review: My Name is Not Friday

Posted on 12 May 2016 Thursday


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title: My Name is Not Friday
author: Jon Walter
date: Scholastic, 2016
main character: Samuel “Friday”
YA Historical Fiction

My Name is not Friday is British author Jon Walter’s sophomore novel. The beginning is slow moving and a bit disorienting. It feels odd in that we’re in one of the most racially charged eras in American history yet we never learn anyone’s racial identity until the protaganist is referred to as a ‘nigger’ at a slave auction thirty nine pages into the story. I have not seen the British version of this book, it is possible some things were changed as the book was translated into American English.

We soon find that young Samuel has been removed from the orphanage where he grew up and is being enslaved, leaving behind his younger brother, Joshua; his only remaining family member. Samuel feels responsible for his mischievous sibling (his brother’s keeper?) and wants to get back to protect him. Instead, he’s held in bondage on the Allen farm.

I still cannot figure out why Samuel (look up Samuel in the Old Testament), who is renamed Friday (nod to Robinson Crusoe) doesn’t make everyone know that he is free. He enters into bondage fearlessly. Why?

It seems that Samuel falls easily into the role of one who is enslaved, keeping his eyes downcast, not engaging with the whites around him. His life in the orphanage seemed good, not great but good. Perhaps life there as a free boy was not much better than being enslaved. Was there just no good place for a black boy to be in the American south in 1880? Perhaps he was subjugated all his life. Several scenes indicate that Friday does not know how to carry out routine duties of an enslaved person and has no idea how to be a slave. Rather than wonder why he doesn’t know, it’s assumed he’s lazy. However, many see Friday as someone quite special, almost chosen. This is part of the strong moral and Christian undertone in the book.

Friday’s actual owner is Gerald Allen, a young white boy not much older than Friday. Mrs. Allen, Gerald’s mother, manages the estate while her husband is off to fight for the Confederacy and  she seems unsure most of the time. Having been influence by a father who is compassionate toward those he has enslaved, Gerald wants to be Friday’s friend although his mother wants him to grow up and treat Friday as someone who is enslaved.

I’ve read several reviews of My Name is Not Friday that refer to the story as being brutal. Please rid yourself of the notion of smiling slaves. Please. My friends, this is a story of enslavement, a story where one group of humans forces domination over another based upon their skin color. Walter understands this and does not shy away from the inhumanity of this institution. He communicates the humanity of the enslaved as well as of the enslaver and the most honest way he can do this is by creating opportunities to show the inconsistencies of this system, the exact inhumanity of enslavement.

Remember, Gerald actually owns all the enslaved people on this property. At one point, he’s bullied into whipping an enslaved person, Hubbard. He doesn’t want to whip this man whom he’s known all his life and Friday calls him on it.

“Why’d you do It, Gerald? Why didn’t you stop it?”

Gerald stamps down, lifts another spade of earth up out of the grave, and throws it farther than he needs to. “Hubbard deserved what he got. He was caught fair and square and we didn’t have no choice but to whip him. My daddy would have done the same thing. I’m sure he would. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it himself, but he would have made sure someone did it.”

“You could have refused!”

“They’d have done it anyway!” He stops his digging and stares at me, exasperated. “There are folks who think that darkies ain’t good enough to be free. Now, I ain’t one of ‘em, but that’s who you got to convince-and you can’t do that when they’ve brought in a runaway and everyone’s howling for blood.”

The entitlement! Gerald throws the earth farther than he needs to; a wasteful action, a waste of the soil. Digging in the dirt.

Gerald rationalizes that because of his actions, Hubbard deserves to be whipped and it’s Hubbard’s own fault and besides you can’t convince some people otherwise, at least not when they’re angry. And, his daddy? He wouldn’t have whipped Hubbard, he wouldn’t soil his own hands like that. No. He’d get someone else to do it. These enslaved people are Gerald’s property but everything tells him he has no choice to make. It’s 1864ish and the war is almost over but the south has become a slave society. Not even whites have the freedom to act outside the guidelines. Yea, that’s brutal.

Walter does have a few problems with the story. With so much richness brought to the character of Friday/Samuel, he’s still poorly developed. At many points, Samuel seems to be a moral compass, a child with a mission. Yet, he never seems to develop in any cognitive, emotional or spiritual perspective. With all that Friday faces over a protracted period of time, he seems to remain the same child from start to finish. And, too often racial identity is omitted.

Then, there’s the ending. The third segment of the book is written in a completely different tone and even at a different pace than the previous portion and this makes the conclusion difficult to accept.

Walter admits that he didn’t set out to write a story about enslavement, but this is where the character’s voice let him. I like that he didn’t hold his character an arm’s length away as too many whites do when writing enslaved blacks. Rather, he embraces him and writes him with care. I like that his portrayal of enslavement is complex and multilayered and that Walter did his research. This isn’t a perfect book, but it is a good one.

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Posted in: Book Reviews