Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs

Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs

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by Mary E. Lyons

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Like his mother and grandmother before him, Joseph Jacobs was born into slavery. Joseph lives with his grandmother and sister in North Carolina, but he has not seen his mother for more than seven years. Unbeknownst to Joseph, his mother, Harriet, has been hiding from her owner in the attic of the house that Joseph lives in. But when Harriet’s hiding place is in


Like his mother and grandmother before him, Joseph Jacobs was born into slavery. Joseph lives with his grandmother and sister in North Carolina, but he has not seen his mother for more than seven years. Unbeknownst to Joseph, his mother, Harriet, has been hiding from her owner in the attic of the house that Joseph lives in. But when Harriet’s hiding place is in danger of being revealed, she is forced to flee north to safety only moments after being reunited with her family.

Devastated by losing his mother for the second time, Joseph begins to ponder the nature of the world he lives in. Soon Joseph, seeking freedom and a place where he can be himself, follows his mother north. As he searches for answers, Joseph experiences life in Massachusetts, California, Australia, and aboard a whaling ship—but there’s no place where Joseph feels that he can truly be free.

In this companion novel to Letters from a Slave Girl, Joseph’s stirring quest for freedom and identity is told through letters imagined by the author. Based on the real-life stories of Harriet and Joseph Jacobs, Letters from a Slave Boy is set against the backdrop of some of the most exciting and turbulent times in American history.

Editorial Reviews

KLIATT - Paula Rohrlick
This is a companion novel to Lyons's Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs (1992), which was based on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the 1861 narrative of a woman pursued by a cruel slave master. Harriet hid in an attic crawl space for seven years in Edenton, NC, to be near her children (though she was forced to conceal her presence from them), then fled north to Boston and New York. In this follow-up, the protagonist is Harriet's son Joseph, who has a white father but like his mother doesn't have free papers. As in Letters from a Slave Girl, his tale is told through his letters to family members and friends. At the start, in 1839, Joseph is nine years old and the letters reflect his lack of education; then he goes to school in Boston, becomes a printing apprentice, and heads to sea on a whaling bark, and his letters gradually become more literate. Joseph goes to California, hoping to get rich in the Gold Rush and win his family's freedom, and at the end, in 1852, he heads for Australia and the gold rush there. Throughout the course of his life, he wrestles with identity issues and with the evils of slavery and prejudice, and Lyons succeeds in making both Joseph and his era come alive for readers. An introduction and endnote from the author, with an appendix of photos, will help YAs distinguish fiction from fact in this fine historical novel.
Children's Literature - Cheri Stowers
Joseph Jacobs carries a lot of heavy questions for a twelve year old. For one thing, where is his mama? Who is his daddy? And why doesn't Mr. Sawyer sign their free papers? One day great-grandmother Molly directs him to the storage room. As he peers into the darkness, there he sees his mama, all pale and weak looking. She has been cooped up in that "hidey-hole" for days on end so she could be near Joseph and his sister. As Joseph pieces the story together, his blood boils when he thinks about Mr. Norcom slinking around after his mama like a mean ole snake waiting to pounce. Joseph determines to go out on a whaling ship as soon as he is old enough, so he can earn enough money to free his mama and all his family. The story unfolds in the candid, compelling letters he writes to various members of his family. This novel, born of the slavery era, is based on true stories about Harry and Joseph Jacobs. An excellent resource for generating discussions about slavery and all of its accompanying woes. Works well as a read-aloud or for independent reading. Includes a suggested reading list, a glossary of racial slurs, and photographs from the slavery era. A companion novel, Letters from a Slave Girl, is also available.
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8
Joseph, son of Harriet Jacobs from Letters from a Slave Girl (S & S, 1992), writes to various relatives and acquaintances, sharing thoughts and events of his life as a slave from 1839 to 1860. The "letters" are written primarily as a journal. They begin when Joseph is nine years old, and a plantation owner's son is "teeching" him how to "rite." Although his life in his free great-grandmother's house is better than that of most slaves, he is always aware of his status. Escaping North Carolina, Joseph makes his way first to Boston and then to New Bedford, MA, where he boards a whaling ship. Later he travels to the gold fields of California. He is willing to do anything to earn freedom money for his family-even "pass" for white. However, Joseph's lack of financial acuity, his gambling, and, of course, his color make him easy prey, and he fails to save the needed funds. Despite this, he remains optimistic in his final letter as he sets sail for a better life in Australia. The "letters" are short and the pace is quick. The dialect and spelling give authenticity without making the text difficult to read and understand. Notes by the author explain that most events are fictionalized because little information is known about the real Joseph. Historical data supports the fiction. A reproduction of Joseph's protection paper issued in July 1846, photographs, and drawings from the time period are included. This title stands on its own, but children who appreciated the forthright perspective of the first book will want to read this one as well.
—Carolyn JanssenCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After the success of her Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, Lyons here imagines the story of Jacobs's son, Joseph, born, perhaps, in 1830, and journeying from North Carolina to New York City and New Bedford, Mass., and from there to a whaling ship and the gold mines of California. With only a few snippets of actual conversation and four events in Joseph's life to go by, she weaves a fictional story around known facts and much research to create a series of letters to dramatize Joseph's life. As with many novels-in-letters, this narrative often feels fragmented, the format stalling the drive of the narrative and relying on "Picture this" and "An Author's Expedition" sections to provide context and coherence to the story. The letters often merely provide information to the reader, rather than giving voice to the character. However, they do demonstrate a satisfying growth in Joseph's grammar and spelling and his awareness of the world he's growing into, and offer a good resource for students learning about slavery and racism through the eyes of one fictional character. (Fiction. 12+)

Product Details

Atheneum Books for Young Readers
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Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt


3 April 1839

Dear Mama,

As you can see, I no how to rite. A skinny stick of a white boy, name of Josiah Collins, is teeching me. He say, Joseph, rite down wurds that mean something to you. You will learn spelling soon enuf.

I meet Josiah this time last spring, round tree-leafing time. We standing on the fishing bridge, me at one end, him at the other.

He call out, Hey! How come you catch three stripey bass, while I only caught one?

Use short little fish for bait, I tell him. Then I give him baby shad from my bucket, and he catch two bass.

Next time I go to the bridge, Josiah show up with a pensul and old ledjer book. He rite alfabet letters in it to get me started. From then on, he been showing me how to turn letters into words and how to make punctuashun. He say it is a trade. I teech h im to fish, he teech me to write.

Mama, I figure one fello in this family shood get some lerning. Your brother John can not read, leastways not before he run away from Mister Samuel Sawyer lass year. Great Uncle Mark can not ethur.

A boy is got to have his private thorts sometime. That is why Gran do not know bout this practice book. Only you, Mama, and it is our secrut.

Your good boy,

12 May 1839

Dear Mama,

Lass nite I ask Gran again where you gone. She creak to her feet, poke at the coals in her bake oven.

Look in the sky, she say like always. Find the handle of the dipper. Your mama is working her way along that line of stars. They point to New York. To freedum.

And duz she miss me, I ask.

Same as if her right hand cut off, Gran reply.

And my daddy, where he, I ask again.

Stop pestering me, Gran order, or I will send a witch hag after you. Now go fetch a log.

Gran always say this when she want me to shut up. So I stomp outside to the woodshed. Stare up at the Big Dipper and look tord New York. The stars blink back, like they is smiling at such foolishness. I think them stars must be right.

I am nine years of age. That is too old to believe my mama is traveling thru the sky. A n d too old to believe the ghostie stories Gran tell. They is no such thing as hags, is they, Mama? Or plat-eye monsters?

Your son,

3 July 1839

Dear Mama,

Something happen today that burn my bottom. I am walking down Broad Street, going to buy cinmun for Gran. Mister Samuel Sawyer pass by with his wife.

She call to me, What a pretty little negro! Who do you belong to?

I run home fast, tell Gran and Uncle Mark. Say I am a colored boy and do not like a white lady calling me negro. Or little, ethur. I am three and one half feet tall and growing every day.

Gran take her loafs of bread from the oven, slide in a pan of krackers. What folks call you don't matter, she say. It's what you answer to that matters.

But Gran, I ask, what the lady mean, who do I belong to?

A secrut look pass between Gran and Mark. The look that growed-up people think children don't see.

Joseph, she reply, remember when you was a teensy thing, and we have a big party? How we shut the curtains and light the candles?

I try hard, Mama, but nothing come to my mind.

The night we clap and sing, Mark remind me.

Oh, I say, when Lulu and I spin round the room, make ourselfs dizzy?

That's right, say Gran. That night we celebrate. Cause Sawyer buy you and your sister from Norcom, the man your mama run from.

Sawyer own me and Lulu? I cry. I never knew it!

Mark wrap each loaf in paper and tie it with string. You only five when it happen, he splain. Lulu but two. Both of you too yung to understand.

It don't make sense, I say. Sister and I, we live here in Gran's cabin. I am a free boy!

Sawyer is letting me raise you and Lulu, Gran reply, but he ain't signed your free papers yet. You still belong to him.

Then why don't Sawyer's wife know that? I ask. Why don't he tell her?

Gran lift her apron, dab a dot of sweat from her lip. Mark tell me that is enuf questshuns and leave her alone.

Mama, you need to come get me. I do not want to belong to anybody but you.

Your son,

29 August 1839

Dear Mama,

They is bad news in this house today. I meet Josiah on the fishing bridge. When I get back, Gran is sniffling in her rocker. She say a free colored sailur stop by. He work the packet ship between Edenton and Boston, bring a letter from Uncle John. Uncle write that he is going off on a whaling trip.

Whales is giant sea monsters! Gran cry. One might swallow John whole, just like Jonah in the Bible.

But Gran, I ask, didn't that whale sick up Jonah after three days and nights? And didn't Jonah come out whole?

She smile a little, wipe her eyes. Yes, she answer, after Jonah pologize to God first. Your Uncle John is quick-tempered all right, but he always been slow to say he sorry.

I almost ask Gran what take Jonah so long. Been me, Fd a pologized right off. Not sit in a dark whale belly for three days first.

And I almost ask how come she know what the letter say. Gran can not read. Did the sailur read it to her? But two questshuns at a time is enuf for Gran, specially when she been crying.


December 1839

Dear Mama,

More bad news. This morning I am helping Gran iron her best white tablecloths. She tell me that next year, Mister Sawyer might send Lulu to a place call Brooklyn, New York. She be under the care of his cuzin, James Tredwell, and his wife, Mary.

New York! That mean Lulu get to be with you, Mama!

I ask Gran, so Lulu seeing Mama?

Not zactly, Gran answer. Harriet might not be in New York just yet.

But Gran, I cry, Sister be living with strangers! Don't Sawyer know that her eyes get bad sometimes?

Lulu will be safer, say Gran, tho I wish he'd go on and give her the free papers. That slab of worry been hanging heavy over my head.

What he waiting for? I ask. I wrap a rag around my hand, pull an iron from the bake oven.

Gran spit on the iron, see if it hot enough. Say, I guess Sawyer don't want...

She stop herself, roll on to another subject.

Free papers is only half the problem, she say. Yesterday Dr. Norcom tell Sawyer you both still belong to his daughter. That she not of age when he sell you in her name. He brag that you and Lulu is still in his power.

Gran lay one end of the cloth on the table. I hold up the other end, wonder what she talking bout. She slap the iron down like she squashing bugs. Iron go slap, slap!

Norcom might take his claim to a judge, she say. If the judge rule the sale been illegal, you and Lulu belong to Norcom's daughter again.

Slap! go that iron. Then Norcom might send you out to his plantashun. Make you cut cornstalks from sun to sun.

Let him try! I holler, dropping the cloth. I will whack him down!

Joseph, Gran reply, we got to bide our time. Unball your fists and leave well enough alone.

But Mama, I hear that Norcom's overseer ride the fields with a horsehair whip in his meaty hands. He beat any slave who beg for water or try to rest a while. You know what's the truth? I am skeered.


1 June 1840

Dear Mama,

We wait all winter for Norcom to see the judge, try to take me and Lulu back. Gran say he put her in mind of a cottonmouth snake. Hiding in the shallows, waiting to slide up and bite.

And now I got me a new worry. Today I am standing at the street end of Gran's cabin. I hear a raspy noise coming from over the woodshed. Sound like your cough, Mama. That cannot be true, I tell myself. Cause you is far from here, heading north.

Then I wonder if I am hearing a plat eye. Maybe it is taken the shape of a hunchback hog. Maybe it is in the shed, rooting around for the flesh of a boy!

I do not speak of the noise to Gran. I do not want her thinking she can still scare me with them shape changer stories.

Or Josiah, ethur. In the winter, he at his daddy's Somerset plantashun across the sound. But it is too buzzy with skeeters over there now. His family spend some of the hot months at their town house here on Edenton Bay.

Josiah a lucky boy. He got two houses. And he get to see his mama every day.


15 July 1840

Dear Mama,

Lass night I dream a five-legged cow is running me down. It is a plat eye, with boiling yellow eyes and a long ruff tongue. Just when it catch up, I hear whispering.

Go to sleep, it say, and remember never to tell. I wake up a little, think, that ain't no plat eye. That is Gran talking to Lulu! Then I wonder if Gran and Lulu is turn into hags during the night. Been flying over the moon on straw brooms.

I make up my mind to ask Lulu about it in the morning. But Sister leave too quick. At dawn, Sawyer's carriage come to Gran's cabin. It is carrying him, his wife, their baby, and the baby's nurse.

Mama, it been a sad thing, watching Mark lift Lulu through the carriage door. She only eight years old. Will that cuzin in New York wipe her eyes when they get red and swollen?

And it make me mad to rite the name of Samuel Sawyer. So what if he a rich congressman? Or got fifty slaves waiting on him at his town house, and lots more on his plantashun? That do not give him the rite to send Sister away to a strange place without free papers.

I will miss Lulu. Miss her chasing me through the woods, calling, Brother, wait up! and her muslin dress astreaming round her legs. Now, you know a boy don't want his little sister going fishing with him. But the truth is, I am sorry I did not let her come along. Not every time, a course, but at least once or twice.

Your son,

Text copyright © 2007 by Mary E. Lyons

Meet the Author

Mary E. Lyons is the author of many books for children and young adults, including Roy Makes a Car, Feed the Children First, Dear Ellen Bee, Letters from a Slave Girl, and Sorrow's Kitchen. In addition to the Golden Kite Award and a Horn Book Fanfare for Letters from a Slave Girl, Lyons was also the recipient of a 2005 Aesop Award for Roy Makes a Car and a Carter G. Woodson Award for Sorrow's Kitchen. A teacher and former librarian, she lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. You can learn more about her at www.lyonsdenbooks.com.

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Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoy the book and think it was amazing. The book gives you an experience of what is actually happen through out his life . It is well word and catching. it puts you in the person shoes and gives you suspense
Anonymous More than 1 year ago