2 out of 4 stars
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In the blurb for Nettie Boo, author Judy Adams Brown succinctly provides a summary of the four short stories in the collection. The themes (slavery, elder abuse, infidelity, and unlawful incarceration) were not light material. I considered skipping this read, but the face of the little girl on the cover beckoned me to hear these stories. There was something familiar about her. She could have been my daughter, my niece, or even me as a child. Her innocent resolve filled her presence.
The four stories span a century, starting with the last years of slavery in the United States in the 1860s and ending with the continuing fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Without an introduction to provide the background, reading each of the nonfiction narratives was like a puzzle; I collected pieces of information throughout the story to form a (mostly) complete context by the end.
“Tip Top Mountain” had the most unique setting, describing the life of a Cherokee community in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1940s. “Jack Leg Preacher” shared the heartbreak of a woman married to a handsome, influential, and adulterous Baptist preacher in New Orleans. “Trapped,” my least favorite of the four, was about a young man who was set up and falsely imprisoned for car theft.
The titular story was first, and it was by far my favorite. Like all the narratives, it was written from a first-person perspective. Nettie matter-of-factly described her life as a slave in Texas. She was born on a “plantation that bred and raised slaves.” I must admit, I never considered the possibility of plantations specializing in raising slaves like one would raise cattle or corn. After pondering this for a moment, sadly, it made sense. Nettie mentioned historical markers such as receiving newsletters from Frederick Douglass and the Union soldiers’ announcement of the end of slavery on the day that later would become known as Juneteenth. She also described learning how to read by listening to the classes in the schoolhouse while she was sitting outside, waiting to escort her mistress home from school. (Nettie’s mistress was three years younger than she was.) She described feeling like a whole person when a Union soldier addressed her by her full name. Until that time, Ms. Nettie Boo Johnson had not considered that she had a last name.
The beauty of this book, and what I like best, is the richness of the stories. They add a personal perspective to historical periods in the United States that are rarely covered.
I most disliked the grammatical errors. I allowed for the author’s artistic license in “Nettie Boo” since it was narrated in the voice of a slave who did not have a formal education. The errors made the story more authentic. The remaining stories, however, were set in the 1940s and later, and I could find no reason to accept the many spelling, missing possessive case, and verb tense errors in those narratives.
I rate Nettie Boo 2 out of 4 stars. I deducted the first star because of the number of grammatical errors. They were also distracting enough to be a factor in the second star’s removal. The other reason for deducting the second star was the lack of an overall framing of the stories. Were the characters members of the author’s family? How did these stories arrive in the author’s care? Since this is a nonfiction collection, it would improve the reading experience to know who these people were, not just what happened to them.
In its current state, Nettie Boo is not a smooth read, but the stories are captivating. With that caveat, I recommend this book to teens and older who would enjoy a snapshot of lives lived in the period from the end of slavery through the civil rights movement in U.S. history. There is no profanity or erotic content, but themes such as slavery, prostitution, and abuse are included in the collection. This book would benefit from the work of a professional editor to address the aforementioned issues.
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