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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Five Thousand Years of Slavery, written by Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen. Tundra, 2010. $29.99 ages 12 and up

"The first African slaves arrived in America in 1619 on a Dutch warship. A Virginia colonist wrote to London that the ship was in desperate need of supplies, and had nothing to sell "but 20 and odd Negroes" that the governor and merchant bought in exchange for food."

Once started, I found that this book was hard to put down. Five thousand years is right...from the Sumerian epic called Gilgamesh and other types of slavery of the time and place to Greece and Rome, all the way through to today, when slavery remains a world-wide issue for far too many.

Sisters Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen are accomplished storytellers. Topics of slavery change as chapters unfold. They consider how slaves were bought and sold, how the laws governed slaves and their owners, the work and living conditions of slaves and, for the lucky ones, how they could become free. There are numerous maps to help place their stories and countless illustrations add resonant images for those who share this book. The captions are detailed and the sidebars (in boxes with a green background) introduce key concepts, explain artists' renderings of the times, tell individual and personal stories throughout history.

They include accounts of slavery in Europe from the time of the Vikings, in Islamic lands, and in Africa and America before colonization. Their attention to the slave trade in South America, the Caribbean and North America is not unusual since much of their research material would concern what has been reported close to home. They also discuss slavery in Asia and the South Pacific, including debt bondage in India and the selling of female children in China. It is an honest look, without drama, at the issue. It is informative, balanced and enlightening.

In the final chapter, titled "Slavery Is Not History: The Modern World", they offer short entries on some of the atrocities of more recent times. They include the Aleuts who would not see compensation for their slavery until 978, the Soviet prison system that curbed all freedom of expression, Nazi Germany, the forced labor camps of China, the communist regimes of North Korea and Cuba, the child fighters in Uganda, Sierra Leone and other parts of the world, the cocoa farms of the Ivory Coast, and the list goes on. It is hard to fathom what young children and other peoples of the world are still facing.

Efforts are being made around the world to bring attention to these examples of slavery today. The book offers some advice for ways in which we might help, rather than turn a blind eye to the disgraces still being felt by too many. From far beyond the borders of North America to within them, people are enslaved and treated abominably. Educating ourselves helps to bring empathy to the plight of others and shows our children a larger slice of life. The slavery that exists in the world today is both global and local. How can we change that?

If you read my post about Sold by Patricia McCormick, you know just one of the stories. Another book that offers a detailed look at slavery is found in a book from Groundwood by Kevin Bales and Becky Cornell, simply named Slavery Today (2008). Chilling and heartbreaking, it will open your eyes as it did mine.

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