Saturday, March 25, 2006

Walter Mosley's "47"

Walter Mosley's 47 is a finalist for the Prometheus award. It's an unusual candidate, in that it's aimed at the young adult market, and it's light on the science fiction. As Mosley says, the science fiction is present in order to provide a ray of hope in an otherwise extremely bleak picture.

You see, 47 is the story of a young slave on a plantation in Georgia in the 1830's, and the cruelty and misery seem entirely plausible for the context. How else to make this irredeemable scenario palatable, but to bring in Tall John, a potential savior to give a reason for hope?

Mosley plays off an old slave myth of someone who would come to the new world to confound the masters and set the slaves free. In this case, 47, the title character, encounters an apparent runaway, who turns out to have special powers. But his most important attribute is his simple unwillingness to bend his knee to the master, even when he can't prevent the ensuing punishment. He teaches 47 that it's possible to hold up your head (saying Neither a slave nor a master be.) even when someone has the complete ability to punish or kill you.

It's a bit far-fetched, and the technological MacGuffins have such fantastic consequences that the book is hard to take seriously. But the depiction of the slave's situations has a very realistic feel, and Tall John's self sufficiency is inspiring. I don't expect it to win this year, but the finalist status is well-deserved.

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