Time's Memory

Time's Memory

by Julius Lester

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Amma is the creator god, the master of life and death, and he is worried. His people have always known how to take care of the spirits of the dead – the nyama – so that they don't become destructive forces among the living. But amid the chaos of the African slave trade and the brutality of American slavery, too many of his people are dying and


Amma is the creator god, the master of life and death, and he is worried. His people have always known how to take care of the spirits of the dead – the nyama – so that they don't become destructive forces among the living. But amid the chaos of the African slave trade and the brutality of American slavery, too many of his people are dying and their souls are being ignored in this new land. Amma sends a young man, Ekundayo, to a plantation in Virginia where he becomes a slave on the eve of the Civil War. Amma hopes that Ekundayo will be able to find a way to bring peace to the nyama before it is too late. But Ekundayo can see only sorrow in this land – sorrow in the ownership of people, in the slaves who have been separated from their children and spouses, in the restless spirits of the dead, and in his own forbidden relationship with his master's daughter.

How Ekundayo finds a way to bring peace to both the dead and the living makes this an unforgettable journey into the slave experience and Julius Lester's most powerful work to date.

Time's Memory is a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While supernatural spiritual threads often weave their way into tales of escape from slavery, including Lester's own recent The Old African, this book is notable for the way in which the author brings the godly to the human realm. Ekundayo (a nyama or "soul") travels across the Middle Passage within the body of a 16-year-old captive. Lester makes the voyage plausible, as well as the nyama's subsequent release, because of the way he characterizes the slave ship's captain and the captain's circumstances (the spirit of his recently deceased wife plays a part, for instance). A breathtaking scene involving Lebe, the "first hogan" (taking the form of a serpent), brings about Ekundayo's transformation into a human being. These otherworldly events set the stage for the nyama's subsequent journey from the captain's South Carolina home to a Virginia plantation, where, with the help of the god Amma, Ekundayo comes to rest within Nat, a slave in love with his master's daughter. Amma has explained to Ekundayo that "The chalk-faced Soul Stealers... have released forces they have no knowledge of... Their ignorance and cruelty threaten the very fabric of creation." The many captives' deaths have left the nyama "without a place to be," and Amma has entrusted Ekundayo with the job of figuring out how to give them a home. In an endnote Lester explains that some of the key elements of the tale derive from the Dogon religion, but readers will find Ekundayo's mission powerful even without that knowledge. All the characters here are fully formed, from Nat's father, with a hate so strong he becomes as violent as his oppressors, to the slave master plagued by guilt and his own forbidden love. Ultimately, this is a novel of healing, and a seeming culmination of Lester's scholarship and faith in humanity. Not to be missed. Ages 12-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Brutal white slavers load terrified black Africans onto their ships. The creator God Amma knows his People are dying so fast that there are none left to build the nyama that house the spirits of the unhappy dead. He breathes his spirit into the body of a young captive girl, who becomes pregnant. Ekundayo, which means Sorrow Becomes Joy, is born on the slave ship, and once in America grows miraculously fast. Amma has willed him to save the People from the cruel oppression that crushes their spirits, living and dead. But the task is heavy and many generations will pass as each incarnation of Ekundayo struggles to accomplish his mission. Finally in the body of Nathaniel, who loves his master's daughter, he finds a way to give comfort to the living, peace to the wandering dead. The strong infusion of magic realism in this story may confuse readers before they get to the story of Nathaniel and Ellen, which takes place just before the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. The author tries hard to convey the ambivalence and racism of the period. It seems to this reader, however, that many of the words and sentiments of the characters are more modern than historic, and the highly romantic story of Nat and Ellen's doomed love is not very plausible. Nevertheless the book could be useful as part of a unit on slavery, or in a Black History class. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2006, Farrar Straus Giroux, 240p., $17. Ages 12 to 18.
—Rayna Patton
Children's Literature
Julius Lester's latest book is an interesting amalgam of his favorite themes: religion and Afro-American history. Working with the Dogon lore of Mali, he creates his hero, Ekundayo--a spirit, or living nyama (soul) sent by slave ship to free the nyamas of dead slaves wandering forlorn in the antebellum slave culture of the American South. Fortunately for the story, Ekundayo is soon stranded in the body of Nathaniel, a slave torn by his love for his white mistress, Ellen. At this point the nebulous magic realism is overtaken by a fairly rousing depiction of life in the slave quarters of a Virginia plantation. Everything is tossed in: a fiery black preacher, a Nat Turner-like rebellion, a loving grandmother figure, a jealous slave girl--never forgetting the doomed Miss Ellen and her quasi-villainous father. How Nathaniel Ekundayo finally learns to put the dead to rest is the message Lester was striving for all along. His--and Ekundayo's--journey is a long and strange one, with moments of grace along the way. Martin Puryear's elegant woodcut image on the cover is an affective evocation of the sentiments within. 2006, Farrar Straus Giroux, Ages 12 up.
—Kathleen Karr
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-More than a picture of slavery through the eyes of those enslaved or their captors, Lester's narrative evokes spiritual images of Mali's Dogon people. The story begins in Africa where the nyama, or life force, of a murdered spiritual leader is carried to America on a slave ship as a "seed" passed to his daughter through a kiss. The seed springs forth through the help of Lebe, the serpent, into the form of a young man, Ekundayo, whose mission is to bring peace to the growing numbers of spirits swarming chaotically over this new land. The creator god, in the form of a big bird, transports Ekundayo to Virginia in the body of a slave, Nathaniel, who secretly loves his master's daughter, Ellen, whom he's known since childhood and who taught him to read and write. As Nathaniel, Ekundayo learns the stories and tribulations of the slaves. He struggles to discover how he can bring peace to the dead he "sees" as gray fog hovering over the slave quarters. On the eve of the Civil War, Nathaniel/Ekundayo has visions of the dead who tell him the future as well as the past and he sets a course that will carry on for generations. This is a powerful novel for mature readers. It is fraught with sorrow, brutality, triumph, and joy. In the end, Lester projects hope that lost souls and forbidden relationships can find peace, acceptance, and happiness.-Kathy Lehman, Thomas Dale High School Library, Chester, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ekundayo is a spirit inside an African woman on a slave ship coming to America. Taking the body of a slave named Nat, Ekundayo pursues the work given to him by Amma, the creator god: to bring peace to the nyama, the souls of the dead. But the brutality of the slave trade and of slavery in America creates so many nyama it is difficult for Ekundayo to know how to heal the wounds. Drawing on his research into the Dogon religion of Mali, Lester has created a rich, complex and rewarding novel. Though confusing in the early going, the epic tale becomes the drama of family lines through American history, a love story interrupted and a meditation on the importance of story, where Ekundayo realizes is the proper resting place for the dead. Dedicated to a white civil-rights worker, this is a tribute to those who "act in ways history does not condone and, by doing so, begin to change that history." (author's note) (Fiction. YA)

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

From Time’s Memory
I lay within the body of the woman who was called Amina
and I listened to the silences between the beats of hearts that
beat no more and the wind in breaths that no longer breathed.
I saw with eyes that were only sockets in skulls. Though I was
no larger than the twinkle of a star, I already knew that lives
did not consist only of what happened during one’s brief span of
years. No. Each person is the sum of the generations that went
before, generations of people whose names have been forgotten,
whose faces have sunk below where memory can go. Yet those
generations live within everyone, pulsating with each heartbeat
and each breath.
I listened to the blood roaring through her body, and within the
cacophony I found the memories of her brief sixteen years, the
memories of her mother and father, their mother and father,
and their mother and father, and on back to unnumbered time
when no one counted the risings and settings of the sun and
there were no months or years but only Time as broad and
without end as the universe.
But as intently as I listened, as arduously as I searched, I could
not find the reason why I had been conceived. Neither did her
blood tell me where we were being taken nor what I was to do
when I got there.
When Amma, the creator god and master of life and death,
had Amina’s father place me inside the woman, he told me my
name was Ekundayo, Sorrow Becomes Joy. Surroundedby
sorrow deeper than any sea and wider than any sky, I thought
I had been misnamed.

Meet the Author

JULIUS LESTER has written more than forty books of fiction,
nonfiction, and poetry for children and adults. He lives in
Belchertown, Massachusetts.

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