Gr 6-9Sarny, a child in Paulsen's Nightjohn (Doubleday, 1993), narrates the story of her life from girlhood until 1930, when she is 94 years old. Born into slavery and taught to read by the slave Nightjohn, she marries, bears two babies, and sees her husband worked to death. Her children are sold just as the Civil War ends. Accompanied by another freed slave, Sarny journeys toward New Orleans looking for her children, and meets Miss Laura, a light-skinned black woman with a shadowy occupation and lots of money. In New Orleans, Sarny finds her children and lives comfortably in Miss Laura's employ. She remarries, teaches black children to read, and sees her husband lynched. As the story ends, Sarny, a very rich woman, is living in Texas and waiting to die. Sarny's strong narrative voice is striking, as she remembers events in her own distinct way. It is as though readers are sitting at the feet of a real person, listening as her story spins out. Those unfamiliar with Nightjohn will not understand the numerous references to it, but this detracts little from the story. While Sarny suffers many terrible tragedies, her life after the war is probably far more comfortable and sheltered than the lives of the vast majority of former slaves. However, this is not meant to be a sweeping overview of history, but the highly individualized account of one woman's experiences. Just how much of the book is based on historical facts remains fuzzy, but Sarny is a wonderful, believable character. Her story makes absorbing reading.Bruce Anne Shook, Mendenhall Middle School, Greensboro, NC
Lyrical and pleasing reflections on machinery, midlife crisis, and sundry other matters.
Not long ago Paulsen, a Newbury Honor author of books for children, as well as books for adults (Eastern Sun, Western Moon, 1993, etc.), turned 57 and discovered he had a heart ailment. He also discovered, he writes, that he is a man, in a time when it has become anachronistic to be masculine. To avert the horror of growing old, cuddly, and debilitated, Paulsen went out and bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, shopping for which turned out to be a challengefor a new bike, he learned, he'd have to pay a small fortune and then wait three years for delivery. Arming himself with a used machine, he took to the road, making his way from New Mexico to Alaska and back again, celebrating the freedom afforded him by the Harley-as-extension-of-self. The book that resulted from his trip is really a series of loosely connected essays. One treats the curious career of George Armstrong Custer, whom Paulsen seems intent on rehabilitating. Writing in a Hemingwayesque turn, he takes the line that, while it is politically incorrect to express respect for the doomed general, it is difficult not to admire his courage, and in the end it could be said that he was given his measure of famewhich is more than most men are given. Another essay explores the American worship of know-how, the almost religious aspect of being a mechanic that does not seem to exist in other countries. Still another deals with the myriad ways there are to meet one's maker on the back of a motorcycle, crushed by an errant piece of livestock or splattered by a road-hogging RV.
These meditations don't quite add up to a full-tilt memoir, but they make a nice entertainment all the same.