Friday, March 18, 2016

My Name Is Not Friday

My Name Is Not Friday. Jon Walter. 2016. Scholastic. 384 pages. [Source: Review copy]

My Name is Not Friday is not a book I could say I "enjoyed." For who would want to ever admit to enjoying a book about slavery?

Could I say it was a good book? Yes, I think I could say it was solidly good. (Maybe not solidly great, but good, yes, I can see that.)

Do I think that it is a book adults will like/love more than kids? Yes, I think that's true. Some kids *do* voluntarily read historical fiction. Some kids do read "heavy" serious books. This one is decidedly heavy. It is set during the Civil War.

But this, to me, seems more like a book adults would try to coax/pressure kids into reading because it is "good for them" or "important." And if My Name Is Not Friday does eventually become assigned reading, well, I don't think kids will "like" it or admit to liking it.

Samuel is the hero of the novel. He and his brother Joshua live in an orphanage for Negroes/free blacks run by Father Mosely. Samuel is the "good" one. He's a "good" student, a "good" brother, a "good" friend. Joshua, his younger brother, is not as "good." Let's just say that learning and following rules isn't as easy and natural as breathing. To protect his brother from punishment (the crime is shocking, and the big reveal at the end even more so) Samuel confesses to something he didn't do. His punishment is that he 'disappears' from the orphanage. Samuel finds himself "kidnapped" by someone--a white man--and taken south to a slave market where he is sold into slavery with forged papers. Before he's sold, he's "stripped" of his name/identity and told that he is now FRIDAY.

Two-thirds of the book focuses on Friday's new life as a slave in the south, in Tennessee, I believe. He's bought by Gerald, the stepson of Mrs. Allen. Gerald and Samuel are about the same age. And Gerald seems more interested in having a playmate and friend than a field worker. But Friday isn't overly grateful to his young master who wants to play baseball and go swimming with him. Especially since Mrs. Allen and everyone on the place--white and black--thinks his place is to work from sunrise to sunset at whatever task he is given. (In the morning, he's in the field, in the afternoons, he's assigned to the house.) Friday does have an ally, of sorts, in Gerald. Part of that friendship is based on a lie, on flattery at that. But Gerald considers Friday to be his friend, and, is completely honest with him and somewhat vulnerable. It violates Friday's conscience to actually be friends with Gerald, but, at the same time he feels guilty for lying and pretending and doing whatever is necessary to appear "good." My impression is that Friday/Samuel has understandably mixed feelings about Gerald and Mrs. Allen both, though especially Gerald.

Readers meet the other slaves on the plantation. Men. Women. Boys. Girls. He makes friends, and, pieces together a family of sorts. Though not everyone treats him as a friend/brother/son. Almost halfway through the novel, he has a revelation of sorts. He feels that God has led him purposefully into slavery so that he can teach others how to read and write. His calling will be questioned and doubted now and then for the rest of the novel, but, he holds onto the idea that there is a purpose for his life for the most part.

I have very mixed feelings on the "Christian" aspects of this one.

Samuel himself seems VERY confused in terms of what Christianity is and what it means to be saved. From start to finish, he carries the notion that it is what he himself DOES that determines the matter. In other words, if every single day of my life, I am good and make more good choices than bad choices, then God will look down on me see my effort and reward me by delivering me from my troubles in this life and letting me into heaven in the next life. Samuel also seems to be a bargainer. Most of his prayers equating to: Lord, I know Joshua was bad today, but, count some of my goodness towards him and keep him safe. I can be good enough for the two of us if I just keep on working and trying. I just have to say emphatically THIS IS NOT the gospel; THIS IS NOT Christianity.

Samuel is not the only one who is confused. The white minister who preaches in the town and makes a once-a-month visit to the slaves to teach to them the joys of slavery and how they will still be slaves in heaven is a mess as well. I have no doubt that there were Southern ministers who did preach that slavery had God's approval. But ministers--then and now--are not infallible in their sermons, their books, or their interpretation of Scripture. The Bible has plenty to say about slavery, but, not celebrating it as wonderful and beneficial and absolutely necessary.

Mrs. Allen does seem to be a woman of faith. She may be a slave-owner, or, the wife of a slave-owner. She may erroneously believe that the slaves are like children, and will always--no matter their age--need to be taken care of. But my impression was she did care about their spiritual needs, and, wanted to do whatever she could to teach them about God. Meeting with them daily, reading to them from the Bible, leading them in songs. These are things that she didn't have to do, or make time to do--especially with the stress and uncertainty of war. There were scenes where I couldn't bring myself to hate her. Then again, some scenes, it wasn't all that hard. I think the author did a good job in depicting Mrs. Allen and Gerald as complex human beings.

Another "layer" of this is the portrayal of some slaves having no faith, or having lost the faith, because of their reckoning that if God exists and if God is good, then slavery wouldn't exist. In other words: because I am a slave, because I have been whipped and scarred, because I have endured much suffering then God doesn't exist.

But there is yet another layer that gives a fuller picture. A handful of the slaves--not all of them--gather together some nights--secretly--go to the woods, and have their own meetings. They sing. They dance. They testify about God's goodness. They talk of the day when He will deliver them from slavery. They speak of God in a vibrant, real way illustrating that their faith is core to who they are. That even though the "white minister" might preach down at them, their faith is stronger and deeper and more substantive than that. God is not defined to them as being "the white man's God." Samuel reads the Bible to them at these meetings. Before they could just look at the pictures and try to remember what they've heard from others through the years. (I don't know where the Bible comes from, or, who owns it. But it is much treasured.)

I am glad I read this one. I think it is a solidly good novel. Adults may be more amazed at it than kids are.

I don't know if I should admit that I didn't "see" the cover properly until I happened to look at it upside down at the time I was reviewing it. The reflection in the water is DIFFERENT. One sees both Friday (the slave) and Samuel (the scholar).

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Kelly-Belly 11:46 AM  

When I read the title, I thought of Chesterton's book The Man Who Was Thursday. :)
Thanks for sharing.

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