January 30, 2019

A Cage Without Bars

Written by Anne Dublin
Second Story Press
160 pp.
Ages 10-14
September 2018

The Lord is with me. I have no fear of what man can do to me.      (pg. 1)

In 1492, the king and queen of Spain signed the Edict of Expulsion, giving the Jews of Spain the choice of converting to Catholicism or leaving the country. Many fled to Portugal where their refuge was short-lived. A Cage Without Bars is the story of Joseph, a twelve-year-old Jewish boy, who escapes from Spain with his parents and ten-year-old sister Gracia only to be enslaved by the Portuguese and shipped with other children to the island of São Tomé off the coast of West Africa.
They did not need ropes or chains to restrain us. We were bound by our grief and terror. (pg. 23)
Though Captain Caminha had been expecting a hundred African slaves promised by the king, he is surprised to be delivered of a large group of Jewish children, including Joseph and Gracia, as well as the group of convicts (degredados), who are to be put to work on establishing a settlement and farming cane to make sugar. As horrific as the ship's journey is for the children, with seasickness, poor food, minimal drinking water, dirty quarters, lashings, and Friar Escobar's regular lectures about Christianity, new horrors await them upon the island. When the Portuguese settlers who had received land grants choose their child slaves to work their land in exchange for food, clothing and shelter, Joseph is selected with six others by Dom Pereira, the expert on growing sugar cane. The Jewish child slaves live in huts behind their master's house and begin the hard work of clearing plants and trees. Gracia, on the other hand, who had been chosen to work for the captain's wife Dona Maria while still on the ship, remains by her mistress's side, tending to her clothing and hair and begins to adopt the Christian ways.

Many children lose their lives on the ship, mostly from bloody flux (dysentery), but now the remaining children begin to fall victim to tertian fever (malaria) and accidents including attacks by snakes and crocodiles. The slaves' numbers are augmented with a shipload of African slaves who are a tremendous help in clearing the land and preparing the soil, as well as planting and weeding. Because Joseph sees that they are all slaves, he doesn't always recognize the Jewish children and Africans as different. Even after he is enlisted to learn all he can about making sugar from books after Dom Pereira dies, Joseph begins to befriend the Africans, teaching a boy Tomás his letters–a punishable action–and partaking in their food and storytelling.
Most of us decided to do the best we could; to cling to life; to survive. There was no other choice. (pg. 96)
A tale of slavery cannot have a happy ending, though Anne Dublin does give Joseph a settling of the story that is bittersweet. But she makes sure that it is not contrived or impossible to believe. Perhaps that's to give the reader some hope that from such terrible historical circumstances some resolution could still occur. Still A Cage Without Bars is a very different story about slavery by recounting the historical events that resulted from the Spanish Edict of Expulsion in the fifteenth century. It's evident from author Anne Dublin's writing and historical notes, which include extensive footnotes, a glossary and references for further reading, that this was a difficult story to learn about and to tell. Still, she tells it well by embedding Joseph's story in the big picture of history, making it personal and real, not just bleak in tone and facts, and exposing a new story from the past that needs to be acknowledged in order to further our understanding and extend our compassion, all in the effort to replace ignorance and discrimination.

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