Author: Ann Turner
Illustrator: James Ransome
Audience: Ages 6-10
Summary: Based on her own words, this is the story of Isabella, one of twelve children born into slavery in eighteenth-century New York State. Sold first at the age of nine for $100, Isabella was owned by three different families, beaten harshly, and made to work as hard as any man. She ran away when her last owner broke his promise to free her, and she was eventually taken in by an anti-slavery family. A year later she learned that her five-year-old son had been sold away to another home, and despite the fact that she could not read, she enlisted the help of lawyers to get Peter back. Years later, while working in New York City, Isabella chose the name Sojourner Truth for herself and began to travel far and wide preaching about God’s salvation and about the terrible institution of slavery. Her belief in God and in her eventual reunion with all her lost family in heaven comforted her throughout her life.
Literary elements at work in the story: Ann Turner’s retelling of Sojourner Truth’s biography mixes painful concrete truths with powerful metaphorical language. Young Isabella says that when her mother lost children to slavery, “her heart had twelve holes in it…” Later, when Isabella herself had to return to a former owner to demand her young son back, she said, “I felt as tall as a tree inside, courage racing around inside my heart.” James Ransome’s watercolors help articulate the emotions of fear, anger, exhaustion, and courage, even when the words are spare.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? This is a story of a time when race and gender were even more marginalizing than they are today. Sojourner Truth faced down dominant culture on two fronts, that of her African-American heritage and that of her gender, always at grave danger to herself. Whites are portrayed both as cruel and heartless and as kind and generous.
Theological Conversation Partners: Sojourner Truth’s faith in God sustained her throughout her life, and her biography would be a good companion for either religious or secular studies of persecution. Stories of the prophets are filled with harassment of those who spoke God’s truth to power, just as Sojourner Truth did. And, like Paul, who cried out, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31), Sojourner Truth felt the courage that God’s presence gave her daily. She could calm people or rouse them to action, her “voice like Gabriel’s trumpet.” This would also be a good book to use in connection with historical studies of America’s institution of slavery. It is important for our children to realize that it was often people of faith who stood up and spoke out against injustice.
Faith Talk Questions:
- When do you think that this story took place? What clues in the book help you know that?
- Why was Isabella sold to a farmer when she was only nine years old?
- How do you think her mother and father felt when that happened?
- Why did Isabella run away from the Dumont house?
- Why do you think that Isabella gave herself the new name, Sojourner Truth?
- If you were to give yourself a brave new name, what would it be?
- What gave Sojourner Truth the courage to preach in front of people?
- Where did Sojourner Truth think that she would see her family members again?
This review is written by Beth Lyon-Suhring, Union Presbyterian Seminary alumna and Director of Christian Education at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, Suffolk, VA.