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amos fortune, free man

18 april 2015

Amos Fortune was a real person, so Elizabeth Yates's 1951 Newbery Medal book about him is catalogued by the Library of Congress as non-fiction; but like many biographies for juvenile readers, it's told in such a novelistic mode that the boundary between truth and historical fiction nearly disappears.

Amos Fortune's life has a documentary basis, and a lapidary one; his tombstone is going strong, as is his wife Violet's, in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Yates quotes their epitaphs, as she quotes a number of documents – bills of sale, manumission papers, indentures – that give a keen picture of an American life. Business transactions survive longer than most other things about us, and Fortune was both the actor and the object in several of them.

Amos Fortune is said to have lived 91 years, the first 15 or so in Africa, and the rest in New England, about half as a slave and half free. Yates, who was white, offers very little in the way of horror story. Fortune is whipped once in his youth, soon after being taken captive, but ultimately works in two very benevolent Christian households for masters who intend some day to free him. (The widow of his second owner finally does.)

Fortune learns weaving and then tanning, and becomes a master craftsman in his own right, shrewdly venturing into a niche opportunity in a New Hampshire valley desperate for a good tanner. But his character note is benevolence. Enslaved as a young man, he spends down several lower-case fortunes to buy freedom for others, once he wins his own. The starkest dramatic conflict in the book comes when Violet, the woman he's married after buying two wives out of slavery and losing them to death, objects to Fortune's plans to care for a "shiftless" free black woman. But though Lois Burdoo doesn't deserve or ultimately benefit from his efforts, he does manage to set her children on their feet, even to look after her evidently retarded daughter.

A paternalistic cast hovers over the whole book. Amos Fortune believes in God, and shares with Uncle Tom of Cabin fame a sense that his will in this world is ultimately subject to an inscrutable and somewhat arbitrary providence. "It does a man no good to be free until he learns how to live, how to walk in step with God" (162). That's an appropriate sentiment for a religious book, but Amos Fortune, Free Man is a secular book with a fairly bland concept of Christian doctrine. In that context, Fortune's wisdom seems more like counsel to African-American readers to be patient and know their place.

I don't know if a book like this would get published nowadays, let alone acclaimed. It's one of many middle-class, middlebrow American children's books of the mid-20th century, in which white writers appropriated exotic characters for white readers, in a generally tolerant and inclusive vein, as long as Anglo-Americans got to tell the story and dictate how to think about it. On the other hand, it's a story worth telling, and there's no reason Elizabeth Yates should have deferred telling it. The book's heart is ultimately in the right place.

Yates, Elizabeth. Amos Fortune, Free Man. Illustrated by Nora S. Unwin. 1950. New York: Puffin [Penguin], 1989. E 185.97 .F73Y3