We talked for a bit about poverty and hard times, and then I asked her if she remembered what it was like to be ten years old. She nodded and said she didn't remember having any worries. I smiled. Exactly. That's exactly why I chose to tell the story in the voice of a ten-year-old. Because at age ten, Ludelphia wouldn't be thinking about what she didn't have. Having never left Gee's Bend, she wouldn't even be aware of what she didn't have.
Is that happiness? Or ignorance?
I love that it made this student mad, love that she was thinking about Ludelphia, puzzling over the way I chose to tell the story. And it reminded me of a quote I wrote in my writing notebook from amazing author ( my hero) Julius Lester, who wrote the Newbery Honor winning To Be a Slave. It's a direct quote from one of the slave narratives:
"Was I happy? You can take anything. No matter how good you treat it - it wants to be free. You can treat it good and feed it good and give it everything it seems to want -- but if you open the cage - it's happy."
- Tom Robinson, Library of Congress
Ludelphia was free. She wasn't a slave, though sharecropping was much like slavery in the way it offered no easy escape to a different (better) life.
And then she was crossing that river, sleeping in a barn, high-tailing it back home in the back of a wagon. She had her Mama and Daddy and Ruben and Etta Mae and baby Rose.
Yes, she was poor. And she was also happy.