With the publication of another mystery novel by Walter Mosley, I though I’d blog about one of my favourite of his novels, though not one that’s been granted as much attention as I would like.
47 is an unusual thing, both a science fiction novel and a slave narrative. In that, it has something in common, I suppose, with Octavia Butler’s Kindred and, more peripherally, James McBride’s Song Yet Sung, both cracklingly awesome reads, sizzling with electricity. Unlike those two novels, however, Mosley’s is a young adult novel. It’s the story of the eponymous 47, a slave on the Corinthian plantation in 1832. During the course of the novel, 47 meets the mysterious “Tall John from beyond Africa” and learns that he has a special destiny.
Why it doesn’t suck:
Partially, it’s just that Mosley is an incredible storyteller, whose lean, character-driven prose drives the plot at such a perfect pace that you barely notice you’re turning the pages. 47 is a sad, dejected character when we meet him, and in his simple, direct way he explains the sadness of slavery, its soul-destroying, hope-defeating heavy reality — perhaps better than any other fictional character I can recall. Reading 47’s descriptions of the back-breaking labour, and of the narrowness of the lives of his fellow slaves, I remembered something I heard Teresa Nielsen-Hayden say on a panel about young adult literature some years ago, that one of the distinguishing features of YA novels was that their characters are going through their experiences for the first time. In a truly excellent novel, as this one is, we see those experiences anew, no matter how much we may think we know about them, either from experience or from other reading.
So 47 is a perfectly-paced and well-told story. But I love this novel for much more than that. It is a tale that is both literally and figuratively about empowerment. It’s not giving things away to reveal that, at some level of abstraction, this is a fairly standard chosen-one story. Tall John, a combination Yoda and Obi Wan, has come from many light years away to awaken a deep and mysterious power in 47 and help him to save the universe. But, as I suppose is also fairly standard, the most important empowering comes not from the transfer of “cha” or some quick lessons in blind lightsaber duelling, but rather from the transformative power of wisdom.
It’s funny that I like this aspect of the book. I mean, on one hand, I find it a little too new-agey spiritualistic, but on the other hand, as much as I wanted to roll my eyes, I found the clear and direct way that Tall John talks about how people take power over us and how sometimes we let them — well, it was just perfect. It was wise. And it’s hard to roll your eyes at wisdom, even if you do have to peel away some wrapping to get to it.
I began this by noting that 47 doesn’t seem to be one of Mosley’s more high-profile novels. I wish it were. Though it’s complete in itself, it begs for a sequel, and apart from that, I just wish more people would read it.