I have been putting off this book for a long time and I don’t know why! It was one of my favourites as a kid, despite its extremely depressing plot, almost entirely due to the fact that it has a Scrappy Underdogs Win plot (well, sort of) plus Love Against The Odds, which I am a sucker for and clearly have been ever since the age of ten.
A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, A Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859, Patricia McKissack, 1997.
Patricia McKissack is a great author, and I love her writing, and I love that Dear America had her do three books (plus a Royal Diaries book!), but I just wish they had branched out to include some of the other fantastic YA writers of colour. Bigger, better question: why aren’t there more YA and children’s authors of colour out there? That is too big of a question to get into here, but I’ll settle for saying that Patricia McKissack is great and everything she writes is worth reading, and this is no exception.
I always felt kind of bad about the cover styling of this book, though. The cover portrait is from a Homer portrait, The Cotton Pickers, which is of two young black women picking cotton (duh), and it’s a lovely picture, but I feel like the detail in particular is a little….lacking? I mean, now that I’ve sat here examining it for a while I can see that the girl in question is wearing a high-necked dress, but at first glance the abstraction of the portrait leaves the cover looking a little bit on the drab side. Maybe I’m crazy. Am I crazy? Look and tell me.
Also, if I’m not mistaken, I wonder if the name “Clotee” is derived from “Clothilde?” In a sort of roundabout, Southern-accented, slave-name kind of way? Feel free to tell me I’m insane, I’m just spitballing wondering now.
Anyway, Clotee is about twelve years old and works as a house slave in the “Big House” of Belmont Plantation, her home. Her mother has been dead several years and her father gone a very long time, so she’s been mostly raised by the cook, Aunt Tee, who serves as her surrogate mother. One of Clotee’s duties is fanning the master’s son, William, while his mother (Miz Lilly) teaches him lessons, which is how she learned to read and write. On the very first page, one of the most important things Clotee writes about is how dangerous this all is—that if the Master or Miz Lilly catch her writing, they’ll “beat the skin off us, then sell our hides to slavers from the Deep South.” So right away this book is several cuts of dramatic above the others—most of the other DA books use the trope that a journal is a way to record thoughts and feelings and events, etc., but this is one of the very few where the stakes are so high.
Before I get too deep into it, I want to note also that while McKissack uses some dialect, it never ever crosses over into jokey or “fake,” which is tricky because the premise is that Clotee is learning as she writes. But the mistakes and errors are genuine-feeling rather than gimmicky, and she has a beautiful and thoughtful voice as narrator. There’s so many sections that I would love to quote that it would just be a basic reiteration of the book, so I’ll keep it at a minimum, but it’s great.
Clotee lives in the kitchens with Aunt Tee and her husband, the elderly Uncle Heb, who is the plantation gardener, and Hince, Master Henley’s premier jockey and horse caretaker, who is an older teenager and has been like an older brother to Clotee all her life. She is friends with Wook, whose father is the field boss and preaches at their Sunday meetings, and Missy, who is a touch on the selfish side. Because Clotee works in the Big House, though, she doesn’t get Sundays off like the field hands and they’re busy all the time. So the mistress buys another house slave, Spicy, to help with the cooking and cleaning. She’s very quiet, but very sad at the same time, but a good addition to the kitchen staff and Clotee takes a shine to her right away.
The master has warned the slaves to be on the lookout for a white man with a patch over one eye, who’s been rumoured to be in the area helping slaves to escape. This intrigues Clotee a bit, but she’s more worried about Spicy, who isn’t doing at all well in the house and hates being under the nose of the mistress. The longer she’s there, the more Clotee learns about her—that her former master beat her very badly (badly enough that her back is covered in scars), and that she hates her name and thinks it’s stupid, and that she’s never had anyone be thoughtful or kind to her. So it’s strange for her when Clotee and Tee and Uncle Heb and Hince are all kind to her—especially Hince, who likes to flirt with her, and Uncle Heb, who is basically in the story to pull at your heartstrings. REAL HARD.
Wook is married off to a man she doesn’t know and doesn’t like, which terrifies Clotee since Wook is just a few years older than she is. Clotee keeps on fanning William during his lessons, and trying to learn as much as she can about who abolitionist are and what they do—especially when the master is away and she can sneak into his study. When the master returns from a horse race with Hince, he brings back a beautiful stallion “for William,” though it’s really for Hince to ride and win money on. At the Fourth of July that summer, there are tons of guests for the holiday, including several men discussing the problems with abolition, and including William’s cousins, who are teasing him that he’ll never be able to ride that beautiful horse, Dancer. Clotee takes a leap and tells the mistress that she thinks William might try to ride Dancer to his cousin’s home, but Lilly ignores her as per usual and just tries to see if any of the others will tattle on Clotee for anything.
Unsurprisingly, William does try to ride Dancer, and throws him off because Dancer is just too much horse for a 12-year-old boy. Dancer comes home, dragging William by the foot in the stirrup, and William is hurt badly enough that he may never walk again. Master Henley puts a bullet through Dancer’s head, and then—oh my God, this is so hard to read—pistol-whips Uncle Heb, purely because William told Heb that the master said William could ride Dancer, and ordered him to saddle up Dancer. “Po’ Uncle Heb tried to say what happened, but Mas’ Henley went to beatin’ him with the barrel of the gun—beatin’ him all in the head. I heard the licks—hard licks over Aunt Tee’s screamin’. Uncle Heb fell down and Mas’ Henley kicked him and pointed the gun at the ol’ man’s head. ‘Don’t kill him, please,’ Aunt Tee begged for her husband’s life. For some reason he didn’t pull the trigger. He might as well have, though, ‘cause Uncle Heb died in Aunt Tee’s arms an hour or so later.”
Oh my god. The next day the master comes to see Aunt Tee, and said “’Now, you listen to me. I don’t want you holdin’ what happened to Uncle Heb against me, you hear? That old man just died. I didn’t kill him.’ Aunt Tee looked at her master long and hard—like she was lookin’ at him for the first time. ‘You aine got to worry, I won’t poison you. I aine that low-down and ornery.’” All of this is just so, so, so hard to read. But it doesn’t matter, because the master can’t trust her any more, so he moves her out to the fields with Spicy and brings in a new cook—Eva Mae, Missy’s mother, who isn’t a decent cook at all. The master gets a tutor for William as well, Mr. Harms, since William can’t walk and obviously won’t be going to school any time soon.
So things are all changed—Clotee is lonely in the kitchen without her family, and Eva Mae and Missy are just looking for gossip to take back to the mistress in exchange for favours. But Mr. Harms turns out to be an excellent teacher, and Clotee almost accidentally lets slip that she can read. She spots Harms doing strange things—standing in the edge of the woods, going to the Quarters late at night—“I wonder who he be visiting this hour of night? Oh well, white men sometimes visit the Quarters in the dark of night, when their wives and mothers aine watching. I’m surprised. Mr. Harms don’t ‘pear to be that kind of man.” Clotee takes to hiding her diary in an old tree, which is safer than the kitchen, but is horrified to find that Spicy is also hiding a Bible there—she can’t read, but it belonged to her mother, who could. But that tree is visible from Harms’s window, and he blusters a bit about discovering the Bible and saying he’ll have to tell Lilly, but he leaves a note in the tree saying, basically, “be careful.” So Clotee confesses that she can read and write to Aunt Tee and Spicy, who are afraid for her, but things are about to get dramatic.
Harms does a great job of ensuring that the master thinks he’s a dirtbag instead of an abolitionist, but Clotee still doesn’t think she can trust him. That takes a backseat, though, because the master takes Hince to a race—which he wins. Hince takes the money that the master gave him to buy food and uses it to bet on himself, and wins, so he buys a ribbon for Clotee and cloth for Spicy and a comb for Aunt Tee. The master finds out and is boiling mad, and WHIPS HIM. Oh my god. It’s awful. Then that same week, Clotee spots the one-eyed man, and Rufus and Wook and her mother run away. Oh man, the master is ANGRY. So angry. He promises freedom to anyone who can bring him this one-eyed man (I have to say, that seems counterproductive, but we have established that the master is not bright and also horrible).
Master brings in a new overseer, Waith, who’s just poor white trash who jumped at the chance to do something cruel, and he proves to be a harsh and terrible man just like the master. In the meantime as fall drips into winter, William is undergoing treatments in an effort to help him walk, and Clotee is helping Harms to treat him. She brings William a kitten—and he says thank you, the first time he’s thanked anyone in his life. After that, Harms knows that he can trust her and she can trust him, and begins giving her things to read as long as she’s careful. When Waith starts sniffing around Spicy, Clotee tells him that Harms “done picked her out for hisself.” Which is not true, of course, but it puts Waith off.
At Christmas, they have guests at the plantation again, and the master gets to bragging that he has the finest horse and rider in Virginia. Some of the guests put him up to a bet, New Year’s Day, that Hince won’t be able to beat their rider. While the field slaves have a week off between Christmas and New Year’s, Clotee and the house slaves must work the whole time. But she has enough time at the New Year’s Eve dance to see one of their guests’ slaves hanging around suspiciously near the horse stalls.
Hince loses the race—the horse is acting strangely and rears at the start of the race, losing by a long shot. Clotee tries to go to the master, but there’s no use—he bet Hince against their horse, so he owes Hince, and they promise they’ll come to collect in a few weeks. Hince freaks out and tattles on Mr. Harms, telling the master everything, in exchange for not sending him away to the Deep South. He justifies it by saying that it’s his life versus a white man’s who he doesn’t even know, and even though Clotee is upset….she can’t really argue. It’s true. The master ties up Harms in the study and they wait for the sheriff, but Clotee and Spicy and Tee come up with a plan to save them.
When the sheriff comes, Hince tells him that he’s seen Harms talking with the one-eyed man by the river, and that he’s an abolitionist. Harms denies this, and Spicy bursts into the room screaming that Hince is just jealous of her and Mr. Harms. She and Hince both say they’re telling the truth, Miz Lilly is fluttering that she’s so ashamed that something could happen there (whatever, lady), and the sheriff asks Harms if it’s true. Waith pipes up that yep, he heard that Harms had taken a shine to Spicy, and then who chimes in? WILLIAM. Of all people. And says that Spicy is telling the truth and Hince is just jealous. That’s all they need—two white men’s word—even if one of them is TWELVE YEARS OLD. Mr. Harms goes free, but the master orders him off the place and burns all of his books. He gabbles on a bit to Harms about how the slaves love him and don’t want to be free, and they’re taken care of, and some other bullshit nonsense, but he does this about ten seconds after smacking Spicy so hard she falls to the floor.
The master frees Hince, though—he was true to his word that he’ll free anyone who brings him information about the abolitionists. He writes out the papers and promises that Hince can go free soon. In the meantime, Harms is busy conducting others to safety since Belmont is a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Clotee begs and begs to be allowed to run away.
A judge rules that Hince’s freedom wasn’t valid because he wasn’t the master’s property at the time, and that’s the last straw. Clotee hatches a plan to get him and Spicy to freedom—but she stays behind herself, rather than running away. Hince is light enough to pass for white, so Clotee steals him an old suit of the master’s, and they dress Spicy as a boy—posing as a white man traveling with his manservant and his horse. Clotee stays behind in an effort to make sure Belmont stays “open” as a station—and Harms tells her that even though the master says they died, he knows that Spicy and Hince made it to Canada safely. But she stays there, on the plantation, helping other people she doesn’t even know get to freedom.
In the epilogue, we learn that Clotee remained at Belmont and helped one hundred and fifty slaves get to freedom, and served as a spy for the Union. After the war she attended a black women’s college, and continued to correspond with William, who was disinherited by his father after becoming an abolitionist and philosophy professor—and with Hince and Rose, who had many children of their own.
Rating: A. Ugh, it’s so good. It’s one of the best books in the DA canon. Clotee is beautifully written, a wonderful and inspiring character who doesn’t waver too far over into self-righteous or self-important. The other characters are interesting and well-rounded, and the voice of the whole novel is perfect. It doesn’t miss a note or a beat. It’s a smart book, too, demanding that the reader keep up with the story in a way that lots of DA novels don’t—there’s real definite plot there, and it’s excellently handled. This is one of the best. God, it’s hard to read, but it’s so, so, so good and worth it.