© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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Come August, Come Freedom

By Gigi Amateau

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Ages 13 and Up for frank depictions of the brutality of slavery including physical violence, lynchings and suggestions of rape and sexual abuse.

One Word Summary: Wrenching.

With Come August, Come Freedom, Gigi Amateau delivers a heart rendering piece of historical fiction that breathes life into this true tale in a way that a textbook never could. The story of Gabriel and his slave uprising, while certainly not a fun read, is made vital through Amateau’s infusion of lyrical prose and delicate weaving of wide lens historical awareness and micro-focused personal struggle.

Gabriel was born a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation in the same year America gained its independence. When Gabriel was very young, his father did a little too much talking about the God-given

right to freedom for the taste of his owner, Thomas Prosser, and as a result was taken from their home one night by Prosser’s men and murdered. While Gabriel was too young to understand what was happening at the time, his mother was left hollowed by the horror of this all too common travesty. But where Thomas Prosser showed no mercy, his wife had a softer heart and allowed young Gabriel to play with her own son, Thomas Henry, and even taught the boy to read and write.

Gabriel’s sheltering didn’t last long though as he, his mother and brothers routinely fell victim to unspeakable violence at the hands of their master throughout his adolescence. While still not yet a teenager, Prosser sent Gabriel and his older brother to Richmond to apprentice with a local blacksmith named Jacob Kent to expand his slave’s value. But, unwittingly, Prosser’s action sets Gabriel on course to expand his own awareness and desire for freedom. In Richmond under the tutelage of the (relievingly) compassionate, boisterous Jacob, Gabriel finds a passion

and a talent for forging iron, a practice that allows him to ruminate on the world around him. Richmond, being a major port at the time, drew many progressive thinking patriots to its streets, inspired by the victory of the Americans over the British and now turning their gaze to the great oppression of the slaves.

After seven years in the city, Gabriel returns to Prosser’s plantation, now very much a man. At a communal gathering of slaves from the neighboring farms, Gabriel meets Nanny, a soulful, no-nonsense sophisticate who shares his boldness and uncompromising desire for liberty. While it’s Gabriel’s wish to work tirelessly at his trade to earn enough money to one day buy Nanny’s freedom, the task quickly becomes impossible through a series of grave injustices and betrayals. It is clear to the star-crossed pair that for their love to have a chance, they must dedicated themselves wholly to the cause of their people’s emancipation, even if it means paying the ultimate price. Gabriel, a natural leader with his steady eloquence, his skills and his connections to powerful sympathizers is ready to organize an uprising that would topple Richmond and send a message to the new country.

I had not heard the story of Gabriel before (or maybe had but long since forgotten it), but anyone with a rough grasp on the history of emancipation in this country can figure out that a slave uprising in the late 1700s can’t end well. And indeed, the last few pages of Come August, Come Freedom are enough to provoke a flood of tears, as much for their tremulous rays of dogged hope and optimism as for their terrible heartbreak. That balance, the pull between the inhuman horrors of slavery and the inquenchable, soaring triumph of the human spirit is the greatest strength of this work. What Amateau clearly realized is that, within Gabriel’s individual story, is the whole story. The plot points of Come August echo the larger, unshakable core of the quest for freedom: that in spite of the worst degradations, with no reason to do so, the slaves were still able to love, yearn and dream.

Though beautiful and moving, Come August is surely no one’s idea of a pleasurable read with its stomach turning violence and roiling injustices, but it is a deeply informative one. Amateau’s work would fit perfectly in a high school history curriculum on civil rights, black history, or the early days of America. The themes, as well as the violence, would be best digested in a classroom setting, both as a facilitator for discussion, and as a reminder that all these historical figures were actual people with more to them than just dates and battle names. Amateau may have invented dialog and details to flesh out the story but in doing so has given Come August a personal resonance that is as truthful as the many real newspaper clipping she has included.

A poetic, difficult and devastating work, Come August, Come Freedom sheds light onto an under-told story of American history that is as tender as it is fearless, as far reaching as it is focused. Gabriel may not have lived to see his people freed, but at last, his contribution to the cause has been given wings.