BookBrowse Reviews 47 by Walter Mosley

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47 by Walter Mosley
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  • First Published:
    May 2005, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2006, 240 pages

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Equal parts history and tall tale. Ages 12-up

From the book jacket: Walter Mosley is one of the best known writers in America. In his first book for young adults, he deftly weaves historical and speculative fiction into a powerful narrative about the nature of freedom. 47 is a young slave boy living under the watchful eye of a brutal slave master. His life seems doomed until he meets a mysterious run-away slave, Tall John. Then 47 finds himself swept up in a struggle for his own liberation.

Comment: In 2005 Mosley delivered a talk at the American Library Association conference explaining his motives for writing 47.  He opened by acknowledging the wide cultural heritage of the audience members and the underlying confidence and pride that most individuals can take in their cultural, political and social identity - whether they are fully aware of it or not.  

He then asked the audience to imagine that all washed away.  "No homeland or old country, no language spoken by an aged aunt who died some years ago. No history or historical significance in the lives of your people .... Instead of an old country there is a continent made up of lands that were divvied up and named by European and Middle Eastern conquerors. The nation of your ancestors' birth was long ago wiped away. And even if your land was still there you would have no way of knowing that you were from there. This because your nameless ancestors were ripped from their lands, robbed of their languages, separated from anyone who shared their historical knowledge, and punished, sometimes killed, for being devil worshippers when they practiced old religious rites.

If in the modern day you become curious and want to know where you come from the only information available to you would be about the torture, degradation, and enslavement of a section of humanity that suffered from morning to night every single day of their short and, on the whole, joyless lives .... Imagine that your people spoke the language of the people that enslaved them, that you spoke this language with no other viable alternative.  Imagine what tomorrow would be like without a yesterday to inform it.

Now imagine being asked to study this negative space that is your past. Imagine re-experiencing generation after generation of humiliation and misery; of looking at this tragedy and saying, 'You see that? That's what I come from.'"

He goes on to say that many people, especially young people, shy away from reading about slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and racism because the ugliness and the pain seem unremitting, but "without embracing the past one cannot create her future."

"To overcome the resistance that many young and old blacks have of looking deeply into our past I have come up with a creation: A historical novel that uses the tools of mythology and science fiction to create a scenario that allows the reader to identify with a main character who will rise above all others; a character who will be a triumphant hero amidst the travesty of slavery."


I have created a suitable companion for my slaveboy protagonist - a boy named Tall John (see sidebar) who is really an alien being who has come to understand that his star-flung fate is inextricably intertwined with the destiny of our hero.

By blending these various genres I am able to create a compelling boy's adventure story that forces our boy hero to confront the terms of his life: These terms are manifest in three words - master, freedom, and nigger.

This YA novel is a story about overcoming the impossible odds stacked against the slave and realizing that who I am and what I am is for me and only me to decide.

This book is not only written for the young black reader. The history it reveals is the history of all young English speaking North Americans. This history allows all of us to deal with the holocaust of our past and the hope of our future.
  Read the full speech.

This review was originally published in June 2005, and has been updated for the November 2006 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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