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"The mature slave knows that dreams never come true. They know that they'll eat sour grain and sawdust everyday except Christmas and that they'll always work from before sunrise until after dusk every day for all the days of their lives."

When 47 is just a boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen, he begins to understand how hard being a slave can be because it's then that he finds himself in the cotton fields and taken from the nurturing care of Big Mama Flore. Mama Flore had tried to prepare him for the difficult turn his life would take. Being a slave means not knowing your birthdates and often never knowing your own blood-related family. 47 doesn't even know if he has any other name because Master Tobias gives him a number rather than a name --- it's as simple as that.

Living in the slave quarters with grown men and working from dawn to dusk, the most important thing to 47 is trying to stay out of the overseer Mr. Stewarts's way. He begins to understand Big Mama's words: "White peoples gots as many ages as you can count but slaves on'y gots four ages. That's babychile, boy or girl, old boy or old girl, an'dead." 47 has seen more than one slave beaten to death and others who have been taken to the killin' shack. "And those that did come back were never the same."

One day, however, everything changes for 47 and for every slave and white person on Corinthian Plantation when, by chance, he literally runs into "Tall John."

"He was the most beautiful being I had ever known. His skin was the color of highly polished brass but a little darker, a little like copper too but not quite. His eyes were almond-shaped and large with red-brown pupils. He was bare-chested and slender, but there was elegance in his lean stance. All he wore was a pair of loose blue trousers cinched at the waist with a piece of rope."

There is no explaining the immediate attraction between the boy and Tall John. John seems to look deep inside of him and know his every fear. Tall John tells him that he has finally "found" him and that he, 47, is a special boy with a special mission. Over a period of time 47 finds Tall John even more mysterious.

"I knew that he wasn't one of us, the slaves, but something different, something that neither I nor anyone I had ever known had met. I knew right then that the run-away Lemuel, now calling himself Tall John, was something like an angel, or a devil."

Tall John has a way of communicating with people that makes them pause. He, however, cannot predict the evil within Mr. Stewart or the anger in Master Tobias. After he magically saves the slave master's daughter, he and 47 are turned over to Mr. Stewart because they are slaves. Even with all of this, none of them is ready for the strength and wisdom of what Tall John is able to convey. Nor are they prepared for the horrible violence and tragedy that results from the blinding hatred that men pour upon one another.

Walter Mosley has written a kind of biblical, historical allegory with a touch of science fiction thrown in. Within this story there is a serious look at the problems of good and evil and the not-so-subtle implications on the wounds of racial prejudice. As this book closes the reader knows terrible and needless deaths have occurred and that those left have not finished their journey. You will want to know more about all the wonderfully realized characters in this little book. You will hope that 47 and the possibility of his new life will come again in a sequel to this thought-provoking, finely wrought tale.

The cover art is at once mystical and beautiful, presented with an old-fashioned black and white picture of plantation slaves in a cotton field. Floating above them against a faded blue sky is an orange number "47" and above that a strange configuration of lines. The lines, which look similar to astrological maps, are repeated throughout the book at the beginning of each chapter. These symbols all tie in to the story like the pieces of a lovely puzzle --- all together a wonderful and magical experience.

Reviewed by Sally M. Tibbetts on May 4, 2005

by Walter Mosley

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2006
  • Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0316016357
  • ISBN-13: 9780316016353