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The Letter Writer


The Letter Writer

Nat Turner was a slave who led the largest slave rebellion in the South beginning on August 21, 1831. When finished, at least 55 people were slaughtered. The mystery is that before this occurred, he was known as a Preacher of God’s Word among the area slaves. Ann Rinaldi brings the man and the surrounding events to vivid life from the point of view of 11-year-old Harriet Whitehead.

Harriet lives on the plantation run by her brother Richard, who is the local official preacher. She is asked to write letters for her blind stepmother and to correspond with “Uncle Andrew” in England to get practice writing letters. Soon she is telling Andrew about how hard it is living under Richard’s strict rule, when her stepsister Margaret seems to get away with terrible behavior. Her only other confidante is her personal slave, Violet, who is of mixed race. She loves Violet like a sister and feels that the Negroes should be treated better in the South.

Richard is harsh with the slaves at times, using lashings and frequent threats.   Mother Whitehead is known for her kindness and tries to keep Richard from such angry outbursts. His lovely wife, Pleasant, and his toddler, Baby William, also soften him. When a favorite slave, Owen, runs away and neighboring renowned slave Nat Turner helps him return to the house as he chooses to do, Mother Whitehead keeps Richard from beating Owen.

But Harriet seems to provoke him to no end. She spends a lot of her time praying on her knees as punishment on the gravel of the driveway for various infractions as deemed by Richard. She likes writing the letters, though, and learns a great deal about the crops and business of the plantation from Mother Whitehead’s correspondence. 

Mother Whitehead writes often to a neighboring plantation asking for the loan of Nat Turner, who is known for his skill in making furniture and his preaching. Harriet is curious about him herself, and goes to witness one of his “Baptisms” of a man who Richard kicked out of their own church. Nat’s preaching style is more loving to Harriet, and more familiar to God and man. She likes him and is happy when he’s finally hired out to the Whitehead plantation. 

One day, Nat asks her for the map Richard keeps in the locked gun room. It is the only map of the county in existence, and she knows she can’t take it. She makes a copy for him and signs it, as he tells her he wants to travel to all the plantations and preach the Word of God. She tells him that she needs it back, and when she learns from Violet that he means to organize slaves, she asks him for it again and he refuses.

Then one terrible morning, Owen wakes her, telling her to run and warn the neighboring farm, as Nat and his followers were up all night killing white people at all the plantations in the county. She is unable to escape without seeing some of the terrible violence exhibited by Nat’s men, but she is able to help.

Based on true events, THE LETTER WRITER will stay with readers for a long time with its unforgettable images and powerful characters. Ann Rinaldi continues her excellent writing of history through the eyes of young adults.

Reviewed by Amy Alessio on November 1, 2008

The Letter Writer
by Ann Rinaldi

  • Publication Date: May 24, 2010
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Graphia
  • ISBN-10: 0547327854
  • ISBN-13: 9780547327853