Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen (YA Fiction)



Gary Paulsen (Young Adult Fiction)

“It was in the flower bed that I first heard about Nightjohn.  Not by name, but by happening.”  Sarny remembers that moment well.  That and other moments—both horrible and hopeful—that has happened on Master Clel Waller’s plantation:  the beatings, the constant humiliation, the rapes, but also the songs and stories that provide some comfort to her and her fellow slaves.  But most precious of all were the moments spent with Nightjohn for he brought with him freedom.  Freedom that only knowledge could bring, and Nightjohn was bringing it to Sarny and anyone brave enough to accept this unique and powerful gift.

Gary Paulsen notes that the events written in Nightjohn (with the exception for variations in time and character identification and placement) are true and actually happened.  Knowing the atrocities, brutality, and savagery that happened during the period in American history where slavery was practiced and largely accepted, the story of Sarny and what she witnessed and experienced should come as no shock.  Unfortunately, it does for Paulsen is relentless in his detail and spares no sensibilities when it comes to depicting the treatment of slaves and the punishment ravaged upon those attempting escape.  The book is recommended for ages 12 and up and although the message is important and the details written are accurate, I would suggest a slightly higher starting age due to several highly graphic scenes and some mature subject matter.

I appreciated the theme of this book and the heroism shown by Nightjohn who had successfully acquired freedom in the north, but chose to return south so that he could teach slaves to read and write.  During one pivotal scene, Sarny’s “adoptive” mother, Mammy, asked Nightjohn why teaching the slaves to read and write mattered.  “They have to be able to write,” Nightjohn responded.  “They have to read and write.  We all have to read and write so we can write about this—what they doing to us.  It has to be written.”  The singular problem I had with Paulsen’s book was the overuse of violence.  Paulsen describes what runaways endured when the dogs finally caught up with them and he did so not once, not twice, but three times.  The reader understands the gruesomeness of this action and the utter deprave satisfaction the master gets in seeing a man or woman being literally torn to shreds, but to restate it numerous times was borderline gratuitous.

Nightjohn is a quick read (the hardback edition is ninety-two pages with large typeface and a narrow page width), but its characters and their unfailing faith, their struggle for dignity, and their fight for a better life will have a long-lasting impact on you and will forever change how you view the everyday things that are often taken for granted.  In that respect, Nightjohn has given each of us a very valuable lesson.

(Reviewer’s Note: In 1997, Paulsen wrote Sarny: A Life Remembered, a sequel to Nightjohn, which follows Sarny after she fled the Waller plantation in the last days of the Civil War.)

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie (Adult Fiction)

It was in early 1971 when two “city youths”—ages 17 and 18—were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky.  Boyhood friends, they were to be re-educated as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.  If they were fortunate, they would be reunited with their families after two years.  But they were not the offspring of average parents.  Instead, their parents—professional, respected, educated—were classed as enemies of the people, and their chances of release currently stood at three in a thousand.  So, the two spent their days laboring in the paddy fields, working in the mines, or carrying human and animal waste on their backs.  But one fateful day, their village headman sent them to the district of Yong Jing.  That journey would culminate with the princess of Phoenix Mountain, a miller, and an author named Honoré de Balzac.

Dai Sijie himself was re-educated and spent between 1971 to 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province.  His experiences undoubtedly gave this novel its authenticity, depth, and richness.  I knew very little of Mao Zedong’s 10-year movement to preserve Chinese Communism through the cultural eradication of capitalism and tradition.  Needless to say, the results were disastrous: economically, politically, and societally.  Sijie gives us a glimpse of the isolation, fear, and hysteria suffered by those who were sent away through the eyes of our 17-year old narrator (unnamed) and his 18-year friend, Luo.  When the two come across a hidden collection of translated Western classics, their worlds expand as they are introduced to the foreign feelings of lust, jealousy, revenge, and honor.  Matters are further complicated when they share these novels with the local tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.

I truly enjoyed this book and found it as light and airy as a basting stitch.  It read like a well-crafted fable and the scenes were sewn together seamlessly.  It was a delightful read that reinforces the idea that the written word is often just as powerful suppressed as it is unleashed.  Albert Einstein said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  So is a lot.”  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reminds us that once a book is opened, so is the mind and when the mind is opened, the heart takes flight.  Perhaps for this reason alone, there are still those in the world who wish books to remain closed.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to