Author: Gigi Amateau
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, PoC
Publication Date: September 11, 2012
Hardcover: 240 Pages
An 1800 insurrection planned by a literate slave known as “Prosser’s Gabriel” inspires a historical novel following one extraordinary man’s life.
In a time of post-Revolutionary fervor in Richmond, Virginia, an imposing twenty-four-year-old slave named Gabriel, known for his courage and intellect, plotted a rebellion involving thousands of African- American freedom seekers armed with refashioned pitchforks and other implements of Gabriel’s blacksmith trade. The revolt would be thwarted by a confluence of fierce weather and human betrayal, but Gabriel retained his dignity to the end. History knows little of Gabriel’s early life. But here, author Gigi Amateau imagines a childhood shaped by a mother’s devotion, a father’s passion for liberation, and a friendship with a white master’s son who later proved cowardly and cruel. She gives vibrant life to Gabriel’s love for his wife-to-be, Nanny, a slave woman whose freedom he worked tirelessly, and futilely, to buy. Interwoven with original documents, this poignant, illuminating novel gives a personal face to a remarkable moment in history.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: The publisher contacted us to offer a review copy and a stop on the blog tour. When I got the email, read the blurb and some of the praise it received, I just had to say yes.
In 1800, in Richmond, Virginia, a twenty-four-year-old literate slave known as Prosser’s Gabriel planned an insurrection involving thousands of African-Americans freedom seekers. The rebellion did not succeed – a mixture of bad weather and betrayal prevented the revolt from even starting – and Gabriel, as well as a few of his co-conspirators, was executed. Come August, Come Freedom was inspired by this moment in history and is a reimagining of Gabriel’s early life as well as his motivations based on historical evidence and the extensive trial documents available. Here, Gigi Amateau imagines his private life and intersperses the story with facsimiles of historical documents.
Her own motivation for writing this story is simple:
By immersing myself in the history and documents related to Gabriel, I eventually realized that if Gabriel’s story is to be lifted up as an essential American story, then we all must tell this story over and over again so that Gabriel’s story takes its place in our canon of defining moments. Many founding heroes, sheroes, and patriots have become part of America’s collective story. Tales of such people teach us something and exemplify the qualities we admire in our great citizens. Gabriel’s Rebellion reveals so much of the thinking of our leaders in the early days of America, the rampant liberty fever that was worldwide by 1800, and how enslaved people were engaged in the pursuit of freedom and the call to end to slavery long before the Civil War broke out. To me, Gabriel and Nan’s story ought to join our larger American story of freedom-loving patriots who lived and sacrificed for the cause of our liberty.
As such, Come August, Come Freedom succeeds and surpasses what it set out to do – Gabriel and his wife Nanny indeed come to life as heroic freedom fighters. It presents Gabriel as a man of his time, immersed in the ideas of freedom circulating both within America (in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War) and from abroad (in Haiti, black slaves had just fought for their freedom – and won). The book also presents an interesting context for this particular rebellion and how it could have possibly come to be in terms of its organising. At that particular point in time in Virginia, many slaves had a certain degree of mobility: slaves from different plantations were allowed to assemble every Sunday, slaves could be hired out (a way for owners to make some extra money, but also afforded the slaves to save money for themselves and possibly buy their own eventual freedom). Also, some slaves were literate. These different opportunities meant that slaves, like Gabriel, could meet and plan, organizing their rebellion. After the failed uprising, however, Virginia passed new laws that forbade those ‘freedoms’ to prevent future rebellions.
It is known that Gabriel, the historical figure and protagonist of this book, was literate and that he was also a skilled blacksmith. Amateau posits the idea that he would have trained in the city of Richmond where he would have come to hear revolutionary ideas that would fuel his dream of freedom with hope.
Beyond the research behind the book, there is the beautiful, almost poetic writing and the realistic depiction of characters. The book’s opening immediately sets the tone, beginning on a Sunday morning as Gabriel’s ma (one of the few invented characters in the text, as we know nothing about his mother) prepares to nurse her own child after spending the whole week first feeding her master’s son Henry, Gabriel’s milk brother:
She stretched out long in the grass and nursed her six-month-old son
without interruption. After a while, Gabriel opened his walnut eyes, and Ma gave him her other breast. On some Sundays, he got his fair share. Ma stroked Gabriel’s troubled brow.
“Eat all you like, child. Take what’s yours.”
Although this is a thoroughly invented scene that employs the author’s poetic license, the core idea of awareness about the utterly ugly reality of slavery, conveyed in this scene, is one that pervades the entire book; it is a reality that we can imagine informed Gabriel’s real life. It is perfectly, horrifically, conceivable that Gabriel’s experiences growing up on the plantation where his family and friends lived and suffered, where he witnessed families being torn apart with the sale of a son or wife to a different estate, also made a huge impact. There is no “good, benevolent master” here, on the account that there is no such a thing as a “good” owner of slaves. There is no happy slave either – although there are those slaves who, hopeless, have accepted their lot in life.
The story here is both beautiful and heartbreaking. This is a book for children and I appreciated that it doesn’t shy away from the brutality and the truth of slavery at all. One of the most impacting scenes is Nan’s memories of the humiliating moment when she was up for sale in Richmond, dehumanised and treated like a broodmare.
In terms of the actual writing and plotting of the book, Come August, Come Freedom is a bit vacillating and episodic – perhaps due to the lack of factual information. It takes several liberties when it comes to exploring the possible internal motivations for Gabriel’s rebellions and with his personal life, and spends little time on the actual organisation of the upraising. That said, I understand the choice to reflect the man rather than the leader.
A huge part of the book depicts Gabriel’s love for his wife Nanny, and this is a beautiful love story. An even greater part of the book depicts their shared love for the idea of freedom. And that’s the most beautiful thing of all.
I loved this scene between Gabriel and his old Blacksmith teacher:
“Teacher, I was going to marry Nan. I planned to buy her freedom and then mine, but Johnson threatened to harm her. There is no law to protect my woman from such a villain. I am a man, Jacob. Nanny’s man. What was I supposed to do?” Gabriel asked. “What am I supposed to do right now?”
Jacob nodded slowly. “Son, there is no right now with liberty. Freedom takes time and patience.”
“I have never disagreed with you, but, truth is, there is only right now. And there is only one choice left for this business of liberty,” Gabriel told him.
“Do not mistake politics for principles. Adams is on Toussaint’s side because of America’s concerns with France, not because America believes in Toussaint,” said Jacob.
“Jacob, is freedom not America’s concern?” Gabriel asked him. “This forge is your own. You work and move about the city as you please. Do you love your freedom?”
“None but the wealthiest men among us move about fully as they please,” said Jacob.
Gabriel lowered his head in disappointment
“You deserve your freedom because you entitled from birth,” the old smith continued. “Liberty is a God-given right, Gabriel, not for man to dispense or withhold at will. But, son, I am old now. I have lived through one war.”
“But this is the unfinished business of your war,” said Gabriel. “There is not other choice left for me.”
If you’d like to read more about Gabriel and his rebellion and this book, one good place to start is the author’s research notes. They are very interesting not only for the information about the type of primary source materials available but also to understand some of the author’s choices.
And Gigi Amateau is also guest blogging with us today, talking about Inspirations & Influences. It’s a great piece – go HERE to read it.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)