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The Gospel Truth, by Caroline Pignat: Review

Born a house slave on Whitehaven Plantation, Pheobe knows how to watch and listen and hide secrets away where no one will find them—secrets like the words she collects, though slaves aren't permitted to read or write. Secrets like an impossible hope of freedom from slavery.

When a bird doctor comes to Whitehaven and wants Pheobe, a mute, as his guide, Pheobe can sense danger on the wind, sure as any chickadee. This white man from the north has brought secrets with him—dangerous ones—and they've got nothing to do with birds.

It's been years since I last read it, but The Gospel Truth is every bit as poignant and heart-wrenching as I remembered. Written in free verse, it's a dramatic view of African American slavery through the eyes of a young woman whose only reality is the plantation she was born on. Pheobe is a brilliant protagonist: like the birds she adores, she is observant, cunning, and acutely aware of truths both visible and invisible. She teaches herself to read and write in secret and misses none of the goings-on of the white folk who enjoy lives of luxury built by slaves. Her voice is pure poetry—so insightful in its honesty. I love the way she strips down to their bones things made unnecessarily complicated in her time, and in ours.

Content Notes: swearing is fairly tame and limited to a spattering of "d*mn"s, an "*ss" or two, and potentially some "h*ll"s. Enslaved African Americans are referred to as "Negroes." Pignat does not shy from the horrible truths of enslaved life, but she wields the power of allusion more than explicit telling: as a result, the book is powerful but by no means graphic, though the topic would certainly justify it.

I've read a few novels on this subject now, and The Gospel Truth remains a favourite. It focuses less on the graphic details of enslaved life and more on the astonishing capacity of abused human beings to keep clinging to hope against all odds—and not only to hope, but to the truth of God's love for all people, regardless of race. Pheobe never loses sight of this truth, and therein lies this book's importance.

"Everything the Good Lord made got a purpose."

Our world has much to learn from Pheobe's story. I wholeheartedly recommend it to any and all.

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