What the hell, I’ve now read this book twice with every plan of reviewing it, and then it just….fades out of my memory. Why? I enjoyed it! What’s wrong with me?
I Thought My Soul Would Rise And Fly: The Diary of Patsy, A Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1865, Joyce Hansen, 1997.
Seriously, I don’t know why I keep thinking I’ve already finished reviewing this book! I have not. And it’s quite good! And on a side note, the audiobook of this is also very good—the reader is excellent. If you can get past the weirdness of having the date and location read to you every thirty seconds, it’s great.
I digress ALREADY. Anyway, this book is very well-written and very touching, and one of the things I enjoy the most about it is that Patsy is disabled, but it’s not the focal point of the book like it is in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. I mean, in fairness, that one was about a girl at a school for the blind, so it was baked right in, but still. Patsy here has a debilitating stutter and a limp, but it’s never the focus—it definitely informs her capabilities and affects her life, but it doesn’t hamper it unduly. It’s well done. Also notable about this book: since it’s about a freed slave, I thought the title was going to refer to her disappointment when freedom didn’t fix everything about her life. It doesn’t—it’s a line from a spiritual and it’s about joy. So there you go.
The book begins in the spring of 1865, just after the Civil War has ended, on the plantation where Patsy lives in South Carolina. Her job has always been to look after the mistress’s nieces and nephews, but they leave after the war is over, leaving Patsy to work with the rest of the girls she lives with—the cook, Ruth the housekeeper and her little son, and Miriam the laundress. Patsy says that she’s heard they’re free, but nothing at all has changed for any of them. Nancy is right about Patsy’s age, but she’s the mistress’s shadow and thinks she’s better than all the rest of them.
Patsy has learned to read and write sitting in on the children’s lessons, but now that they’re no longer around, she has to sneak her reading and writing where she can. When the Yankees finally show up on the plantation and force the master to give them wages, they also tell the slaves that the Freedmen’s Bureau is going to assist with getting a school on the plantation for the children. But not everyone wants to stay—James, the master’s body servant, up and leaves without telling anyone. The mistress’s cousin comes to stay with her two children, creating more work and straining the food they have. The overseer leaves too in all the confusion, followed by a number of field hands, and then Miriam leaves when her uncle comes to find her. Mrs. Davis freaks out that the slaves should be sued for all that the Davises gave them—you know, silly things like “food” and “shelter”—and Patsy writes “I’m wondering how could your slave work if she has no food and no place to sleep? Wasn’t Ma’am and Sir supposed to feed Miriam and the rest of us?” Yes.
Then a woman shows up claiming to be Nancy’s mother—Nancy was taken away when she was only four and doesn’t remember her mother, and Nancy doesn’t want to go to her—she keeps clinging to Mrs. Davis like she’s her mother. Nancy’s real mother tells the Davises that Nancy is her child and she’s going to take her no matter what, and Mr. Davis says he’ll have her arrested for trespassing. It’s awful. Everything about this is heart-wrenching. Incredibly, it makes Patsy nervous—she has no family that she knows of, but she’s afraid someone might come to take her away from the only home she’s ever known. She has no family, but she has Ruth and Cook and the other slaves, and she doesn’t want to leave them. She thinks she would—but she’s not sure.
At any rate, Cook leaves, and Patsy finds herself doing far more work to help Ruth and Nancy—who is pretty useless. But since their mistress can’t stop Patsy from doing as she likes in her free time, she starts going with them to the slaves’ church in the outdoors rather than going to the white church in town with the Davises. A black preacher from the Freedmen’s Bureau offers to help them find a teacher for a school if they can fix up a place, so they decide to begin cleaning out the spinning house. Patsy is desperate to go to school for real, and incredibly excited, but she’s frustrated at how Ruth continually says they’ll never be free as long as they stay on the plantation. Well, not frustrated, I suppose, so much as frightened that Ruth will leave her.
Patsy finally spills that she can read when she starts reading to Ruth, trying to convince her that she’s not a dunce. Ruth is excited and slightly frightened for her, but Patsy begins teaching her and Luke the alphabet. Then she begins teaching some of the other children and the elderly people who are looking after them, and Patsy says “I felt like a teacher. Until a real teacher comes here, I suppose I’ll do.” I’m not crying! You’re crying!
The adult ex-slaves start a Union League, which is an organization to help freedmen learn about how the government works and that kind of thing, and Ruth asks Patsy to come and read the newspaper to them when the reverend can’t make it. While she’s nervous, she manages to read it all, and she reads all the advertisements for people looking for their family members, and everyone is amazed at how well she reads—and she doesn’t even stutter when she reads! She becomes even more important when the reverend can’t come regularly because his life has been threatened, because lest we forget, people are assholes.
The Freedmen’s’ Bureau finds a teacher, but it turns out no one in the area will board her, so she’ll have nowhere to live and can’t come. Instead they try to find a black teacher who can board with a black family, but this will set them back. So Patsy asks Ruth if she can start teaching the children their letters like a real teacher—“until the real teacher comes.” Ruth is thrilled—“Lord, here we is with a teacher all along and looking for someone on the outside. Oh, Patsy, what you mean until the real teacher come! You are the real teacher! You the only one among us who can read and write. So, you the teacher!”
She is! She begins showing the children their letters and she loves it—“I felt as though my soul would rise and fly.” And there you go.
In the fall, a black Yankee soldier comes walking up to the house where Patsy and Luke are going back to the kitchen, and he asks Luke “Do you know where I could find a lady named Ruth?” Luke tells him that’s my mama—“The soldier looked as though he was going to cry….I limped behind them and before I reached the shed, I heard a yell and a rash. I knew that Ruth had dropped the skillet. And I knew that this Yankee soldier was John, Luke’s father, and that he had come to take Luke and Ruth away.” I’m not going to lie, I did cry at this. It’s so sweet for them and so awful for poor Patsy. Because they do leave, of course, leaving Patsy all alone except with Nancy to do all the housework and cooking and everything else.
Then Mr. Davis dies, and Patsy wishes desperately that not everyone had up and left. Violet, one of the field hands, comes up to organize everything, since Mrs. Davis is a wreck and Patsy and Nancy don’t know what to do. The hands begin to worry that now that Mr. Davis is dead they won’t get the wages or the land they were promised after the crops are in, and they won’t get the school they were promised either. Sarah leaves with her children, so it’s just Mrs. Davis in the house with Nancy. So there’s less work, but Patsy is still doing the bulk of it. She’s thirteen. (She thinks.)
In November, although they still don’t have a teacher, the “Davis Hall Plantation School” does get a big box full of books! Nancy decides she wants to learn to read, so she trades off chores with Patsy so Patsy can go teach the children in the morning and teach her at night. Patsy finally picks her own name out of one of the books—Phillis, after Phillis Wheatley, the poet, and Frederick, after Frederick Douglass. But she thinks that she doesn’t have anyone to tell her name to.
There is no Christmas celebration, and New Year’s Day is the time for signing the contracts, but Mrs. Davis says she’s not going to give away any of their land and she can’t afford to pay them. So all the hands tell Mrs. Davis they’re leaving—Patsy included. “I know I am young, but I can read, write, cook, wash, and teach. I should be able to find work and care for myself.” On the one hand, Patsy is so brave and strong and smart! On the other hand…she’s THIRTEEN. She should have people to take care of her! It’s so sweet and so sad.
Anyway, in the epilogue, we learn that Nancy stays with the Davis family her whole life. Most of the hands’ families go to a farm near Davis Hall and earn enough money to buy some land. Phillis is sent to Charleston the following year to go to a private black school. The families who buy land build their own town called Libertyville, and Phillis returns there to teach and eventually marries Douglass, one of the hands from Davis Hall a few years older than her. They never have children, but Phillis teaches her whole life to generations of children and everyone loves her.
Rating: B. I know. But hear me out. There are parts of this book I really like—I really like Patsy as a character. I really enjoy the setting (immediately post-Civil War). I love the secondary characters. Parts of it definitely made me cry. As I mentioned, I liked how Patsy’s disability is handled. But for all that, there’s something about this book that just does not grab me like it should. I’m not sure why or what it is, but I’ve definitely read this book three or four times and I just for some reason cannot manage to get it together to recap it properly. I don’t know why! It’s lacking some kind of essential spark, maybe. I want to like it much more than I did, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.