Augustine, Louisiana is a tiny place with a difficult history that includes the now-abandoned Goswood Grove Plantation. Benedetta (Benny) Silva is a first-year English teacher here in 1987. Hannie Gossett is a young black woman in 1875. Their compelling stories as well as their connections are revealed in alternating chapters that kept me up several nights.
The idealistic and somewhat naïve Miss Silva–with her own uncomfortable past– struggles to make a difference with her high school students who it seems everyone has given up on.
“Maybe I’m expecting too much, but I can’t help believing that, for kids who are given so few choices on a daily basis, just having some could be huge. Beyond that, I want them to see that there is no faster way to change your circumstance than to open a great book.”
“Anyhow…if you’re from around Augustine, and your last name is Loach, or Gossett, no matter what color you are, your way-back history goes to this place, some time or other. Your people didn’t get too far from where they started. Probably won’t either.”
“It’s history,” I pointed out. “I’m trying to impress upon my students that everyone has history. Just because we’re not always happy with what’s true doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know it. It’s how we learn. It’s how we do better in the future. Hopefully, anyway.”
Teen-aged Hannie gets swept up in a plot to protect two daughters of her former master (one white, one not) from the theft of their birthrights and her own sharecrop land. Disguising themselves as boys, the three young women must travel to Texas to find Old Marse Gossett. They face danger and adventure in these chapters. River boats, jail, a disreputable relative of their Old Missus, and the murderous Marston Men. The stakes couldn’t be higher. However, while hiding out at a backwoods black church, they discover the walls are covered with ads looking for lost family members–enslaved persons sold away from one another.
This part is true. The Southern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper, was sent to thousands of subscribers including hundreds of pastors of black churches in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Pastors read them from their pulpits. Today you can search the Lost Friends data base online. Click here to listen to a story NPR did about it in 2017.
What this book so vividly portrays is the importance, the power of stories. Everyone’s stories. And what we lose when we stop telling them and cease listening to them.
“We die once when the last breath leaves our bodies. We die a second time when the last person speaks our name. The first death is beyond our control, but the second one we can strive to prevent.”
“Lot of stories. Sad thing when stories die for the lack of listenin’ ears.”
Benny and Hannie compel us to discover our own history, our own truth–no matter how uncomfortable it might be–to acknowledge it, and to learn from it. I urge all of us to do the same. How else can we hope to create “a more perfect union?” Recommend.