Monday, March 3, 2014

Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger (Illustrated by Robert Byrd)

Published in 2013 by Candlewick Press
Historical Fiction

"I dreamed of Africa.
     Of the people I loved and the country I admired.                                                                       
          I dreamed of Africa.                                                                                                                 
               I dreamed of home."  --Margru

Monica Edinger's book Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad is one of the most impressive books I've read so far this semester. The author is an educator and reviewer of children's books for the New York Times, the Horn Book, and other publications. This is Edinger's first book for children, and she explains why she chose this particular topic, "So many of the stories we know about those who were taken from Africa during the time of the slave trade focus on adults who ended up staying in America. Margru's is the less familiar story of a child who went back home" (end dust cover jacket).

Edinger's book is based on the true story of one of the children, Margru, who is thought to have been pawned into slavery by her father in Africa, sold into slavery a second time in Cuba, and then brought to America aboard the Amistad. The name given to Margru by her parents was Magulu, but when she arrives in America, her name is mistakenly understood to be Margru. Margru later becomes known as Sarah Margru Kinson, adopting her Scriptural name. Yes, Margru does become a Christian after she comes to America, and this book does not hide that fact, like so many other books or films often do (e.g. Walt Disney's Pocahontas). I was surprised when I read that Margru assisted in founding the Christian mission of Kaw Mendi when she returned to Africa. I'm glad Edinger didn't leave this part of her story out.

This book is beautifully illustrated by Robert Byrd, whose work was done in ink and watercolor. As you can tell from the cover, the illustrations are authentic and artistic. Most of the illustrations are brightly colored drawings and paintings; however, one illustration stood out above all the rest. When Margru describes her trip on the ship from Africa, the two-page spread is solid black, symbolizing the darkness of the journey. The text reads in six simple sentences and is very powerful:

"It took seven weeks. 

     Seven weeks in a dark and airless hold. 

          Seven weeks of heaving ocean. 

               Seven weeks of chains and shackles. 

                    Seven weeks of sobs and cries. 

                         Seven weeks of pain and suffering." 

Finally, the ship arrives in Cuba. The author then describes Margru's time spent there and the decision made to take them to America, the mutiny aboard the Amistad, the case that goes all the way to the Supreme Court eventually allowing Margru to return home, and her time spent in America with a loving family who cared for her.

Although Edinger's intention was to write a nonfictional account of Margru's story, she decided this would be impossible. In the author's note at the end of her book, Endinger explains why she decided to write a fictional account based on historical facts and documents instead:

"Wanting to tell [Margru's] story as truthfully as possible, I tried for years to write it as nonfiction. However, while she did forcefully express her feelings in letters as a young woman, there are no firsthand accounts from her as a child, and so I had to use phrases such as 'Margru probably felt . . .' and 'Perhaps she missed her parents.' Finding this unduly awkward, I crossed the border to fiction, giving Margru a voice of her own. The story is still true; those instances where I have imagined her feelings, invented dialogue, or created scenes are based on my research and on firsthand experiences in Sierra Leone. For example, John Warner Barber, who interviewed her, wrote that she was 'put in pawn by her father for a debt, which not being paid, she was sold into slavery.' I researched pawning, and learning that it was often done in times of famine, invented that as the reason Margru's father pawned her. The final scene of Margru meeting emissaries of her father is something she mentioned in a letter. Whether they actually met we don't know. In fact, she and her husband left the mission not long after this and nothing further about her life is known."

I have great respect for this author for her desire to be as truthful as possible when recreating Margu's story and the amount of research she conducted to write this book. Her use of newspaper articles, journals, maps, engravings, and hand-written letters by Margru herself add credibility to the text, and her inclusion of several historical documents and photos in her book add even more credibility to her story.

I highly recommend this book for older students, perhaps 5th grade and up. Some high school students may even find this book interesting. Even as an adult, I enjoyed reading it.

The Amistad Case: National Archives
The Amistad Research Center
Image Source
Learn More About Monica Edinger
Find this book in your local library.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book and I look forward to reading it! It has been wonderful to see more and more individual stories being told about slavery in recent years. So much of past discussion on slavery has focused on slaves as an overall group, but there are many rich stories to be told (thinking of Solomon Northup in Twelve Years a Slave). It is only when we begin to look at each of these different accounts, representing all sides, that we are able to get a true picture of the past.