I recently listened to My Name Is Not Friday by Jon Walter on audio. I hadn’t heard of Walter before and discovered this is his first teen/YA novel, following a successful middle-grade novel, Close to the Wind. This new novel is set during the Civil War and told from the perspective of a free black boy who is sold into slavery. It’s a fascinating and compelling historical novel.
Twelve-year old Samuel lives in an orphanage in east Tennessee with his little brother, Joshua. Their mother died giving birth to Joshua, leaving the boys alone. They were taken to an orphanage run by Father Mosely for free black boys who’d been orphaned. For six years, the two brothers grow up together there, working and taking classes and walking to Mass in borrowed pairs of shoes. Samuel gets along well with the other boys and with Father Mosely, but Joshua is always getting into trouble. Samuel loves reading and learning and hopes to become a teacher himself one day, but he just can’t get Joshua interested in schoolwork. One day, when Father Mosely accuses Joshua of a terrible act, Samuel takes the blame; he just can’t stand to see his brother punished again.
Samuel’s punishment, though, is far more than he’d bargained for. Without knowing what’s going on, he is sent away, given a new name (Friday), and sold at a slave auction. There, he is purchased by Gerald, a boy about his age, and his mother, Mrs. Allen, and taken to their plantation in Mississippi. Samuel is suddenly immersed in a world completely foreign to him. Mrs. Allen runs the busy farm while her husband is off fighting in the war. Gerald seems to want to be his friend, but the other slaves warn Samuel – now Friday – and explain that his role on the farm is to do what their owners tell him.
Friday is put to work part-time in the fields and part-time in the house, since he is well spoken. He discovers that none of the other slaves know how to read and realizes he must keep his own reading skills a secret. Friday (still Samuel in his heart) becomes accustomed to life on the farm and becomes a part of the community there, but he never stops thinking about getting away and finding his brother. Meanwhile, the war continues, and things are not looking good for the South.
This was a completely engrossing story, right from the first page, where we meet Samuel while he is blindfolded and being carried on the back of a mule to the auction by a slave trader. It puts the reader right in the middle of the experience of slaves during this tumultuous time period, while also showing some perspectives of slave owners and those fighting (and involved tangentially) in the Civil War. We watch with suspense as Samuel makes the journey from a free boy to a slave…and hopefully, some day, back again. Samuel and the other slaves are interesting and well-developed characters, as are the white characters in the novel. Like the best historical fiction, this novel transports the reader to a different place and time, while also telling an intriguing story.
NOTE: At first, I thought that perhaps this was a middle-grade novel because of the age of the protagonist, but it is definitely meant for teens and young adults, as Walter doesn’t shy away from a realistic portrayal of both slavery and the war. Some scenes are quite graphic and disturbing (as is appropriate for an accurate book about slavery and the Civil War), though the overall tone of the novel is one of hope and strength.