Monday, September 14, 2009

YA award winning book: Copper Sun

Bibliographic Data
Draper, Sharon. Copper Sun. New York: Atheneum Books, 2006. ISBN 9780689821813

Plot Summary
Amari leads a typical fifteen year old's life. She has friends, a beau, a loving family, and doesn't listen to her mother often enough. When Amari is kidnapped from her village and her family brutally murdered, Amari begins a life of slavery in America. She escapes with Polly, a 15 year old indentured servant, and Tidbit, the 4 year old son of another slave. Along the way, she encounters various people, both free and slave, who help her keep alive the hope that her brutal slavery existence will not be her ultimate fate in life.

Critical Analysis
The main character in this book is Amari and to a lesser extent, Polly. Both girls are 15 years old. One is black, one is white. One is a slave fresh from Africa, the other is a newly indentured servant. Neither girl has ever known a girl of the other color before. Over their months of sharing a cabin and duties, they come to realize that their differences are only skin deep. A friendship begins to develop and as it does, it changes both girls. Amari grows to realize that even if her previous life is dead and gone, there’s hope for a new, free life in America. Polly grows to realize “that being a fine lady didn’t necessarily mean finding joy” (144).

Minor characters also encourage Amari to not give up her hope for freedom. Afi, a woman who Amari meets in Cape Coast, is a surrogate mother to Amari up to the point when Amari is sold to Mr. Derby. However, Afi refuses to be a nurturing mother. Instead, she sees strength in Amari and wants to prepare her for most likely what lies ahead for the young woman. Her advice to Amari is to “Find strength from within… You will know when it is time to use that strength as your shield from what they will do to you” (55).

Teenie is another woman who comes into Amari’s life. She is the cook on the Derby plantation, and entrusts her small son, Tidbit, to Amari when Amari and Polly finally escape. She teaches Amari and Polly that as long as you remember something or somebody, nothing will ever really be gone (113).

Mrs. Derby is also a sympathetic character. She is white but secretly in love with her slave, Noah. The two of them grew up together, and she is actually pregnant with Noah’s child, not Mr. Derby’s. When the child is born obviously black, Mrs. Derby enlists some of the slaves to help hide the obviously black child from Mr. Derby. They commit the cardinal sin of lying to the Massuh, telling him that the child was born deformed and was already buried by the time he returns with the doctor. However, the child is found in the slave quarters, and Mr. Derby kills both the child and Noah.

Dr. Hoskins is yet another sympathetic adult. Although he lets Mr. Derby get away with the murders, he shows his distaste for the turn of events and slavery in general by helping the two girls and Tidbit escape from his wagon as he drives them away from the plantation to sell down the river.

The story also has its evil characters. Mr. Derby is shown to be a cold, sadistic brute by his murder of Noah and the baby. He inadvertently trips Amari when she is serving at the dinner table but blames her for the resultant mess. He administers a whipping then and there that is so severe, it puts Amari into a feverish delirium. He at first seems to care for his wife, but when her child is revealed as another man’s, Mr. Derby tells her that he won’t kill her, instead, he “shall refuse to let you die” (183), and forces her to watch the murder of both her lover and child.

Clay Derby is as bad as his father. Amari was purchased as a birthday present for the 16 year old Clay, and he takes full advantage of his role as Master over Amari. He thinks that Amari likes him even though she has no choice in participating in sex with Clay at his beck and call. He’s even more sadistic than his father, using Tidbit one day as ‘gator’ bait by throwing him into the plantation’s river for sport. He is the one who finds the baby in the slave quarters and brings her to Mr. Derby because he has always hated his stepmother.

Draper uses the omniscient third person narrator in this story, alternating sections between Amari’s and Polly’s thoughts. It’s interesting to read the contrast between the protaganists’ thoughts and the few words they actually dare to speak out loud. This omniscient point of view serves a dual purpose. Not only does it serve to show us just how repressed the slaves were – they were not only physically enslaved, but discouraged from being intellectually and emotionally free to express their thoughts – but it also serves to highlight the few dialogues there are between characters. Clay and Mr. Derby have discussions about their property, including the slaves, while the slaves have discussions about how to maintain their emotional freedom and gain their physical freedom. One of the few dialogues that does take place between Master and slave in this story is one night when Clay has called Amari to his bed:

               He lifted his head off his pillow then and spoke directly in her
          face. His breath smelled of spoiled food, and Amari had to force
          herself not to gag. “You like me, don‘t you?” The question was
          sudden and abrupt.
               Shocked at the question, Amari swallowed hard. If she said no,
          he might get angry. If she said yes, he might manage to
          misunderstand her hatred of him. So she pretended she didn’t
          know what he meant.          
               “I asked you a question. I know you understand much more
          than you let on. You do like me, don’t you?” he implored quietly.
          To Amari, his voice sounded a little plaintive, almost as if he
          needed her to say she liked him.
               “Yassuh,” Amari whispered, cringing.
               Amari was amazed to hear him breathe a sigh of relief. “I had a
          feeling you cared about me,“ Clay said, assurance creeping back
          into his voice. (110-111)

Even indentured servant Polly is expected to speak only when spoken directly to, and never, never allowed to speak her own mind. This is evident from the very beginning, when Mr. Derby gets furious at Polly for reminding them that Amari probably already has a name, when he has just told Clay to name his new “acquisition” (85).

The setting symbolizes Amari’s journey. The story begins in Amari’s village in Africa. She is young, in love, her whole life ahead of her. This setting is “fragrant with hope and possibility” (6). As Amari arrives in Cape Coast after watching so many of her friends die on the arduous journey, Cape Coast “smelled of blood and death.” (25). Onboard the slave ship, Amari is chained below in the daytime and taken on deck at night to be raped by whichever sailor gets to her first each night. “The air in this place seemed to have been sucked out and replaced with the smells of sweat and vomit and urine” (43).

Once Amari reaches the Derby plantation, the setting emphasizes the difference between Master and slave. The Derbys live in satin rooms with carpets and heavy drapes to keep out the heat (138). The slaves live in one room shacks, “barely large enough to turn around in” (92). Mr Derby works in a room filled with leather bound books. The field slaves work in knee-deep muddy rice paddies with no shade. Snakes and gators are a constant concern. During Amari’s first visit to the rice fields, one of the slaves is bitten by a copperhead and left to die because the slaves can’t stop working “just because of a little snakebite” (135).

The overall conflict in this story is self vs. society, as Amari and Polly find themselves in roles that they had not chosen for themselves, but were socially acceptable at the time. The story is not in how the girls learn to cope with their situation, but how they gain the moral and physical strength to change their circumstances. Their meetings with different people along their path to freedom show them that not all of colonial American society supports slavery. These chance encounters give them the emotional strength to continue on their journey towards freedom. At the end of the story, when Amari is free but learns she is carrying Clay’s child, she lovingly remembers the people who helped her get to this point and vows her child will never forget Amari’s journey either. Home is where the heart is, and Amari has found her home once more.

Awards and Honors
Coretta Scott King Book Award 2007 Winner Author United States
Heartland Award for Excellence in Children's Literature 2007 Winner United States
Ohioana Book Awards 2007 Winner Juvenile Literature United States
Society of Midland Authors Book Awards 2007 Finalist Children's Fiction United States
South Dakota Teen Choice Award 2008 Winner High School South Dakota
Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth, 2006 - American Library Association-Booklis; United States
Best Books of the Year, 2006 - School Library Journal; United States
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2007 - Bank Street College of Education; United States
Notable Books for a Global Society, 2007 - Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association; United States
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2007 -; National Council for the Social Studies; United States

Review Excerpts
Gillian Engberg (Booklist, Feb. 1, 2006 (Vol. 102, No. 11))
Draper's latest novel… begins in Amari's Ashanti village, but the idyllic scene explodes in bloodshed when slavers arrive and murder her family….So begins the account of impossible horrors from the slave fort, the Middle Passage, and auction on American shores, where a rice plantation owner buys Amari for his 16-year-old son's sexual enjoyment. Draper builds the explosive tension to the last chapter, and the sheer power of the story, balanced between the overwhelmingly brutal facts of slavery and Amari's ferocious survivor's spirit, will leave readers breathless, even as they consider the story's larger questions about the infinite costs of slavery and how to reconcile history. A moving author's note discusses the real places and events on which the story is based.

Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children's Literature)
Draper's riveting tale weaves together Amari's desperate quest for freedom with the equally compelling narrative of Polly, a white indentured girl who initially scorns the black slaves who work beside her but comes to pity their sufferings as she grasps their fellow humanity. Draper succeeds in making Polly's initial racism understandable, given her deep and ignorant prejudice; Polly's transformation proceeds gradually in a way that helps readers to understand both how racism begins and how it can be overcome.

KaaVonia Hinton, Ph.D. (KLIATT Review, January 2006 (Vol. 40, No. 1))
Draper charters territory few traditional slave narratives dared when she explores a consenting sexual relationship between the Derby mistress and her "bodyguard" that results in the birth of a black daughter, depicts the cook as more than willing to poison her owners when they threaten to sell her only child, and troubles the assumption that all white women were "free." Already being compared to Roots, this novel is best suited for mature YA readers, and accompanied by discussions about early African culture and sensibility, acts of resistance executed by slaves (alone and in partnerships with indentured servants), and abolitionist efforts.

Book Hook
Pair this book with Elijah of Buxley by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Online Connections
Sharon Draper's resource website for Copper Sun
Africans in America Resource Bank, from PBS

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