January 13, 2015

The Gospel Truth

by Caroline Pignat
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-493-9
328 pp.
Ages 12+
October, 2014


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
                             ~Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson would not have written this poem yet but her words would still ring true for an enslaved young woman named Phoebe on a Virginian tobacco plantation in 1858. Phoebe is attuned to listen to the birds for their messages of hope and freedom, while keeping her own song quiet, having stopped speaking since her mother Ruthie was sold by Master Arnold Duncan ten years earlier.  And though she doesn't speak, Phoebe is chosen to accompany Doctor Ross Bergman, a guest at the plantation, and Miss Tessa, the marriageable daughter of Master Duncan, when he visits the plantation from Canada to study the birds of Virginia.

Taken under the wing of Bea, the housekeeper, and given to Miss Tessa as her personal maid, Phoebe understands well enough what is expected of her but also what she needs to do for herself, including learning to read so that she may find her Momma.
Cause a slave can't have words.
Or hope. 
But I do. 
I got both,
buried deep in the hollow part of me. (pg. 36)
However, not everyone feels as Phoebe does, including Shad, the young slave who has feelings for her. Though the younger brother of a powerful slave who has runaway three times, Shad is still convinced the best recourse is obedience to Master Duncan, and it is this attitude that threatens everything for Phoebe.

Told in free verse and in six voices (Phoebe, Master, Miss Tessa, Doctor Bergman, Bea, and Shad), The Gospel Truth tells more than just of the life of slaves on a tobacco plantation in the mid-19th century.  It speaks of a change coming, of those who see it and those who don't, and those who risked so much to be part of that change–love, security, family, life–sometimes even without choice.  Every voice that speaks from Caroline Pignat's pen is clear and resounds with every word spoken or not.  

The power of Caroline Pignat's words would compel me to cite so much of her text. She has the gift for novel in verse, not simply writing prose in verse form.  Just as a good novelist doesn't tell everything, allowing the reader to interpret, surmise and read into the text, a great writer of novel in verse tells even more in fewer words.  Pamela Porter, Martine Leavitt and now Caroline Pignat.  As for the story, think The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill in free verse for younger readers and with more soul.  A perfect bundle of story, voice and form–that's The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat.

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