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Reading guide for 47 by Walter Mosley

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47 by Walter Mosley X
47 by Walter Mosley
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  • First Published:
    May 2005, 240 pages

    Nov 2006, 240 pages


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About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

About This Book

An orphaned youth, born into slavery, discovers that his brutal circumstances need not prevent him from taking the inner journey to self-awareness and personal responsibility that ultimately define freedom.

When the cruel plantation owner determines that 47—a fourteen year-old who has never been given a proper name—is old enough to labor as a field slave, 47 is suddenly immersed in the adult world of abject bondage. Soon after, he meets an adolescent runaway, Tall John.

Totally unlike many other memorable characters crafted in brilliant novels set in the Antebellum South, Tall John has run to slavery through worlds unfathomed. 47 embarks on a fast-paced human drama and "scientific" journey with Tall John into worlds beyond and deep inside himself to discover ultimate freedom.

Note to Teachers, Librarians, Group Leaders

This is not your mother's or grandmother's slavery novel. Young readers will find little here of the pathos of slavery that so easily bores and tires. It is peopled with those who are enslaved, yet they are empowered human beings. The book urges young readers to fully imagine teen years spent doing slave labor and simultaneously to envision unknown worlds of personal potential and victory.

47 is a book that will attract young urban males and suburban ones who aspire to the image, with its unforced inferences to the contemporary enslavers of prison and intra-group violence. While quite character-driven, the novel is replete with continuing action, scientific vision and highly imagined hardware, all of which fully engage teen and preteen boys, who are frequently kinesthetic learners. Books with such depth that will also easily engage adolescent boys are rare.  Girls and adult readers will also enjoy the plot and character development that is a trademark of Walter Mosley's writing style.

While excellent for individual reading and as a base for essays and papers, this book can be useful far beyond the classroom.  Group activities and discussions can easily flow from it for a wide range of gatherings as diverse as "Jack and Jill" socials to "Police Athletic League" gang prevention activities.  

Pre-Reading Activity

  1. Slavery, then and now:
    What do you know about slavery and where did you learn it?
    Are movies and books about slavery historically accurate?
    Most people would rather watch a movie or read about any other subject than slavery. Why?
    Give some reasons people don't talk about slavery. Specifically, whites, blacks, elders. Is it necessary for young people today to think about slavery?
    Introduce this question with a contemporary DVD or music clip where the word "slavery" is used or a black person is seen in shackles.
  2. Choices=Freedom:
    This book hinges on the principle that people have choices. No matter how constricted, there is always some choice. Ask youths to describe a situation where they felt they had no choice. Then examine the circumstances carefully and make a written list of the choices available to them.
    What are things that prevent us from realizing our choices when we are in situations where we feel we have no choice?
    What are factors that prevent us from acting on our choices? Is there anyone, anytime who has no choices? Finally, what are the responsibilities that come with the freedom to make choices?
  3. Names:
    What I call myself/What I call you if we're alike/What I let those who are not like me call me: Most names get meaning by who uses them, what they are used for, how they are used, when they are used and where they are used. Do you have a nickname that only certain people may call you?
    What are those people really saying about you when they use that nickname? How do they use the nickname; give an example.
    What are the occasions that you're likely to be glad to be called by your nickname, and what are some when you wouldn't?
    Where are you comfortable being nicknamed and where do you prefer using your real name?
    How much of how we feel about nicknames applies to group names?
    What is the difference between a name and a label? Why do some groups embrace their pejorative labels and other groups don't?
    How about a number representing who you are (i.e. a social security number, a student ID number, a driver's license number)? Does this practice diminish you as a person?
    In what instance has society used numbers to glorify an individual or group of individuals (sports figures)?
  4. Beauty:
    Write the one thing that most makes a person beautiful to you. Toss these into a circle and ask one person to read them all. Does anyone in the room possess them ALL?
  5. Myth: Greek, Roman, even Norse mythology continue to be popularized. But ALL cultures have myths. A powerful figure in the mythology of enslaved Africans and their descendants was High John. A bit of Internet research will provide some background on High John the Conqueror, a major figure in African American mythology.
    Visit These Sites,,
    What do you think made High John emerge in African American mythology?


Reading Activities:

What year does the story open? What common items that we have today would have seemed like "science fiction" to people living back then?

Chapter 1
Instead of a family, the main character's childhood was shaped by Big Mama Flore, Mud Albert and Champ Noland. What familial roles did each one play in his childhood?
Most children have imaginary places they fear. 47 feared a real place. What was it and what had he heard went on there?
Bible teachings, no matter how unschooled the teacher, were a central part of life in the community of the enslaved. How does the author, in this first chapter, make it clear that the bible was taught on this particular plantation?
Who was the first person to beat 47 and why?
What single words describe 47's official relationship to Eloise?
What single words describe his feelings toward her?
What single words describe her attitude toward him?
Are children free? Was 47 free?
Put yourself in the place of Tobias Turner and Mr. Stewart. What would you have done differently?

Chapter 2
What two powerful biblical references does the author use to explain his changed feelings about Big Mama Flore in this chapter?
Instead of feeding him food that would keep him from growing, how else could Big Mama Flore have prepared 47 for what happened as Chapter 2 opened?
What modern living situation can be compared to the slave cabins?
How would you feel about Pritchard, if the story ended on page 16, with these words: "They called the horse doctor for Pritchard. After he surveyed the damage to the screaming slave's leg the veterinarian advised Tobias to put Pritchard down." How do you feel about him at the end of the chapter? Why?
What was similar about Mud Albert and 84?

Chapter 4
The veterinarian had suggested Tobias kill Pritchard when he was no longer able to work, just as they would kill a horse. Do you think Tobias would have had a funeral for a horse?
What contradiction is made clear by the funeral in this chapter? Tobias' wife and Pike's wife both have more personal relationships with slaves (Una/Psalma; Pike's wife/Lemuel). What does that mean?

Chapter 5
Would you have tried to run away?
What was 47's state of mind just before he met Tall John. Describe something you have seen in a movie that might be like the scene where 47 and Tall John first meet.
Who or what do you think Tall John is and from where and with what powers?
What made 47 have his first feeling of freedom?

Chapter 6
In the previous chapter (p. 48, second to last paragraph), Tall John tells 47, "No master, no nigger either." Now, when caught by Tobias and his dogs, Tall John is scraping and bowing and saying, "Yes, suh" and "Mastuh." Is Tall John's use of these words different from 47's use of them? If so, how? If not, why not?

Chapter 7
How do you think Tall John knew 47's name? Is Tall John the mythological High John? (p. 62-3, 71) The following web links may provide helpful research:
What does the healing attributed to 47's mother Psalma have in common with the way Tall John's healing powers were first introduced. (". . . I heard a silvery musical note.")
What does "Neither nigger nor master be" mean to you? When Tall John tells 47, "And you are special, Forty-seven. In your mind and your heart, in your blood. You carry within you the potential of what farty old Plato called the philosopher-king," what is he saying? (p. 67) ". . . if a man calls you a slave and you nod your head . . . you have made yourself a slave." Is this a true principle?
Can you envision Tall John's world where people are green to blue to red? Do you think they all get along? What reasons might 47 have thought Tall John came to find him?

Chapter 8
Tall John has had many names, so he easily gives 84 a new name. What is it and what are other names by which she is called?
Why does Tall John talk "slave" talk with 84 and not with 47?

Chapter 9
What showed that slaves were hungry, not well fed?
What do Hollywood images of slavery show? 47's dream on page 86 indicates a subconscious change.
Describe the dream and its meaning.
Why would Tall John feel lost in the same way 84's sons were lost?

Chapter 10
What attitude needed to change in 47 on his last day in the slave cabin, before they could go to freedom?

Chapter 11
What attitude that needed to change in 47, still has not changed in this chapter, as reflected in his feelings about Eloise?

Chapter 12
This chapter reveals why Tall John has sought out 47. What was Tall John's purpose in finding 47?
What is going on that is more important than slavery?
Tall John makes a scientific revelation to 47. Explain it.
What is Wall in relation to Pike?

Chapter 13
How does Tall John change in this chapter?
How are beings born in this place and what are the two conflicting races named?
What is Tall John's name?

Chapter 14
How is Nola's relationship to Eloise similar to 47's relationship to Eloise?
What do Tall John's words, "we cannot heal without teaching," mean?
What did 47's attendance at the healing teach 47? ("This was possibly the most important lesson John ever taught me; that our so-called masters were not all-powerful, that they were also weak and vulnerable at times." p. 133)

Chapter 15
What does the green powder do and why does Wall, as Pike, want it?
Did 47 want to help Eloise for the same reasons he want to save Tall John?
What do his actions say about his character? How can he make these choices and still be enslaved?

Chapter 16
84 saves Tall John. "She nearly carried John and I supported myself by holding onto her shoulder," said 47. Reflect back on Tall John saying she was a "nice girl" (p. 79 ) and carrying her cotton sack. What do you think about their relationship?
Stewart was not a slave owner. What could have motivated him to do what he did?

Chapter 17 & 18
Describe 47's experience with the creature of light. (p. 170) For what purpose did Tall John pass all his knowledge to 47?

Chapter 19 & 20
What stands out about the battle in these chapters that is totally different from the encounters after Eloise's healing (chapter 14)?
Slavery was by birth, often referred to as by blood, yet 47 has the perfect "blood code to hold the powers of the Tamal." Do you believe who you are is determined by birth or your bloodline?
Do you feel that the changes in 47 occurred more because of the choices he made in his circumstances or the creature of light?

Chapter 21 & 22
"A manslave throwing off the yoke of slavery meant that the rules we had lived by our entire lives had been broken." (p. 192) Explain this.

Chapter 23
How does Tall John describe what we would call death? (p. 206) What was the Queziastril used for and by whom?

Chapter 24 & 25
When did 47 become free, in your opinion?


Look up the word "vernacular."  One of the main characters in this novel is able to speak both the way those who are enslaved speak and the way the oppressors speak. Most young people today have more than one way of talking. Do you? Why?

Essay Questions

  1. Follow 47 through the book as he moves from powerless to powerful to conqueror, and mention the key choices he makes that enable his growth.
  2. Compare Eloise, 84, and Nola. How do they as characters reflect or debunk stereotypes of teenage girls today?
  3. If you were an author writing about slavery and unknown worlds, what magical scientific elements would you draw from this book.
  4. Compare this book with another that you have read that is set during the period of slavery.
  5. Compare this book with another that you have read that involves time/space mind travel and other worlds.  

Slavery is among the most documented of topics and there are myriad resources available. Here are a few excellent resources that might be compatible with the reading of this novel:

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
National Park Service, Underground Railroad Network of 150 sites

Recommended Reading
Kindred by Octavia Butler, Beacon Press 1998
Jubilee by Margaret Walker, Mcdougal Littell/Houghton Mifflin 1997
Roots by Alex Haley, Doubleday & Company, 1976
Beloved by Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987
Slave Narratives by Schomburg Library series
Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation (A three-dimensional interactive book with photographs and documents from the Black Holocaust Exhibit) by Velma Maia Thomas, Crown Publishing Group 1998
Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad: The War for the Soul of America by Fergus Bordewich, Amistad/HarperCollins 2005, HarperAudio Teacher's Guide ISBN: 0-316-05984-6.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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Beyond the Book:
  High John The Conqueror

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