Knights Crossing by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission and in violation of copyright law.
The year is 1860, in the months before the start of the American Civil War. The industrial revolution has brought railroads for fast transportation. Steamships and riverboats sail the seas and ply the nation's waterways. Telegraph provides instant communication. Machines are beginning to replace much dreary human labor... though mostly in the Northern states.
But, thirteen-year-old Skyler Knight returns from a year at a New Orleans school to the tiny Louisiana bayou town of Knights Crossing -- named after his family -- to find that nothing seems to have changed. This is mostly a relief: there were too many new ideas in New Orleans; too much change happening too fast for his liking. For the first time in his life Skyler had to deal with free black people... blacks who behaved as if they were equal to whites! Skyler, raised on his family's huge plantation of Diligence, was brought up to believe that black people were animals. Intelligent animals, yes, but certainly not human beings.
Yet, Skyler is beginning to wonder about that -- thanks to some "bad ideas" overheard in Bohemian cafes -- to at least subconsciously question the morality of slavery. These are dangerous ideas for a boy who will inherit a hundred slaves.
Still, it's good to be home where things never change. Skyler is looking forward to losing his sissified city clothes and going bare-chested in buckskin trousers; to riding his horse and fishing; to hunting with his big Smith rifle and swimming with the slave kids again.
But, something new has come to Knight's Crossing. After getting off the train, Skyler encounters two black boys of around his own age. One is Cartwright, a handsome, muscular boy who was purchased to be a companion for a wealthy plantation-owner's son. The other is an enormously fat boy named Loki -- called Lucky -- who belongs to Seth Franklin, a little-known and reclusive man who owns the small plantation of Content deep in the bayou. There are rumors that Franklin is far too kind to his slaves; that he's allowed them to get fat and lazy. ...And worse, "uppity." Lucky seems to confirm all these rumors. Besides being barely able to waddle, he sasses Skyler to distraction until Skyler wants to whip him, though he's never whipped a slave before.
Skyler's buggy arrives, driven by Jupiter, a wise old slave who has probably had more to do with raising Skyler than Skyler's own parents. A storm is brewing, and despite Lucky's sass, Skyler and Jupiter take him to Content. As if Lucky himself hasn't been enough proof that there's something strange about the place, spending a stormy night at Content only adds to the mystery.
But Skyler's curiosity about Franklin's "system" -- how Franklin can be so kind to his slaves and still make a profit -- is sidetracked when Skyler meets Lucky's fraternal twin, Lucinda, who seems to run the Big House. Lucinda arouses feelings in Skyler that are totally improper for a young white southern gentleman... at least toward a slave girl. If Skyler wasn't confused enough, he is flabbergasted when Lucky asks Skyler to buy him and his sister! Although amazed by this request, Skyler is also puzzled... why would Lucky want to leave a place where he seems to do nothing but eat and sleep? And, what use could he possibly be to Skyler, disregarding the fact that he seems very smart... and he can read!
With a head full of confusion, as well as thoughts of Lucinda, Skyler comes home the next day to find that his father has a gift for him... Cartwright.
Cartwright has never been "housebroken," working all his life in his former owner's blacksmith shop. Unlike Lucky, Cartwright is eager to please his new master, though Skyler will have to polish him up and teach him to be a gentleman's servant -- a squire to a knight -- but Skyler begins to wonder if it's Cartwright not himself who is really worthy of knighthood.
Although at thirteen Skyler has supposedly learned just about all he is really expected to know about life, it is during the months ahead that his real education begins.
A Few Notes
Like many of my novels, Knight's Crossing began as a short story. In this case it was a story I wrote for kids at a youth center. It seemed funny that while all the kids knew that slavery had existed, they didn't actually know much about it... except that slaves had picked cotton and been whipped. They couldn't seem to grasp the concept that human beings could be owned by other human beings as if they were only animals, and most seemed to equate slavery with being in prison. A few described slavery as if it was serving a sentence on a southern chain-gang... probably from seeing such things in movies.
Speaking of movies, one has only to watch films such as The Undefeated (starring John Wayne), as well as many other classics from the 1930s up into the early 1960s to find that the general feeling toward the Old South in the U.S. in those times was mostly sympathy that the South had lost the Civil War because so much "greatness and nobility" had passed away. If actual slavery was portrayed (or even mentioned) in these films, it was usually in the light that the noble plantation owners had treated their slaves as trusted servants with honor, dignity and kindness.
And the unspoken message seemed to be that black people had been better off as slaves, and the fact that they had been freed was a rather unfortunate consequence of the North winning the Civil War.
These feelings were also made felt, if not always openly expressed, in much U.S. literature dating from the Reconstruction period up into the late 1950s. The works of O. Henry, for example -- hundreds of stories -- are filled with references to the noble Old South, while "darkies" (as well as most other non-white people) were invariably treated as jokes. ...At best.
Even Upton Sinclair, a noted crusader for human rights, seemed to despise black people in his novel The Jungle.
The legacy of freeing the slaves in the U.S. basically seemed to be resentment that they hadn't all gone back to Africa and been grateful for being allowed to.
Of course, thousands of books, both fiction and supposedly non-fictional, have been written about slavery in the United States, and hundreds of films have been made with varying degrees of accuracy. I'm only someone who writes for kids, and my simplistic portrayal of slavery in Knight's Crossing is only a story for kids.
In trying to write for young people about complex and/or serious subjects, an author is often criticized in the same way some adults criticize Disneyland -- for being "childish" -- forgetting or ignoring the fact that Disneyland was made for children.
If one is looking for depth and complexity, don't go to Disneyland... or expect to find them in books for kids.
What were the kids' reactions to the story? They laughed in the right places and looked thoughtful or angry in the other right places. That's enough praise for me.
As far as the "plantation language," no doubt the usual people will be offended; those who seem to feel they're the self-appointed spokespersons for everyone of color (see the Ghost Train page) and often whether or not they have any color themselves. But I learned a long time ago that anything one does in life -- and sometimes simply being alive -- is going to offend someone, so I make no apologies.
Besides -- duh! -- there's a reason it's called "plantation language."
© 2010 Jess Mowry
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.