Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review: Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons

Rinaldi, Ann. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Gulliver, 1996.

Torn from her native land in Africa when only a small child, Keziah arrives in Boston terrified. She doesn't understand what the white people say. On the voyage, she was treated inhumanely and watched her mother die. Bought by Mr. Wheatley for his wife, Keziah becomes Phillis Wheatley. She is a slave, but the Wheatleys don't treat her so. When she shows an aptitude for learning, her master's son, Nathaniel, teaches her how to read. Phillis does well with her tutoring. After a time, she writes a poem. This is astounding because most of the white world doubts that a black person has such talent. Writing poetry turns Phillis into a oddity, you might even say a commodity, that the Wheatleys cultivate. Phillis views her writing differently.

"All I ever wanted to do was write some words down on paper. The fact that I could do so never ceased being a matter of incredulity to me.

I love the way the words look, all of a piece on the parchment beneath my hands, weaving my thoughts into the tapestry, like a spider weaving a web.

I love the way I can make them rhyme. I love the smell of the very ink I use.

Most of all, I love that when I write I am not skinny and black and a slave. My writing has no color. It has no skin at all, truth to tell.

When I write I am the real me.

I am whole, beautiful, alive, filled with a sense of pleasure and worth. Why can't they just leave it be?" (21-22).

What I thought: This is a profoundly moving book. I found myself crying with or for Phillis at several intervals. I like the fact that Ann Rinaldi makes Phillis her own. She doesn't claim this is the factual account of Phillis, merely the story of. Rinaldi describes her aim in the author's note: "This is what I have attempted in my novel, to flesh Phillis out" (332). The level of detail in the book attests to the depth of research Rinaldi does for her books. She takes the dry, historical facts and gives them life. Bravo, Ms. Rinaldi!

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