Review: Day of Tears, Julius Lester

Typically I don’t read American historical fiction.  I had to do a lot of American history in school, and so I learned a dozen dozen times about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and Reconstruction and the dreadful dusty Depression.  I feel like I have already paid my dues where learning about those things are concerned.  Louisiana history too.  That project on the flood of 1927 was both tedious and depressing, so I have decided that Louisiana history and me are quits.  I am a grown-up now, dammit, and that means I get to choose what countries and time periods I like the best (England in wartime, colonial India, modern Iran).

Also, reading about slavery and the Holocaust makes me sick to my stomach.

Also, it can be difficult to read books about particularly horrific episodes of history that don’t sound moralizing.  Only because the people perpetrating the horrors are so indefensible that, you know, it’s hard to make them three-dimensional characters.

However, I do not want to be the person who pretends that bad things never happened.  And I trust Ana, and when I first went to the public library, there weren’t that many books that I wanted, and I thought, You know what, Jenny?  This moment in time, where you have a dearth of good books, this is the perfect time to read some books you do not necessarily think are your thing.  So I checked out The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Thief, and Day of Tears.  You win some, you lose some.

American historical fiction is still not my thing, but Day of Tears was.  It’s written in dialogue, like a play, though not quite a play, at the largest slave auction in American history.  Over 400 men, women, and children were sold, and their former “owner” (this asshole here) made something like $300,000 from it, to pay off his gambling debts.  In the parts of the book that are set at the auction itself, Lester intersperses the bits of dialogue with excerpts from the real register from the sale, which lists the people sold and the prices they fetched.  The conceit of setting the book in dialogue works really well – you can almost hear the auctioneer’s voice, asking for bids on a little family.  It’s surreal, the whole idea of auctioning off people, to the extent that it’s almost like reading a dream sequence, except it’s what really exactly happened.

Lester does a wonderful job with setting the scene.  The slave auction was called “the weeping day” because it rained steady on for the whole two days that the auction lasted.  Lester makes you feel it, the heavy rain and the humidity and the hundreds of people waiting to hear what would happen to them.  At intervals there are chapters that feature dialogue from the characters several years on from the slave auction – Emma as an old woman, the slaveowners’ two daughters as adults, etc. – and it gives context and continuation to the story of the auction itself.  Some of these are heartbreaking.  One character talks about gaining his freedom after the war, and seeing all these freed slaves frantically trying to track down their family members who were sold away.  It hurt my heart.

Which goes to show that you should not always decline to read books because they do not sound like your type of thing.

Do you have pet places and time periods that you like to read about?  Do you have places and time periods you never ever want to read about?

Other reviews:

things mean a lot

Anyone else?

36 thoughts on “Review: Day of Tears, Julius Lester

  1. That sounds really interesting; I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. And I completely understand about there being periods of history and places you prefer not to read about. I find novels set during the first World War very difficult to stomach (although one of my favourite books of all time, Regeneration by Pat Barker, is set then), and I’m not keen on fiction about the Halocaust either. Mostly I think I balk because these periods of history are too easy to milk for an emotional reaction, and can be abused because of it. I’m also never sure about novels set in prehistory, or in the early European Middle Ages because I haven’t yet read any that I can really believe in.

    Pretty much any period of European history after 1200 is highly favoured for the setting of a historical novel, or early colonial America (ala Savage Lands). 🙂 I think this probably makes me very unadventurous…

    • “I balk because these periods of history are too easy to milk for an emotional reaction, and can be abused because of it.”

      I absolutely agree with this. In the hands of a less-skilled author, books set during periods of extreme suffering can feel like emotional manipulation, like they’ve found a cut-rate way to make readers sympathize with the characters.

      I prefer European settings after, say, 1750. Much earlier than that and I have to read some very glowing reviews before I will give a book set during those times a try.

  2. I think it’s more the time + the place + the people that make a novel bearable or unbearable, rather than just one of those factors. Like, I am not actually very keen on Civil War novels. But once I read a novel about California, set during the Civil War, and it was quite fascinating – a very different take on the war, and a part of the continent that I had not previously considered with respect to the Civil War.

    • Medieval Middle East – now there’s a period I have read virtually nothing about. Maybe I should. I almost never read books set in medieval times, so I don’t know where to begin.

  3. There is a spate of books around at the moment dealing with those soldiers who were shot for desertion during the First World War when what was actually the case was that they had shell shock. I find those impossible to read.

    • Ugh, that sounds upsetting. Isn’t that what those Pat Barker books are about?

      I don’t read much about wars, in general – but sometimes an author writing about a period I don’t like can win me over by including small, way-of-life details in the story. I love to know what it is like to have different jobs and live in different times, so those little details can make all the difference to me.

  4. Great review! This book sounds fascinating, but also very sad. Slavery is something that I can never wrap my head around, no matter how much I read about it. As far as setting goes, I am really burnt out on WWII and especially the occupation. I like to read about India, the Middle East, and especially England in the middle ages. I do like to read about war as well, but some wars have just been done to death. I am really tired of reading about Ancient Rome as well!

    • As much as I love Latin and Roman history and mythology, I don’t think I’ve read any books set in ancient Rome, or at least I haven’t read any recently. Huh.

      I do like religious conflicts (not in real life – I like reading about them), so India and the Middle East tend to be good choices for me too. 🙂

  5. Wow, this sounds like an intense book. I also have trouble reading such books because they just get me so angry and depressed. I used to read a lot of Holocaust books when I was younger but I mostly stopped for those reasons.

    • It is intense, but it’s also short, and that made it possible for me to get through. If there had been much more of it, I might have had to abandon it, even though it was well-written and well-executed.

  6. For a long time I could not read any books about the Holocaust, because I did a huge long project on it in highschool and read so many firsthand accounts it was terribly horrifying and depressing. The Book Thief was probably the first book set in that time/place that I’d read in more than ten years.

    I don’t think I could read the one you discussed here, about the auction. (was there more to the book than that? or just the auction day?)

    • There’s more to it than that. The auction is the central event of the book, but we see what happens to many of the characters years after the auction is over.

      I liked The Book Thief despite my general no-Holocaust-books policy, because it’s not really a Holocaust book. I liked it that it showed Germans during the Nazi times struggling against the terrible regime – like Rudy skiving off the Hitler Youth, and Hummel Street’s struggles with money, etc. It’s not all Nazi murderers and Jewish victims, and I liked that about it.

  7. Isn’t this a great book? I’d probably have been dubious about the dialogue structure if I had not seen how well it works. I’m in awe of Julius Lester for pulling it off so well.

  8. This does sound good.

    I go through stages with my pet time periods. The late eighteenth century is a perennial favourite, but I also get occasional cravings for the American South in the mid nineteenth century, continental Europe in the seventeenth century, anywhere at all in the early twentieth century… times like that. Right now, I’m craving Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s.

    I don’t really seek out books on Canadian history, for much the same reason that you’re not keen on American history. Plus, I feel like they all tend to be either very bland or way too focused on Ontario. (There’s this idea, in the rest of Canada, that Ontario thinks they’re the centre of the universe, and it’s our job to take them down a peg).

    • Antebellum American South, or like the Reconstruction era? I can’t be doing with either one, frankly, but if I had to choose I’d, um, I’d pick the Reconstruction. I think. At least then people’s children wouldn’t be getting sold down the river.

      I am glad to know this about Canada and Ontario. Hereafter I will snub Ontarians on behalf of the rest of Canada.

  9. I’m a weirdo and particularly fond of Holocaust novels, though I’m quick to tear them apart when they suck. I’m also not a fan of anything involving American history. Been there, done that! Unless it’s warped bits we aren’t taught in school.

    Glad this one worked for ya!

    • Oh, yeah, warped bits could be good! Fiction versions of all the business from Howard Zinn – I might read books like that! But mostly when I read historical fiction set in American history, I feel cross and angry and like they’re trying to sneakily teach me more American history and I HAVE LEARNED ENOUGH ALREADY. :p

  10. I tend to avoid American history novels, too. I also tended to avoid American history, as much as a history major could.

    Russian history, though. And English history. Heck, any European history. And modern travel memoirs. That’s my thing.

  11. I have a different Lester novel — a Newbery winner — that sounds similar to this. And I remember Ana’s review. I should give it a try.

    I can’t read books about the Holocaust very easily. I think it’s necessary, though, and I’ve enjoyed some. I liked The Complete Maus, and I like the survivor stories: Victor Frankl’s A Man’s Search for Meaning and Corrie Ten Boom. But I don’t read those books often!

    • I didn’t know he’d won the Newbery – doesn’t surprise me though! I’m looking forward to seeing what you think. 🙂

      Yes, I agree with you that it’s necessary. That’s kind of why I got out Day of Tears. I do read Holocaust/slavery books, but they’re not the books I go out of my way to find and read.

    • Grrr, slavery makes me really angry. At my internship, I’m working on this huge book about slavery and the slave trade, and it’s really difficult to read. Just looking at the numbers of people captured and sold into slavery, and the numbers that died on the way over – awful. Asshole is putting it mildly. I would make an angry emoticon, but I feel like that would be trivializing.

  12. You’re right; the Book Thief was a flipside of what I’m used to reading in Holocaust books. I forgot that for the moment. I do recall now that was one thing I really appreciated about the book in spite of being annoyed by the narration- that it was the opposite perspective than what I was used to.

    • I read an interview with Markus Zusak where he said that he’d grown up hearing these stories from his grandparents, and he wanted to write The Book Thief to tell those stories that you never hear about what life was like in Germany.

  13. I am a sucker for Victorian and medieval or Tudor England, though really I’ll read a lot of historical fiction. I’m with you on having a hard time with some topics like slavery or the Holocaust. I did read a children’s book by Julius Lester called From Slave Ship to Freedom Road that is very powerful. I have actually used it in my 10th grade American lit. courses, and they can’t believe it’s for children.

  14. Pingback: Black North American Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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