Children's Corner: 1800 slave revolt quickens anew in 'Come August, Come Freedom'
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Author Gigi Amateau first learned years ago of the remarkable story of a literate slave named Gabriel who tried, unsuccessfully, to incite a rebellion among his fellow slaves in Richmond, Va.
She was fascinated and inspired by the story of Gabriel's rebellion in August 1800 and also was incredulous that it was such a little-known piece of American history. Clearly, she told her editors, Gabriel's story needed to be told to a new generation of Americans, and she suggested that the editors find someone to tell the tale.
When her editors urged her to think of writing Gabriel's story herself, however, she demurred, noting that she was a novelist for kids and teens -- not a historian. Yet Ms. Amateau, who lives just outside Richmond, couldn't get Gabriel out of her mind. So she finally decided that she would try to tackle the job of bringing Gabriel's story to a new generation of readers.
The result is "Come August, Come Freedom" (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 12 up), a book in which Ms. Amateau combines fact and fiction to create a memorable portrait of a slave determined to try to win freedom for himself and his people.
Ms. Amateau details how Gabriel, emboldened by Francois-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture's successful rebellion against Haiti's slave masters, decided to use his blacksmith trade to help refashion pitchforks as weapons to arm thousands of fellow slaves.
A massive storm delayed implementation of the rebellion, however. By that time, Gabriel's plot had been discovered by authorities, thanks to an informant who betrayed the cause. Gabriel and dozens of his followers were hanged.
In the beautifully written "Come August, Come Freedom," Ms. Amateau takes these facts and enlarges upon them by focusing on what motivated Gabriel: his love for his family, especially Nan, his wife and fellow slave.
"Gabriel understood what the goals of the American Revolution were, and he understood that those goals had not yet been met for himself and other slaves," Ms. Amateau said at a recent talk on "Come August, Come Freedom" at the Takoma Park Maryland Library.
"What was Gabriel fighting for? To me, he was fighting to love who he wanted to love, and to live as a free man with his family."
Ms. Amateau may not have been trained as a historian, but she loves historical research. For this book, she even took a blacksmithing course so she could get a sense of what Gabriel's work was like.
As she researched his life and the time in which he lived, however, she found that information about Gabriel was rather scanty, not surprising given that he was a slave.
"The first thing we know about him is that his name appears on the property-tax records of Thomas Prosser; Gabriel would have been about 7 years old at that time," Ms. Amateau said. Prosser was the owner of Brookfield Plantation, about six miles from Richmond. While living on the plantation, Gabriel apparently learned to read, write and do math, although it's not clear who taught him.
Ms. Amateau also discovered that Gabriel grew to be a tall man -- over 6 feet -- and that he was trained as a blacksmith, a highly important job that gave him figurative stature among fellow slaves, who saw him as a leader. Another important fact: Ms. Amateau knew that Gabriel had a wife named Nan, and that his wife also was implicated in the rebellion, although there is no evidence that she was ever punished.
With these few facts about Gabriel, Ms. Amateau struggled to find a way to bring his story to life. Although there's a fair amount of other information about the rebellion that he led, Ms. Amateau felt frustrated in knowing so little about him.
"It seemed that Gabriel almost had his back to me," she said. "But the women in his life did not. ... The turning point for me was in realizing that Nan was a full partner and the motivating force for Gabriel."
At that point, Ms. Amateau realized that she had 23 years to fill in -- the time between when Gabriel's name first crops up as Prosser's slave when he was 7, to Oct. 10, 1800, when Gabriel was hanged in Richmond for leading the rebellion.
So she used her novelist skills to fill in those 23 years, creating a childhood for Gabriel that is shaped by his mother's love and his father's passion for freedom, as well as a friendship with his white master's son that turns sour as they grow up. She also imagines the relationship between Gabriel and Nan.
"For me, what was so compelling about Gabriel was the interplay of what we know and what we can imagine, " Ms. Amateau said. Gabriel's story "is a military story, a political story, a love story and a story about family."
Now that she's finally been able to put a spotlight on Gabriel's rebellion, Ms. Amateau plans to go back to what she knows best: writing "straight" novels. Her next book will be a sequel to "Chancey of the Maury River" (Candlewick Press, $6.99, ages 8-12), a story told by a horse named Chancey of his new life as a "therapy" horse for children.
" 'Chancey' was supposed to be a series," Ms. Amateau said. "The second book will be published in August."
Meanwhile, she hasn't given up historical research altogether, as she retains a special interest in the early days of the United States as a country.
"I could hang around the 1800s forever," she laughed.
First Published March 5, 2013 12:00 am