Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule

by Harriette Gillem Robinet

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156

By mentioning that a treat for Pascal was an uneaten biscuit his mother picked up from the Master's plate, that he slept in a shanty with six other people, or that no one had hugged him since his mother's death, Robinet brings the reader face to face with the realities of plantation life from which Pascal escapes. Robinet is at her best describing rural environments. At a campsite among the trees, for example, she surrounds the children with "the gurgle of the ditch," "mosquito whines and cricket chirps." She writes that "sunbeams danced on their faces, and the scent of broken pine branch spiced the air." Robinet makes Gideon's parcel of land seem like an Eden. "Winddancing willows" line the lake and creek. "Grass and wildflowers blanketed the land. Meadowlarks flashed yellow feathers, singing as they flew across the flowers. Redwinged blackbirds called from cat-nine-tails at the creek. The land smelled clean and fertile and good."

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

There is no doubt why this book is entitled Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. The phrase, first mentioned on page four, is the refrain to the ex-slaves' song of freedom. It appears in practically every chapter as the goal Gideon hopes to achieve, as the dream they attain in Georgia, and as the vision they lose when their farm is confiscated.

Robinet expands facts text books would cover in three or four paragraphs. The entire Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule personifies one family's application of General Sherman's Field Order No. 13. Pascal and Nellie bring the reader along with them into the town where freed slaves are enveloped in the Black Codes and required to sign work contracts.

Robinet chooses three trees to symbolize the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Pascal and his expanded family. The whipping tree on the plantation, the Ghost Tree on Green Gloryland, and the apple seedlings the Bibbs give them represents the past, present, and future for the liberated slaves.

By the book's end, Robinet ironically makes Pascal and Gideon switch attitudes towards injustice that befalls them. Once quiet and acquiescent, Pascal is outraged by the loss of the farm. Once a fighter and rebel, Gideon grasps at the hope of a new farm on Sea Island.

Throughout the story, Robinet uses rural colloquialisms like "living high on the hog" and "when push comes to shove," explaining their literal meaning within the action of the story. She replaces "are" and "was" in the freed slaves' conversations with "be," as in "When he said his mama be Jerusalem City, I knew he be our brother. When I told him I be Gideon, his baby brother, he smiled and died." Reviewers have praised Robinet for her ability to capture the rich language used by the freed slaves, adding to the historical context of the novel.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

Robinet's story ably dramatizes the atrocities of plantation life and the South's continuing hatred of its freed slaves. The plantation master and overseer are despicable. Night riders lynch hard-working farmers simply because they are ex-slaves. Ne'erdo-wells in carriages malign President Lincoln's policies.

Through the events surrounding Pascal, readers see that neither war nor law change social attitudes. The legislation first gave and then took away the ex-slaves' land grants. Similarly, Pascal's story has no happy ending. As Robinet points out in her Author's Note, out of 40,000 freed slaves who were awarded farm land, all but 1,565 lost the land. By 1877, most of the land returned to the hands of the former slave owners. Northern troops, Abolitionists, and even the Supreme Court abandoned the cause of freedom for the ex-slaves.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

Isaacs, Kathleen. Review of Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. School Library Journal (November, 1998): 128. Isaacs lauds Robinet for humanizing with Pascal, and his adopted family, a "little-known piece of American history."

Lempke, Susan. Review of Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. Booklist (January 1-15, 1999): 879. Lempke praises Robinet's ability to blend her historical knowledge with feelings of her characters into a "fine historical novel."

"Robinet, Harriette Gillem." In Contemporary Authors, vol. 42. Detroit: Gale, 1994. " Robinet, Harriette Gillem." In Something about the Author, vol. 104. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Biography of Robinet's career and life.

Harriette Gillem Robinet Web site http: / /www. October 20,2001. The author's Web site gives a brief biography, list of awards, and summary of her books.

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