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Black Angels Is a Rich, Vibrant Historical Novel for Teens

October 4, 2009

Black Angels by Linda Beatrice Brown
published September 17, 2009

On a warm, moonlit North Carolina night, twelve-year-old Luke escapes from the Higsaw plantation, where he has been a slave all his life. It is September, 1864, near the end of the Civil War. The social fabric of the South is unraveling quickly, and although President Abraham Lincoln has emancipated the slaves, his decree is not being obeyed by the Confederacy.

Left behind by the group of adults with whom he planned to escape, Luke is forced to survive on his own. He heads North, hoping to join Union forces. He meets nine-year-old Daylily, another former slave, who has just witnessed the murder of her loved ones, and seven-year-old Caswell, son of a slave owner, whose home and family were destroyed by invading Yankee troops. Terrified and facing starvation, the three children cling together to survive. They learn to fish, hunt and care for each other, and when illness threatens Daylily’s life, they meet a courageous Black Indian woman who saves their life. At myriad painful moments, they sustain each other with stories and games.

This novel is beautifully written, with a wealth of sensory details — sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations — that drew me deeply in each scene. The time and place seemed remarkably real, and I had a strong sense of each character’s emotions and spirit.

Black Angels also offered a thoughtful look of some aspects of the end of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It stays above simplistic moral judgments. We get glimpses of both the courage and brutality of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. This story also touches on the stories and spiritual beliefs of several ethnic groups.

Parents should know that this novel touches on some brutally realistic aspects of slavery and war. This includes depictions of slaves being beaten or killed and female slaves being sexually exploited by their masters, who later sell the children who are the fruits of these unions. While these incidents are not portrayed graphically, they could still be quite disturbing for someone not thoroughly familiar with these aspects of history. There is also a fairly intense, bloody battle scene. I admire the author’s courage in telling children the truth about slavery and war, and it certainly could have much more brutal than it was, considering the subject matter. But I suggest that parents and teachers consider a child’s readiness for this material before steering them toward this book.

I strongly recommend this outstanding historical novel to adults as well as mature pre-teens and adolescents. Students and autodidacts will find a wealth of opportunities for discussing the Civil War, slavery, Reconstruction, and literature. Black Angels is beautiful, and at times brutally honest. Above all, it is a tribute to human courage, loyalty and love and the potential young people have to rise above their suffering and go on to make meaningful changes in the world. This story, and these characters, are richly developed, hopeful, honest and unforgettable.

Black Angels was released in September. Many thanks to editor Stacey Barney at Putnam for giving me the opportunity to review this galley. See the author’s site for more information. Also see this interview with Linda Beatrice Brown at The Brown Bookshelf

Don’t miss Susan’s review at Bloggin’ ’bout Books, which is exquisitely well-written, and thank you, Susan, for recommending me as a reviewer for this novel. 🙂

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