18 January 2012

Hamilton’s ‘Anthony Burns’

The book’s cover features an illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon, whose work enhanced Hamilton’s The People Could Fly
so eloquently.

Continuing my exploration of the work of the late author Virginia Hamilton, and doing so in the most haphazard way, I have stumbled across a lovely book, from 1988, that is a compendium of many of the best qualities that made her such a compelling writer. Not the least of these is, it’s a helluva good story, excitingly told.

Aimed I think at high-school kids and those junior-high students who are strong readers, Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave reads like historical fiction: with its Boston setting, roiling political background, and its hero with a crippled hand, it may even recall that landmark of the genre, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. But it’s all true, as Hamilton makes clear with a thoughtful afterword and an extensive bibliography.

Hamilton shows us Burns, a young man who finds himself the center of a riot in 1854. As is sometimes the case with such figures, Burns is de facto a passive figure during the most dramatic event of his life, since he’s being held prisoner (in shackles and under heavy guard) at the very moment he’s a cause célèbre. But creating passive heroes is not what Hamilton is about.

And so she shows us Burns’ inner thoughts, active even as he’s confined and facing the prospect of forcible return to his master in Virginia: Anthony retreats within himself, reliving his past in vivid flashback sequences, making of the narrative a counterpane of past and present. This technique makes absolute sense, chiming as it does with what we know about survivors of prison camps and other such ordeals. (Hamilton doesn’t say whether any of the real-life Burns’ writings or statements corroborated her narrative approach, but I wouldn’t be surprised.)

The book is full of smart psychology, and Hamilton shows us, for example, what a mixed blessing is Anthony’s as a very young boy, because he’s the special favorite of John Suttle, the man who owns him (and who cannot stop himself from repeating that Anthony is his property). Yes, Anthony gets somewhat better treatment than the other slaves, but this in turn exposes him to rumors and resentment from whites and blacks alike on the plantation. Anthony is still a slave, and even John Suttle’s affection can’t be relied on: he takes Anthony on pony rides, yes, but then knocks him off the saddle to the ground. The boy cannot — must not — complain.

Hamilton doesn’t need to spell out her message: there was no such thing as comfortable or “nice” slavery, nor any way to make the condition tolerable, and we understand why young Anthony feels the need to escape. Sure, some of his jobs are cushier than others; he never works in the fields, though he does plenty of manual labor, including in a sawmill, where a white man’s negligence leads to the accident that cripples 13-year-old Anthony’s hand. Other slaves have it worse, but that doesn’t make his situation better.

And so, as a man, Anthony retreats to his memories not out of sentimentality but out of pride: his memories are his own, and no one can take them from him: that is what makes them a source of comfort.

You see what an astute observer of psychology — of the human spirit — Virginia Hamilton could be. The rest of the book is full of comparable insights and intriguing characterizations. And if Anthony isn’t the most active participant in the courtroom drama, he remains the heart of the story.

Drawing on memoirs and testimony, Hamilton makes those trial scenes very suspenseful (what a great movie this story would make!), and it’s another mark of her method that she doesn’t condescend: legal terms are used, with the apparent presumption that her readers are smart enough to look ’em up if they don’t know ’em already.

Along similar lines, you don’t have to read the appended historical texts (including not only the works in that bibliography but also excerpts from the Fugitive Slave Act, nightmarish), but you can: as with The People Could Fly, Hamilton isn’t merely telling (or spoon-feeding) stories, she’s giving her readers the tools they need to learn and to make the stories their own. Fascinating.

She does keep you guessing, though. Two of the scenes that you expect to play on a grand scale are kept brief, remarkably non-violent, and really rather understated: the sawmill accident and the riot itself. It’s clever strategy, because you wind up paying closer attention to other, subtler or more obscure points in the plot: in a way, Hamilton knows that your imagination has filled in the big scenes, so she doesn’t have to.

And so it’s not only for the stories — which she has uncovered with such thoughtful care — that I’m returning to Virginia Hamilton’s books. It’s for the way she goes about her business, and for the sense she gives me that I know her now, though I never met her. With each book, she’s shared a bit of her soul with me.

Virginia Hamilton’s page at Amazon.com can be found here.

Virginia Hamilton’s page at Scholastic Books can be found here.

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