The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Book 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary

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The group of freed slaves heads for the swamps. When they get there, no one knows what to do next. Everyone is afraid of taking the lead for fear that they might get everyone lost. From the back of the crowd, a large woman steps forward. They call her Big Laura. She is the mother of two small children, one of whom she carries and the other she leads by the hand. She also has a large bundle that she balances on the top of her head. Big Laura walks to the front of the group and leads them away. After a long walk, Big Laura takes them to a path that winds through the swamp.

When they take their first break, the freed slaves discuss what they want their new names to be. Many take the last name of Lincoln or other white people’s names. When one person in the group says he wants the name Brown, Miss Jane protests. She has had that name for a year and does not want anyone else to use it. This man insists. When Miss Jane starts hitting him with a stick, he pursues her and eventually pins her to the ground. Miss Jane is defenseless against him. He is about to rape her when Big Laura starts hitting him with a stick. She beats him until he releases Miss Jane. Then Big Laura tells the man to go back to the plantation if he is going to act like that. The man refuses to go. He is afraid. Big Laura warns him, as well as everyone else, that if they act like they did when they lived on the plantation as slaves, they should return to the plantation. Only if they want to act as free people should they remain with the group.

Then Big Laura leads them through the swamp. They walk until they are completely exhausted. Big Laura makes a fire and half smothers it in moss to create a billowing pillar of smoke to keep the mosquitoes away. Miss Jane offers to stay up and swat at any mosquitoes that make it through the smoke screen so Big Laura and her children can sleep safely. But Big Laura insists that Miss Jane sleep. She tells Miss Jane that if she wants to make it to Ohio, she has to conserve her energy.

Miss Jane wakes up to the sound of someone yelling “Patrollers.” Patrollers are white men who round up runaway slaves. Since slaves have been freed and no former owner would pay the patroller for returned slaves, the patrollers are known to kill any black person they find.

Miss Jane has already begun to run when she hears Big Laura call out to her. Big Laura tells her to take her son, Ned. Miss Jane does not want to turn back, but she remembers how Big Laura had saved her the day before. So she hurries back, grabs the small boy, and takes off. When she reaches a clump of bushes, she dives under them and pushes the young boy’s face to the ground so he cannot make a sound.

Miss Jane sees several members of the group be beaten to death. She knows she will be next. However, the patrollers do not find her and finally leave. When she comes out from hiding, Miss Jane searches for Big Laura so she can give Ned back to her. She finds Big Laura lying on the ground, her baby daughter clutched to her chest. Both Big Laura and the baby are dead.

Miss Jane has no other choice...

(This entire section contains 711 words.)

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but to take Ned with her to Ohio. She searches through the camp, packs as much food as she can carry, and she and Ned continue down the path until they reach a river. The water is too wide to cross, so she camps down for the night and builds a fire as Big Laura had done. Then she and Ned fall asleep. In the morning, Miss Jane is amazed by the brightness of the new day. The sky is a color of blue she has never seen before. The sound of birds is everywhere. Though Miss Jane is impressed, Ned only has thoughts of food and his mother.


Book 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary


Book 1, Chapters 5-6 Summary