I had not given a thought to what a difference it can make when you treat another person with simple respect and dignity, the same respect and dignity you want for yourself. That is so simple, yet so few seem able to do it.Day of Tears is a fictionalized account of the weeping time – the largest slave auction in American history, known by this name because it was accompanied by heavy rain. To pay for his gambling debts, Pierce Butler, owner of the Butler Plantation, auctioned off 436 of his slaves. Julius Lester’s novel includes Butler, his abolitionist ex-wife and their two daughters as characters, but the story mostly focuses on those who were sold away from their loved ones, as well as on those who were left behind.
Day of Tears is subtitled a novel in dialogue: the story is told exclusively through the character’s voices. Most of it is dialogue, except for a few sections which would be more accurately described as longer monologues. If this sounds strange to you, don’t worry. The whole thing flows really well, and it reads very much like a story told by multiple narrators.
The use of multiple points of view is actually one of the novel’s greatest strengths. We get to hear the voices of all the characters, and as a result every one of them is portrayed as fully human – even Pierce Butler, even his daughter Frances who grew up to write books defending slavery. As repulsive as their thoughts can be, we see them as people. I know I keep returning to this point, but I truly think that this is an important thing to remember: even the most horrific acts in history were committed by real human beings. Not by monsters, not by beasts. As you might have noticed by now, I have a fondness for books that remind us of this.
A lot of what happens in Day of Tears is painful, but there’s a lot of hope too. The novel is extremely balanced: it doesn’t try to use slavery as the backdrop for an inspirational story of survival, but it’s not completely bleak either. It acknowledges that there was cruelty and kindness; there were victories and losses. What makes it work so well is the fact that it was written with such obvious respect – respect for history, and for the people who lived through it.
And this brings me to the passage I wanted to leave you with. It’s something Julius Lester says in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, and it perfectly captures what I love the most about historical fiction:
History is not only an accounting of what happened when and where. It includes also the emotional biographies of those on whom history imposed itself with a cruelty that we can only dimly imagine. This book is another in my attempts to make real those who did not have the opportunities to tell their stories for themselves.(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)