This beautiful but tragic story is based on actual events relating to the slave Gabriel, who had the temerity, in 18th Century Virginia, to dream of freedom.
The author imagines Gabriel’s interior life, based on what is known about his actual circumstances. Born into slavery on a tobacco plantation in 1776, Gabriel was taught to read and write. As he grew up and acquired the skills of a blacksmith, he was also hired out to Richmond to bring in more money for his master. There he interacted with free blacks and white laborers and heard not only the ideas of freedom and equality touted by the American Revolution, but of the successful uprising in Saint Domingue led by black slaves that culminated in the end of slavery there. Why, he asked, couldn’t that happen in America?
He recruited others, and worked on obtaining weapons. Their rebellion was scheduled to start August 30, 1800. Not only did a torrential rain intervene, but two slaves confessed the plan to their masters. Many of the conspirators were caught, some were executed, and some were exiled to other states. A rare few were pardoned. Gabriel of course was not among them, and was hanged on October 10.
Ms. Amateau tries to recreate not only Gabriel’s thoughts during his life, but the reactions of his mother and later his wife, Nanny, to the exceptional man that Gabriel grew up to be. Nanny, as courageous as her husband, also participated in the planning for the rebellion. The author includes reproductions, interspersed throughout the text, of documents from the time relating to Gabriel’s rebellion, capture, sentencing, and execution.
Evaluation: The plotline of this book and of Gabriel’s true story were only bearable for me because, unlike a movie or television production, there are no visuals of violence, and no actual faces I could attach to those who would perpetuate slavery (with the notable exception of James Monroe, then Governor of Virginia). It is meant to be a book you can bear, and yet – it is hard. The prose is lovely, and explicit evils of slavery are kept to a minimum, but the pain and awfulness of slavery cannot be hidden. Nor should it be! It is a real enough story, and should be told; should be borne. Research notes are appended to the text.
While this book is being marketed as Middle Grade, I didn’t see any reason why it could not also or alternatively be labeled Young Adult or Adult.
Published by Candlewick Press, 2012
Note: On August 30, 2007 Governor Tim Kane informally pardoned Gabriel, saying that his motivation had been “his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution — it was worth risking death to secure liberty.”