Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule

by Harriette Gillem Robinet

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What are Nelly's habits in "Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule"?

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Nelly's most conspicuous habit is that she twists her braids.  She wears her hair in six long braids, and when she is thinking, or speaking - just anytime really - she takes one or another of them in her hand and twists it. 

Nelly is only eight years old when she leaves the plantation with Pascal and Gideon after the war.  At first she is frightened and timid, but she soon begins to develop as a character, taking on responsibilities like cooking and caring for the brothers like a mother.  Nelly is intelligent and has the habit of thinking ahead and getting to the heart of matters.  It is she who has the presence of mind to bring along a cooking pot, and, despite her age, it is also Nelly who first grasps and articulates what freedom really is.  When Gideon says that freedom is all about owning land and gaining respects, she retorts that if that's what he thinks, he isn't free yet.  Nelly knows instinctively that "freedom's something inside you", something in an individual's heart that cannot be taken away (Chapter 3).

Perhaps the most endearing habit of Nelly's is her ability lift the spirits of everyone around her.  Creative and imaginative, she  teaches Pascal to play games with his shadow and look for pretty pebbles on the road.  Although she perceives truth more clearly than the older people around her, she remains the eternal optimist, dancing and glorying in the feeling of freedom and just being alive.

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