Nightjohn was written in 1993 by the famous, Gary Paulsen. Gary Paulsen is an American writer who often writes of true stories and stories of the wild. He is the author of over 200 books, each of which is spectacular. I chose Nightjohn as my first book talk because of the power of his written word. I read Nightjohn in high school but I knew it was a quick read and wanted to be refreshed of the story of Nightjohn and his impact on children during slavery.
This is a powerful book…it is sad, brutal at moments, and most importantly, true. It is based on true events of those captured as slaves and the life they endured. The writing style of Paulsen is graphic and a YA reader must be able to handle the situations that he speaks of.
The story begins with the narrator named Sarny, who is all ten fingers and two thumbs (12 years old) who is enslaved to the Wallers. Her master, Mister Waller, is married to Alaine, and they have numerous slaves. Sarny helps Mammy, a mother figure who takes care of the children after the breeders give birth. One day a man came to the Waller place and was naked with a rope around his neck. He was scarred badly, like he had a hard time taking orders and went against his masters. One night when they were supposed to be sleeping John asked if anyone had tobacco he could trade. Sarny had a small bag of tobacco and decided to trade him. He traded her words and letters. This intrigued her so she agreed. He said he would teach her a, b, and c for a dip of chew. In the middle of the night John would teach Sarny how to say the letter and how to write it in the dirt.
Sarny was so excited about her new knowledge that as the lessons continued she was caught writing the word ‘bag’ in the dirt. Waller threatened her but she played dumb. She ran into the shack and hid under Mammy’s dress. Waller took her and hung her by her hands all day and whipped her like a horse to get her to speak. Finally, John spoke up and took the beating for teaching the young to read. Waller cut two of John’s toes off.
John said he had escaped from his masters twice and after two days of healing from his torture he ran again. But one night he came back for Sarny, to teach her knowledge that mean, old Waller could never take away from her.
So I encourage you all to grab a copy of Paulsen’s captivating, heart-wrenching story to see what happens to Nightjohn and Sarny in their quest for knowledge.