Life is tough for thirteen-year-old Nathaniel Dunn, an indentured servant in colonial Virginia. Then in a twist of luck, he meets Basil, a kind schoolmaster, and an arrangement is struck lending Nathaniel's labor to a Williamsburg carriage maker. Basil introduces Nathaniel to music, books, and philosophies that open his mind to new attitudes about equality.
The year is 1775, and as colonists voice their rage over England's taxation, Patrick Henry's words "give me liberty, or give me death" become the sounding call for action. Should Nathaniel and Basil join the fight? What is the meaning of "liberty" in a country reliant on indentured servants and slaves? Nathaniel must face the puzzling choices a dawning nation lays before him.
“Filled with action, well-drawn characters, and a sympathetic understanding of many points of view.” —ALA Booklist
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Give Me Liberty
By L. Elliott
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Nathaniel pressed his nose against the coarse linsey-woolsey of his sleeve. He breathed in deeply. It was the first time in almost a year that it hadn't stunk of horsehair, dirt, straw, and leftover grease from wiping dinner off his lips. He kept his face buried in the fabric. It smelled instead of lye soap, of clean, of the warm sun that had dried it. The smell was wonderful.
Nathaniel dropped his arm to look across the York River, swollen and muddy from May rains. His mother had made him the shirt two years ago, right before they left England for the New World. Now it was barely long enough to protect his backside from the scratch of his breeches. It was well made, though, twenty tiny stitches to an inch in the seams. And it was clean. Silly, he knew, but somehow the feeling of clean gave Nathaniel a sense of rebirth.
Standing atop a bluff overlooking the Virginia river, Nathaniel watched gulls drop out of the sky into the slow-moving waters. He assessed the horizon for a good omen. Blue skies would promise fortune, surely. But the heavens were coy about their thoughts. Wispy clouds fogged the sky, coloring it a shy white-blue. It was, in fact, just the color of Nathaniel's eyes--a veiled, barely-there blue.
His father had hated the paleness of Nathaniel's eyes. When irritated, he'd curse them as bewitched and lily-livered. Nathanielcould judge the souls of strangers by their reaction to his eyes. Those with meanness inside smirked. Those afraid of devils looked away. Kindness smiled.
His mother had said, "They're the color of sky and mist mixed together, as the world's waking up to the day, my son. Those be your eyes--the promise of a new day."
She was like that, his mother. Her own eyes had been the brilliant hue of bluebells, abloom with springlike hope, always believing in possibilities. Even during their six-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Virginia--while they and seventy other passengers clung to the below-deck posts of the merchant ship lurching through storm after storm during the winter of 1772--she held fast to his father's promise of the faraway colonies being a place of dreams to be had for the taking. She believed even as she lay dying of ship fever.
"'Love hopes all things,'" she quoted Corinthians from the Bible, the one book Nathaniel's family possessed.
A breeze brushed Nathaniel's face and ruffled his blond hair, lifting it to dance in the air--another unfamiliar feeling of clean. He'd been startled after scrubbing himself with the lye to look down into the barrel of water and to see the reflection of such fair skin and hair, bleached by the Virginia sun. Grimy for so long, he'd forgotten what he really looked like.
Nathaniel took another deep breath, this time pulling in the sweet smells of new bloom, of greening grasses. There had been a wild hailstorm earlier in the month that destroyed all the peach blossoms and sent the plantation's owner into a fit about the loss of peach brandy for the year. But now the earth was in full blossom, joyfully shaking itself awake, spewing out millions of flowers in field and trees. Nathaniel looked back up to the gulls. He wondered if they rejoiced in the festival of color beneath them.
When the breeze rustled his hair and shirt again, Nathaniel felt a hesitant happiness creep through him. He closed his eyes and held his arms out, imagining, just as he had when he was a small boy. The wind picked up a bit, flapping his billowy sleeves. He willed his feet to lift up off the ground, his arms to sprout feathers. He could almost feel himself float on the pale blue air of soft breezes, delicious new-life smells, and fledgling possibilities.
Today was a day that would change his circumstances. Perhaps today, he could brave hoping for his own spring.
"All right, sir, let's see what you have to offer," spoke a voice behind Nathaniel.
Nathaniel dropped his gaze to his bare feet, waiting. Two long shadows slid across the clover toward him. A well-polished set of boots came into view alongside a set of fat, cracked shoes with tarnished buckles.
"What? This? This here? This be nothing but a runt of a lad."
Nathaniel lost the scent of new bloom in the stench of rum, garlic, and sweat the men carried. His heart began to pound.
One of them rattled papers as he spoke: "He's thirteen years of age, Mr. Owen. He'll grow into your needs. Remember he has eight years more on his indenture until he turns twenty-one. If you purchase a grown man's time, you only have him four years. Price is eleven pounds, his cost of passage from London. If you want a strong slave, like that one, it'll cost you upwards of sixty pounds." The man pointed to Nathaniel's friend, Moses, who stood nearby amongst a group of slaves. He was sixteen but tall and strong, and could handle a hogshead of tobacco on his own.
"Hmmm . . ." Owen growled. He grabbed Nathaniel's arms and squeezed, looking for muscle. "Blacksmithing is hard work, boy. I need someone to stoke my fires, carry water, sort scraps of iron. You've no meat on you." He began testing Nathaniel's legs.
Nathaniel tried to keep from recoiling from the bruising, sausage-thick fingers. It'd been like this at Leedstown, when their ship had finally docked in the Rappahannock River--people checking him over as they might an ox, assessing strength and the amount of feed the animal required to pull a plow for as many seasons as possible. He'd been purchased then by the plantation owner, who'd seemed kind enough. But the planter turned out to be a gambler. He lost most of his tobacco fortune on horse races held in Fredericksburg. The rest evaporated when an unusually large tobacco crop in Virginia caused the prices England would pay for it to plummet.
Excerpted from Give Me Liberty
by L. Elliott
Copyright © 2006 by L. Elliott.
Excerpted by permission.
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