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Slave To Time

Posted on 8th July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Jon Walter’s writing for children navigates dark and complex issues while remaining well-paced and accessible. His debut Close To The Wind illuminates the refugee experience from the point of view of a young boy and has drawn comparisons to John Boyne's The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas. His newest work, My Names’s Not Friday, is a Young Adult novel that explores the twinned themes of slavery and religion on a Mississippi plantation during the American Civil War. In the words of The Guardian it is ‘a tale of twists and turns, revelations and reversals, [that] will keep you utterly gripped.’

Do you ever imagine what people will think of us in the future? I don’t mean in a few years time. I mean in a hundred years or more, when your children have had children of their own, who have had children of their own.

Once we’re dead and buried, what will the world think of us? Well, that probably depends on what happens in the meantime.

What if, in a hundred and fifty years from now, our descendants are living as the survivors of some dystopian apocalypse - the result of a climate change we were all warned about but ignored? They’ll want to know why we travelled by plane and car when we knew what was coming. They’ll have a story of our lives, telling them what we thought and how we acted, revealing all of our mistakes with the benefit of hindsight. And it won’t be a surprise if they feel superior to us.



Image: Jon Walter

Because isn’t that how we feel about people from our past? When we think of how people lived long ago, we assume they were different to us. Not only in the small details such as how they dressed or what they ate, but also how they thought and what they did. In history, they chopped the heads off kings. They owned slaves. And we think we wouldn’t do the same things because we know so much more now. We think the world has moved on. But is that true?

Historical fiction can make us think again. It can put us into the lives of historical figures and bring them back to life. In the hands of a good book we can feel the same emotions they did and that helps us understand why they thought and behaved the way they did. It also means we can recognize our own world in theirs. So perhaps they weren’t so different to us?

That’s why I assumed that the slaveholders in My Name’s Not Friday believed they were good people. It’s important to me that they weren’t one dimensional, because that didn’t feel real. Most of us are never only one thing. We behave differently with different people. And we can always justify the way we think and behave. We all have a complex pattern of personal and cultural beliefs that informs what we do.

So in the case of our future apocalypse, I might argue that I take passenger planes because I don’t believe I can make a difference by myself or that I can see how money drives the world and I don’t think that’s going to change. Also, flying gives me lots of good things. It’s cheap. It’s quick. I get to experience places and people I wouldn’t otherwise. I might even argue that the theories of climate change are unproven and that I don’t believe a word of it.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the American south had similar arguments for owning slaves. Their tobacco and cotton plantations had made them rich and they led a comfortable life off the back of slavery. Also, slavery wasn’t confined to the fields. About twenty five per cent of households owned a slave, many of them inherited through wills and they were regarded as both status symbols and additional sources of income. 

Their society was deeply religious, so I wrote about Christianity, showing how the Bible was used to justify slavery. And like so many justifications, their arguments became elliptical. Because they believed their slaves to be inferior, they thought they wouldn’t be able to provide for themselves, which meant the slave owners saw themselves as charitable and generous in providing shelter and food in return for work. And if an owner abused their slaves then it wasn’t the fault of the system. That was a matter for their own conscience.

But the same religion also gave hope to the slaves. That was interesting. It gave them the story of Moses, how he led a nation of people from slavery to freedom. It told them that a better life waited for them.

Everywhere I looked there were contradictions and challenges to the beliefs that held that society together. What was it like to be a woman in charge of men, when women’s own freedom was curtailed? What was it like to be a boy of twelve, the heir to an inheritance that meant he would come to own the maids who had raised him and the children he used to play with?

In the same set of circumstances, we might choose to act the way they do. But the opposite is also true. With the benefit of hindsight, we can choose differently for ourselves. And so history becomes a prism. A lens for viewing our own world differently. By setting my story in a different time and place, I can expose themes that might get lost in a contemporary setting. And then a story about slavery and the American civil war becomes a book about the beliefs that all of us cling to, even when we fear that we might be wrong.

And if I can write it well, then history doesn’t seem so far away at all.

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