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Sacred FireMiss Jane Pittman’s American journey spanned over one hundred years, from the 1860s to the 1960s, and took her from picking cotton on a Louisiana plantation to taking part in dismantling the walls of segregation in her southern town. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is her story, told in her own words (although the narrator is putatively a high school teacher who comes to interview her for a school project but soon fades to the background). In Miss Jane, Ernest Galnes created one of the most memorable women in all of American literature. Although she witnessed first hand the wrenching transition of a people from slavery to freedom, Gaines makes her more than a vehicle for that epic story. Miss Jane is a filly realized, three-dimensional character with her own loves and hates, strengths and weaknesses, which makes her observations on the incredible events around her all the more authentic and compelling. Gaines’s skill in giving her a distinct and memorable voice with which to tell her story amplifies the humanity of Miss Jane.
When her story begins, Jane is a slave girl named Ticey, still working on a plantation in Louisiana as the Civil War winds down. She changes her name to Jane at the instigation of a confederate soldier, a minor rebellion against her owners that costs her a severe beating. After emancipation, she leaves the plantation and joins up with a group of ex-slaves on their way to Ohio. The group is massacred by former confederate soldiers, with only Jane and Ned, a young boy who Jane unofficially adopts, surviving. Jane then settles in Louisiana and serves as an influence for several black men who work hard to achieve dignity and economic and political equality: first Ned, who changes his name to Ned Douglass after his hero Frederick and becomes a campaigner for the most basic civil rights for blacks, but who is eventually lynched by whites; Joe Pittman, Jane’s common-law husband and breaker of wild horses, who is killed by a black stallion; and Jimmy Aaron, a young civil rights worker born on a plantation in Louisiana, who becomes one of the movement’s martyrs.
Miss Jane is a complex character, by turns superstitious and sensible, a survivor and a risk-taker. Through the story of her life, she speaks of tolerance and human understanding, commitment and sacrifice, human dignity and its price. With The Autobiography of Mus Jane Pittman, Gaines makes the small truths, the everyday pains, and the hard choices of this woman add up to moments of illumination. The book was a bestseller and was later made into a popular television movie, which won nine Emmy Awards.