Amos Fortune, Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

In Amos Fortune, Free Man, Elizabeth Yates tells the life story of Amos Fortune, who was taken from Africa as a slave to New England, where he eventually gained his freedom. Fortune was not a renowned personage in American history; Yates relates the life of a common man who, through personal dignity and perseverance, affected the lives of those around him. In the acknowledgments, at the front of the book, Yates mentions the search for materials on Fortune’s life and the location of the documents in the East Jaffrey Library. She provides copies of certain documents in the text that help to anchor this biography in time and place, but much of the story had to be fictionalized.

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The book is divided into ten chronologically organized chapters, with each chapter corresponding to major changes in Fortune’s life. Nora S. Unwin provides small pen-and-ink drawings placed at the beginning of each chapter. The first chapter de-scribes the capture by slavers of fifteen-year-old Prince At-mun from his native village of At-mun-shi on the African Gold Coast in the year 1725. The second chapter contains an account of the voyage to Boston, the sale of At-mun to the Quaker Caleb Copeland, and the designation of the name “Amos.” Purchased in Boston by a Quaker, Amos was fortunate among slaves in the treatment that he received. He was allowed to attend Celia Copeland’s kitchen school, and he learned to read and write. Because he was treated so well, his friends called him “Mr. Fortunatus,” which was later shortened to “Fortune.”

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Subsequent chapters deal with the sale of Fortune to Ichabod Richardson, who taught him the tannery trade, the manner in which his freedom was achieved, his marriages, his move to Jaffrey, and finally his death at the age of ninety-one. His will provided that a silver Communion service be purchased for his church and that a sum of $243 he had saved for a special purpose be given to the Jaffrey school for the education of the town’s children. The fund was still in use in 1950, when this book was published.

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Latest answer posted February 2, 2010, 3:14 am (UTC)

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Amos Fortune, Free Man also provides historical information for young readers. For example, the narrative includes interesting, detailed descriptions of the process of tanning in the 1780’s. Although Fortune lived through the revolutionary war and the events leading up to it, he was too old for military service and Yates only makes references to these momentous changes. A map of the territory would have been helpful, as the towns mentioned are small and difficult to locate on current maps.

Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135

Amos Fortune's story begins in 1725 in the At-mun-shi village, near the Gold Coast of equatorial Africa, during the spring ritual celebrating the earth's rebirth. Slaves, taking advantage of the one night the At-mun-shi abandon their weapons, capture the strongest men and women of the tribe and sell them to the captain of the White Falcon, a slave ship.

From July 1725 to April 1740, Amos lives in Boston as the slave of Celia and Caleb Copeland, Quakers who teach him Christianity and weaving. Amos then spends the next twenty-nine years as the slave of Ichabod Richardson of Woburn, Massachusetts, who teaches him the tanning trade. After he is freed in 1769, Amos stays in Woburn, working as a tanner, until March 1781. He then moves his family to Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and remains there until his death on November 17, 1801.

Literary Qualities

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Yates's biographical novel is based on a framework of factual information about Amos Fortune and eighteenth-century New England that she pieced together through diligent research. Her efforts led to the rediscovery of Fortune's papers, which had been lost. She reprints several of these documents in the text of her novel. The inclusion of these items lends authenticity and a flavor of Amos's times to the work.

In style and narrative technique, Yates acknowledges the influence of the Bible, British poet William Blake, and British novelist George Eliot. Yates's meticulous research allows her to portray the various physical settings in the kind of vivid descriptive detail used by Blake and Eliot. She also captures the atmosphere of each setting in lyrical language. In particular, the portrayals of the Atmun- shi village, Amos's capture, and his night of meditation on Monadnock Mountain incorporate rich language that approaches poetry.

The themes of fortitude and respect for people and nature indicate the biblical influence on Yates's work. One of the strengths of Amos Fortune: Free Man, however, is that Yates does not impose these themes on the narrative; rather, she integrates them into Amos's life.

Specific descriptions of Amos Fortune's actions, feelings, and thoughts render him a plausible, well-rounded character. The reader sees Amos's pride in being the chiefs son, his bewilderment when his people refuse to speak to him after their capture, his perseverance as he continues to search for his sister, his intelligence as he learns two trades well, his loyalty when he chooses to remain with the Copeland family, his generosity as he assists several helpless women, his resourcefulness when he begins his tanning business in Jaffrey with a minimum of tools, and his emotional dexterity as he deflects racial snubs without apparent bitterness. Generally, Yates sketches other characters only to the extent required to tell the story of Amos's life in an interesting manner. Of the secondary characters, only Violet Fortune is portrayed in any depth.

Social Sensitivity

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In addition to addressing the horrible injustices of slavery, Yates also portrays Amos encountering racism after he is freed. Although Amos Fortune earns respect, particularly in Jaffrey, he and his family suffer economic discrimination and personal degradation because they are black. Some instances of this racism are blatant, as when one of his customers refuses to pay full price for his leather and forces Amos to pick up his money from the floor; others are cloaked in hypocritical custom, such as the Christians' long delay in granting Amos church membership and the refusal to allot the Fortune family a pew; and still others are matters of ignorance, such as the remarks of the school children to Celyndia and Amos.

Because such racism---blatant and subtle---still exists, readers might experience frustration with Yates's portrayal of Amos as a type of exemplary Uncle Tom figure. White slaves have deprived Amos of his name, his language, his home, his family, and his religion, yet he constantly accepts humiliation and uncritically relies upon white society's God. But Yates's depiction of Amos is meant to point out the hypocrisy of those who claim to embrace Christian and democratic ideals while holding racist attitudes. Amos obviously understands Christian and democratic values more fully than any other character does.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 110

Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973. Brief biographical sketch, list of works, autobiographical commentary, and bibliography.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. Brief biographical sketch and analytical comments about major works, along with a list of works.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. The Junior Book of Authors. Rev. ed. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1951. Autobiographical sketch with very brief critical comments.

Miller, Bertha Mahony, and Elinor Whitney Field, eds. Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955. Boston: Horn Book, 1955. Includes a brief description of Amos Fortune, a biographical essay by William McGreal, and Yates's Newbery Medal acceptance paper.

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