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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

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Charles Johnson's The Oxherding Tale is a novel about navigating a life between two different worlds. Johnson is known for writing stories about issues in Black America. According to information on goodreads.com, this particular novel received mixed reviews because some of the humor was missed by readers. The main character of this novel, Andrew Hawkins, must learn to find his place between the white world and the black world, between slavery and freedom.

This novel takes place in the south. Andrew Hawkins is born as a slave living on a cotton plantation. His birth is interesting because he is the offspring of the the wife of the plantation owner, Jonathan Polkinghorne, and Polkinghorne's butler. Andrew is a very intelligent young man. The first portion of this novel is about Andrew's life on the plantation and is told mostly through flashbacks. In part one, readers learn of Andrew's love interest, a seamstress named Minty. Andrew is also sent to work on a different farm, Hatfield Farm. While spending time at this farm, Andrew is unable to pursue Minty because he is spending time with an older woman who happens to be the owner of the farm, Flo Hatfield. After an incident with Flo, Andrew poses as a white man and escapes from Hatfield Farm.

The second part of this novel is about Andrew's life living in the white world. Andrew suffers from an opium addiction, unwanted marriages, and the discovery of friends being sold as slaves. When Andrew finds Minty being sold at an auction, he purchases her and realizes that she is very sick. Minty soon dies, and Andrew is devastated.

Throughout the novel, Andrew must learn from a variety of people in order to become complete as a person. Andrew, through author Johnson, offers a new type of "slave narrative" that is engaging to readers. This story is Andrew's journey from birth to adulthood and his search for his own identity in a world that is often complicated.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708

Oxherding Tale describes the education a young slave, Andrew Hawkins, receives from a variety of people. It is through synthesizing the different views from these people that he becomes a complete person.

The novel itself opens with “the Fall,” which is how Andrew describes his conception. During a bout of heavy drinking, Jonathan Polkinghorne, the owner of a South Carolina plantation named Cripplegate, and his favorite slave, who is also his butler, decide to swap wives for one night. The master slips into the slave’s quarters, while the slave (George Hawkins) goes to the Polkinghornes’ bedroom. The deception is uncovered by Anna Polkinghorne during the act of intercourse, and although she immediately screams, causing George to run from the bedroom, Anna has been impregnated. This act forces her husband to send George to work in the fields, thus causing him to fall in stature from a house slave to a field slave. George’s new occupation is that of an oxherd.

Even though Jonathan would like the baby to be brought up as the Polkinghornes’ own son since they are childless, his wife insists that Andrew be placed in the slave quarters as though there is no connection between the master and his slave. Consequently, Andrew is reared by George and his wife, Mattie, though Jonathan allows the boy to receive an excellent education with the promise of someday being free.

To tutor Andrew, Jonathan hires an itinerant philosopher named Ezekiel Sykes-Withers. Ezekiel professes to be a Transcendentalist, which means that he is more interested in theory than in real life. Andrew learns his lessons well from Ezekiel— mathematics, languages, abstract reasoning—but something is missing. Andrew finds what is lacking from his life in the person of a girl named Minty. When he asks Jonathan for his freedom so that he may purchase Minty and marry her, however, Andrew is sent to work for a woman, Flo Hatfield.

Flo, owner of a mine named Leviathan, takes the handsome boy as a lover and teaches him the philosophy of hedonism. Andrew enjoys the privileges of being Flo’s lover for a year before he sickens of it. He escapes with another slave, Reb, a coffin-maker, who has become a father figure to him. On the road north, they meet Horace Bannon, the “Soulcatcher,” who captures runaway slaves by emptying his own soul to allow the essence of the runaway to fill it. In other words, Horace—who is also a psychopathic killer—becomes “black” himself, taking on the characteristics and personality of his prey. He does not kill the runaway, he tells Andrew and Reb, until the slave begs for death because he can no longer stand the pressure of being on the run, of never fitting into a white society.

At Spartanburg, South Carolina, Andrew takes a job as a teacher. This is possible because his light complexion allows him to “pass” as white. Reb stays with Andrew for awhile, but finally he leaves for Chicago. Meanwhile, Andrew finds himself trapped into marrying the daughter of a local doctor. He comes to love Peggy Undercliff, however, and seems to be settled into Spartanburg as a respectable member of the white community.

Ironically, just as he feels safe, Andrew learns that Horace has set off to catch and kill Reb. Further complicating matters, Andrew attends a slave auction and discovers a very ill Minty. He buys her, but she soon dies. As he stands by her deathbed, Andrew feels forlorn and wonders how long he can continue the charade in Spartanburg. It is then that Horace appears. Andrew willingly accompanies the Soulcatcher to the woods, expecting to be killed. Instead, Horace tells Andrew that he could not catch Reb because the coffin-maker had gradually emptied his soul during his captivity; he had learned to expect nothing and to desire nothing. Reb had freed himself, literally and figuratively, by never attempting to fit into white society. Because he had finally encountered a slave he could not capture, Horace tells Andrew that he has retired from the slave-catching profession, leaving the schoolteacher to return to his life in Spartanburg. Andrew does just that, but he is wiser having learned from all his teachers—George, Ezekiel, Flo, and especially Reb.

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