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Brave Music of a Distant Drum by M. Herbstein

Herbstein, Manu. Brave Music of a Distant Drum. Red Deer, AB: Red Deer Press. 2012. Print. 

A young African-American man, Zachariah Wiliams, comes to visit his mother, who has been enslaved all her adult life. He, too, is a slave, but views his Brazilian owners as benevolent Christians, who have taught him how to read and write, gave him some pay for his bookkeeping work, and have promised to set him free in the coming years. He is reticent to meet with his mother who has never converted to Christianity, and with whom he is not close; she calls him by the name Kwame Zumbi, and she is uninterested in his successes working for his owners. She has asked him to smuggle some paper from his office, for she is going to tell a story she wishes him to write down for his own daughter to read when she is older.

Ama's story is brutal in a way that is familiar to many readers, but not predictable. She tells of a failed rebellion on the slave ship, the beatings and sexual assaults that were a part of her everyday life, and of her love for Tomba, Zacharias' father. She writes of her intimacy with the daughter of her owners, emphasizing the strangeness of a girl who attempts to treat Ama well as a slave, but who does not truly want Ama to have her freedom. Although Ama has some momentary victories against people involved in the slave trade, she is never ultimately free. The novel does not attempt to fulfill a reader's hope for Ama's emancipation, and in this way, is more realistic than some fictional narratives of slavery in the Americas; it also avoids 'containing' the issue of slavery by ending with an individual's escape. This makes for a difficult, but strong novel.

This young adult novel is based on author Herbstein's earlier historical novel for adults, Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Herbstein has made an unusual move here, revising the original novel for a younger audience, and has made thoughtful choices in doing so. He has shortened the story significantly, skimming over much of Ama's experiences that take place between her kidnapping in her village, and her forced placement on a slave ship headed for Brazil. (He skillfully explains this change as the limited amount of paper that Zachariah been able to procure; Ama wishes to retain only the details of her brutal enslavement in Brazil.) Herbstein's use of shifting first-person perspective, alternating between Ama and Zacharias, efficiently conveys Ama's blunt telling with her son's change from disbelief to anger at the injustice she has endured—an injustice that implicates his Brazilian owners. Brave Music of a Distant Drum is a brutal, thoughtful, well-written book that would be excellent for teenage readers.

Recommended: 4 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Allison Sivak

Allison Sivak is the Public Services Librarian at the University of Alberta Libraries. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Library and Information Studies and Elementary Education, focusing on how the aesthetics of information design influence young people’s trust in the credibility of information content.