boy, Pascal, from the day he learns that the Civil War is over and he's free through his journey to find a new life with his brother Gideon and a found family of other freedman.  They travel down to Georgia and are given a farm which they turn into a home, only to face persecution, violence, and heartaches.  Pascal is young, hopeful and fearful at the same time, and questing after understanding his true worth.

While this book does talk a bit about beatings and whippings, it is not graphic, and I'd say it's great for kids 8+, though some younger children might handle it fine, and others might not be ready for it until later.  The reading level was probably 3rd or 4th grade.  It richly deserved the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction that it received, and I'm going to see if I can find more books by Robinet because I really liked her style and sensitive handling of important subjects.

Particularly Good Bits:

Sure, they were free. But if nobody allowed their freedom, what would owning land mean?  This kind of freedom was as bad as slavery (p. 20).

Pascal thought, My brother may be mean sometimes, but he ain't stingy.  Gideon would break one crumb in two to share (p. 21).

"Freedom is all about having dignity.  I don't have to feel shame.  If I don't accept a curse, it returns to the curser" (p. 22).

Maybe nobody gave freedom, and nobody could take it away like they could take away a family farm.  Maybe freedom was something you claimed for yourself (p. 114).

Mama had said that peace was joy resting, and joy was peace dancing (p. 127).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for the aforementioned discussions of violence.  There are also a few killings, on and off the page, which are not graphic.  No cursing, no unwholesome content.


  1. This sounds like such a wonderful book! Especially that last line that you included!

    1. MC, it is! Very thought-provoking without being too tough to get through.

  2. This sounds like a great book, and one that's especially pertinent right now.

  3. My kids and I liked this book. We read it to learn about Reconstruction. I love historical fiction for young children on these heavy topics. FYI: we also read Princess of the Press by Medearis. This is a children's biography about Ida B. Wells. She's my current hero mom/woman. She became a bold journalist post Civil War and exposed the lynchings in the South to the world. (Again, the book was really well written for younger audiences given the severity of the topic. I'm trying to think if it had photos or if that was another book I read about her. Can't remember.)

    1. Ruth, it's perfect for learning about Reconstruction, what it did and didn't actually accomplish.

      I will add Princess of the Press to my Amazon cart!

    2. Thumbs up. You're going to love Ida.


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