Thursday, August 18, 2016

Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave by Virginia Hamilton, 1993

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The year is 1854, and Anthony Burns, a 20-year-old Virginia slave, has escaped to Boston. But according to the Fugitive Slave Act, a runaway can be captured in any free state, and Anthony is soon imprisoned. The antislavery forces in Massachusetts are outraged, but the federal government backs the Fugitive Slave Act, sparking riots in Boston and fueling the Abolitionist movement.
Written with all the novelistic skill that has won her every major award in children's literature, Virginia Hamilton's important work of nonfiction puts young readers into the mind of Burns himself.

(208 pages)

I read Anthony Burns as a summer reading assignment for my new AP US History class. The assignment was to read a book connected to US history and then write a review of it, so I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone and post my review on here as well as on the class website. The format is a little different from my usual reviews, because there are some specific questions I'm supposed to be answering, so sorry if it sounds a little stilted.

Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave is (as I'm sure you've already guessed) about a man named Anthony Burns, who was a fugitive slave. Moving past that obvious piece of information, I'll tell you that it's a historical fiction that takes all of the true facts known about Burns' life, adds some embellishing details about his childhood as a slave, and then tells the story of his life in the style of a fictional novel. It's a very gripping read, made doubly so because the story's true. The narration swaps between descriptions of his arrest/trial (focusing both on Anthony's emotions and on the people around Boston connected to his case) and flashbacks as Anthony reminisces to himself about his life growing up on the slave plantation. It's a very compelling rhythm, because as the trial unfolds the true (and terrible) picture of what exactly Anthony is trying to escape is revealed so that you can't help but be swept away in the truth of how devastatingly important it is that Anthony be allowed to go free.

The first time I read Anthony Burns, I was completely absorbed in the drama of the story, of the emotions running throughout each scene. The second time through, I spent most of the time wondering how much of what I read was actually true. The author says in the afterward that she filled in the story's gaps, and sometimes that's obvious–like when she makes up some tales from Anthony's childhood, or writes as though she definitively knows the inner workings of the main characters' heads–but sometimes her eagerness to add extra information makes me a little leery about the historical accuracy of other parts of her account. It makes for a compelling story, for example, to know exactly what Burns's lawyer said in his final passionate speech; the speech recorded in the book is a very clever, emotional, well-written speech, and I would love to applaud the person who wrote it - but since, a few chapters later, the lawyer mourns that the judge didn't take notes during the speech ("Not one note, Dana thought. Not on any of my points . . . He wrote not a word!") it begs the question: how did Hamilton actually get the original speech to put in her book? There may be a simple answer to that question or there may not be (I certainly haven't been able to find any transcript of the trial online), but this is just an example of how I wish she had been a little more clear about delineating between historical fact and made-up details.

Okay, moving on. The biggest piece of new historical information that I gained from Anthony Burns is - and don't laugh at me for not already knowing about this!  - the Fugitive Slave Act. This was an act that required citizens of free states in the North to return escaped slaves to their masters in the South; anyone who knew about an escaped slave and didn't turn him in was breaking the law. This law obviously sparked some major backlash from abolitionists, and so Anthony Burns focuses not only on Anthony's feelings throughout his trial but also on the response the people of Boston as a whole had toward his potential return to slavery. It's very interesting (in a horrifying sort of way) to see how the law itself was so obviously and overtly pro-slavery to the point where it could force people like Anthony to go back into the terrible slavery they'd almost escaped for good. It made me think about the government as a whole, and about how sometimes it's really nothing more than a tool used by evil people to justify and even enable the horrible things that they do.

Okay, well that's chipper. I guess this review was bound to be a downer, considering it's about a man's attempt to escape slavery. I usually try to avoid those sorts of books, because they're just so darned depressing, but somehow this one just really caught my eye. I'm glad I read it, in an "I learned something about my past" sort of way, though I'm also disturbed by the way Anthony and his fellow slaves were treated by their "owners." And also by the fact that he died only seven years after he was freed.

I know, that really puts a damper on the whole "triumph" part of the byline.

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