ROBERT SEIGEL, host:
Here's today's installment of our summer reading series: You Must Read This. It's from science fiction Writer, Steven Barnes.
Mr. STEVEN BARNES (Science Fiction Writer): Walter Mosley's 47, tells the tale of a 14-year-old slave in the old South. Not terribly typical subject matter for a summer read, but 47 is taut, hypnotic, fascinating and deeply moving. Mosley, the creator of the best-selling Easy Rawlings mysteries, has accomplished something remarkable here: He used the struggles of one frightened, lonely boy to represent the common yearning for meaning, freedom of thought, and expression common to all human beings.
47, named after the eponymous slave at the center of the story, is gripping from its opening pages, a first-person narrative of loss, hope, shattered dreams and small victories. The tale becomes both fantastic and allegorical when a mysterious, omniscient runaway slave shows up at the plantation: Tall John, who carries a yellow carpet bag of healing potions, impossible devices, and something even more revolutionary: the belief that there are no masters and no slaves.
Tall John, you see, is a visitor from another planet in one of those galaxies far, far away. Claiming to have crossed centuries and light-years in his travels. He says that he and his kind have been embroiled in a battle against evil aliens known as the Calash. By delicious coincidence, 47's cruel slave master and overseer are both Calash in disguise, and must be defeated to save all civilized creation.
That opening gambit merely triggers a whirlwind tale of time travel, shape-shifting, and intergalactic intrigue, but also opens a chapter of America's past that most of us would rather forget about. Mosley's brilliance lies in placing historical realities within a fantastic setting. Surely, we think, real human beings would not treat each other in such a horrific fashion. But just as we reach the limits of our endurance, along comes another flight of fantasy, and suddenly we relax, remembering this is all merely make-believe.
Forty-seven is simply told. Some would say it's written at the young-adult level, but while offering an uncommon and remarkably original coming-of-age story, 47 deals with adult themes and images that give it a real kick, fast, easy reading that weaves its storytelling magic with deceptive grace. We all, young, old, black, white, need to find the hero within us, to fight against oppression and cruelty, to believe in ourselves, even if the world tells us that we cannot attain our dreams or worse, that we do not deserve dreams at all.
Ultimately, Tall John becomes 47's alter ego until one suspects that the book is the escapist fantasy of an extraordinarily intelligent and creative boy in drastically limited circumstances. But that would transform 47 from a tale of heroes and victory into a psycho tragedy. And for all its dark implications, 47 is upbeat, inspiring, deceptively complex and, on occasion, hysterically funny.
Do yourself a favor: stuff a copy of 47 into your beach bag, then let yourself fly away to a world that now exists only in the memories of historians and the imagination of artists, like Walter Mosley.
SEIGEL: Author Steven Barnes is a science fiction writer and the author of Lion's Blood and Great Sky Woman. He lives in California. David Lipsky, Curtis Siddenfeld, and others have told us about their favorite books on You Must Read This, and you can find their essays and get reading suggestions all summer long at our website, npr.org.
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