Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ann E. Burg's _Unbound: A Novel in Verse_

The Plot: Ann E. Burg's 2016 Unbound: A Novel in Verse follows nine-year-old Grace, a light-skinned enslaved girl, as she moves from her mother's cabin to the "Big House" where she will work in the kitchen. Within the first pages of the narrative, Grace's mother appeals to her: "Promise you'll keep / your eyes down," "Promise you'll keep / your mouth closed," and "Promise you won't / talk back" (4). Similarly, Grace's Aunt Sara echoes her mother's warning: "Grace, stay out of trouble" (23). Aunt Tempie takes Grace under her wing, and begins to teach her how to cook, clean, and work in the kitchen. Almost immediately upon entering the Big House, Grace begins to break her promises to her family by questioning and speaking out against the various injustices that occur at the hands of the Missus. Grace meets other house slaves, including Jordon (a server who Aunt Tempie refers to as "a runner" who never smiles and has a wife and daughter that he will never see again) and Anna (a young girl who is the Missus's personal slave and who receives some of the worst treatment). Because Grace has such a hard time following her mother and Aunt Sara's warnings, the Missus begins to punish her. One night Grace overhears the Missus and Master Allen planning to sell her mother and two younger brothers at auction to teach her a lesson. Grace decides to take action and implores her family to flee. The rest of the narrative tells the story of Grace's family and their escape to the Great Dismal Swamp.

The Poetry: Burg's novel in verse is told primarily in short lines of lyric, free verse. Throughout the verse novel, Burg makes use of a dialect that drops Gs and uses "what" in place of "that," and while she does note in the end pages of her novel that she used research from "narratives of the formerly enslaved... prepared by the Federal Writers' Project" (348) and consulted the work of anthropologist Dr. Daniel O. Sayers and historian of the African diaspora Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf to assist her in writing her novel, I was hoping for a bit more discussion in her Author's Note and Acknowledgement sections relating to her use of dialect and her linguistic choices. In terms of poetic devices, Burg makes use of some lovely imagery, simile, and lyricism throughout her narrative. For instance, in the first section of the verse novel, Grace feels her resolve begin to crumble:
like a clap of thunder
in a sweet blue sky,
all my promisin
starts feelin like
a fistful of thorns
is scratchin my brain. (4-5)
and in the lines that end the second section of the narrative as Grace's family moves closer to freedom:
Moonlight glistens
on a dark lake
what's set before us
like a shimmerin
piece of fallen sky. (282)
Although these lines evoke some engaging images, they do not make up for the overall sense that something in this project is missing in terms of language and poetic technique. I am wary of the use of dialect in this verse novel, particularly by a white writer, without citation of any source material or discussion of these linguistic choices in her end pages.

The Page: Unlike most other verse novels for young readers, Burg does not separate her narrative into individual poems. Instead the verse novel is divided into three parts: part one is around 170 pages, part two around 100 pages, and part three around 75 pages. Each poem is untitled, but is a few pages long and its ending is denoted with a grey dot. As previously noted, Unbound does include an Author's Note and an Acknowledgements section, but Burg could have included much more information about her research, her sources, and her use of dialect throughout her narrative. I give Unbound three stars.