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Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite
You might be tempted, as I was, to toss Rooks of the Raven by Franklin Neal aside after the first couple of chapters because of what appears to be some incoherence in descriptions, and dialogue that’s occasionally difficult to follow. But persevere. While I’m not 100% sure that Rooks of the Raven isn’t in need of tighter editing, what I am sure of is this: let yourself get into this sensitive, often heart-wrenching historical fiction about the horrific suffering of black slaves before emancipation, and you will be moved deeply by Franklin Neal’s novel. Neal’s protagonist, Abel, is nearly illiterate when readers first meet her…and that might account for what appears to be poor grammar in much of Rooks of the Raven. But what this grammar does is effectively capture how uneducated black people would have spoken during the mid 1800s. As a youngster, Abel has the good luck to have Margo decide she needs to learn to read and write, and while Abel has some attention issues, bit by bit, she does learn to do both, if not perfectly, then reasonably well. She also learns, oddly enough, to play chess, thanks to a friend, Corgo. That skill serves her well much later in the story.
But Abel’s bad luck comes when she and her baby sister are torn away from her parents, and sold as slaves to work in the cotton fields of a white person’s estate. What readers will learn about such a life through Abel’s eyes is gut-wrenching. After enduring bloody whippings while working in the cotton fields, Abel, at one point, attempts to drown her baby sister, Ina, to save her from this kind of future. How desperate can one feel? Thoughts of escape are forever on the minds of slaves like Abel. When one family of slaves attempts to escape, after being recaptured and punished, they are burned alive several months later by a heartless member of the white family. Such events are what make Abel and other slaves decide it’s best to stay quiet, do the work, and at least have food in their bellies and a roof over their heads. Freedom is a dream only.
Abel’s ability to play chess and her reading and writing skills eventually earn her a position inside the master’s estate. In 1865, finally freed, she and Ina return to their childhood home, hoping to reunite with her parents. Her father is still alive, barely, but the mother whose name she didn’t even know has passed away, and to her great heartache, her childhood friend, Corgo, doesn’t want to know her. Some of the statements made by characters in Rooks of the Raven really drive home how heartless some of the privileged whites were, e.g. regarding the family burned alive: “What of it, father lacks strength to do anything right so I stepped in. More food for you darkies anyhow. Your welcome. My only regret is we should have taken off their shoes and clothes. How foolish of a waste am I wrong?” It’s comments like that regarding the clothes and shoes, and this very powerful simile Abel uses to describe white guests as they arrive for a fancy dinner - “Wealth stains their smiles” - that makes me suggest, as I did in the opening statements of this review, that you persevere in reading Rooks of the Raven. It’s definitely worth your time.