Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem


There is a skeleton on display in the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. It has been in the town for over 200 years. Over time, the bones became the subject of stories and speculation in Waterbury. In 1996 a group of community-based volunteers, working in collaboration with the museum staff, discovered that the bones were those of a slave named Fortune who had been owned by a local doctor. After Fortune's death, the doctor dissected the body, rendered the bones, and assembled the skeleton. A great deal ...
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There is a skeleton on display in the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. It has been in the town for over 200 years. Over time, the bones became the subject of stories and speculation in Waterbury. In 1996 a group of community-based volunteers, working in collaboration with the museum staff, discovered that the bones were those of a slave named Fortune who had been owned by a local doctor. After Fortune's death, the doctor dissected the body, rendered the bones, and assembled the skeleton. A great deal is still not known about Fortune, but it is known that he was baptized, was married, and had four children. He died at about the age of 60, sometime after 1797.Marilyn Nelson was commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum and received a grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts to write a poem in commemoration of Fortune's life. The Manumission Requiem is that poem. Detailed notes and archival materials provide contextual information to enhance the reader's appreciation of the poem.

Author Biography: Marilyn Nelson is the Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut and a three-time National Book Award Finalist. She has won the Annisfield-Wolf Award and the 1999 Poets' Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Winship Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Dr. Nelson lives in Storrs, Connecticut.

An Honor Book for the 2005 Coretta Scott King Author Award

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
A skeleton has been lurking in Mattatuck, Connecticut, for more than 200 years. Historians have recently discovered that the bones belonged to a slave named Fortune who was owned by a local doctor. Following his death in 1798, Fortune's bones were preserved by his former owner to help further his medical studies. In Fortune's Bones, Marilyn Nelson tells Fortune's story in verse, adapting various elements of a traditional funeral mass. Her poetry has a simple voice, yet a strong tone; it both mourns Fortune's death, while celebrating the freedom from slavery that his death has provided. Fortune's Bones is beautiful and haunting; it is an excellent introduction to poetry for young readers, particularly those with an interest in history and/or slavery issues. 2004, Front Street, 32 pp., Ages young adult.
—Amy Anderson
Children's Literature
Having juxtaposed real photographs of Fortune's skeleton with free verse leading the reader to experience his possible life, Marilyn Nelson has created a significant contribution to the world of children's literature as well as an important statement in African-American history. Although Fortune's owner, Dr. Preserved Porter, had been a bonesetter for many years he had never studied a human skeleton. When Fortune died (1798), Dr. Porter proceeded to remove the flesh from the body to create a study guide for himself and his sons, also doctors. Only death had freed Fortune from slavery (manumission) and even then his very bones had to continue to serve his owner's purposes. The skeleton remained in the family for four more generations and was later given to the Mattatuck Museum (Connecticut) where it was on display for decades. Thoughtfully designed with great attention to technical details, the book gives us the scientific information about how archaeologists and anthropologists uncovered Fortune's history. Ms. Nelson also gives us, in her extraordinary verses, a glimpse into the emotional impact of his existence. Poignant and moving, informational and insightful, revealing and telling this is a masterwork commissioned by the Museum itself to serve as a requiem for the very human man who was named Fortune. Music for this requiem has been composed by Dr.Ysaye M. Barnwell. 2004, Front Street, Ages 12 up.
—Sheilah Egan
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up-This requiem honors a slave who died in Connecticut in 1798. His owner, a doctor, dissected his body, boiling down his bones to preserve them for anatomy studies. The skeleton was lost and rediscovered, then hung in a local museum until 1970, when it was removed from display. The museum began a project in the 1990s that uncovered the skeleton's provenance, created a new exhibit, and led to the commissioning of these six poems. The selections, which incorporate elements of a traditional requiem as well a New Orleans jazz funeral, arc from grief to triumph. A preface lays out the facts of Fortune's life, followed by "Dinah's Lament," in which his wife mourns the husband whose bones she is ordered to dust. Other pieces are in the voices of Fortune's owner, his descendants, workers, and museum visitors. The penultimate "Not My Bones," sung by Fortune, states, "What's essential about you/is what can't be owned." Each page of verse faces a green page containing text and full-color archival graphics that lay out the facts of Fortune's story. This volume sets history and poetry side by side and, combined with the author's personal note on inspirations, creates a unique amalgam that can be confusing at first. Subsequently, however, the facts inform the verse and open up a full appreciation of its rich imagery and rhythmic, lyrical language. The book brings the past to life and could make for a terrific choral reading.-Nancy Palmer, The Little School, Bellevue, WA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In 1798, Fortune, a slave owned by Dr. Preserved Porter, a bonesetter, died; rather than bury him, Dr. Porter rendered his corpse and preserved his bones for anatomical study. Nelson remembers and celebrates Fortune in this slim funeral mass, moving from grief to joy, envisioning Fortune's moment of death as his deliverance from slavery to the ultimate freedom. As in Carver (2001), the poems of the cycle have multiple voices, from the doctor who owned the body but not the man within it, to Fortune himself and the enslaved wife who is forced to clean her husband's bones. The central question-where does humanity reside?-receives thoughtful, fervent consideration: it's a glorious reclamation of a man whose identity had been assailed from the moment of his birth to beyond his death. The poems are printed on the recto; facing them is an ongoing prose narrative of Fortune's life and afterlife, punctuated by photos, illustrations, and archival materials. While at times these can distract, they cannot dim the incandescence of the poetry, or the keen-eyed glimpse into one small moment in the American "Peculiar Institution" it provides. (bibliography) (Poetry. 12+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781932425123
  • Publisher: Front Street, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/14/2004
  • Pages: 32
  • Sales rank: 584,499
  • Age range: 11 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.88 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author

Marilyn Nelson is the author of The Freedom Business, Fortune's Bones, and Carver: A Life in Poems, among other titles. She is a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor Book winner, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book award winner. She lives in East Haddam, Connecticut.

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