Is Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen more about slavery or about overcoming adversity?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The novel Nightjohn is about slaves who suffered the pains of torture and death in order to attain the key to freedom. The key was literacy. There is no comparison to today's reality in America but still it is appropriate to note that there is a metaphoric similarity in that today the key to cultural, social and economic freedom is using your literacy to procure an education that will give the means of earning a living.

The meaning of Nightjohn, by Gary Paulsen, is embodied in the possessor of the name gracing the title of the book, Nightjohn. He was a slave. He found freedom. He gained literacy. He gained the knowledge that the powers of reading and writing are so great that death can come to slaves who acquire this power. He voluntarily returned to slavery so that he could teach this power to other slaves. The novel is about the internal realities of slavery that go unseen behind the physical realities and it is about how to conquer slavery.

The reason that Nightjohn is not merely about slavery is that Nightjohn returns to slavery with a gift that is worth giving even in the face of physical torture (and potentially death) in order to distribute it among slaves. Nightjohn is not merely about overcoming adversity because Nightjohn's ambition is to equip as many slaves as possible with the key to ridding themselves of slavery, not merely to overcoming the pain and effects of adversity, which is defined as misfortune, disaster, misery, calamity and as such is common to all humankind, whether slave or free. Nightjohn's concern is liberation from a great intentional travesty against humanity that is common only to the enslaved.