Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: Celia, A Slave by Melton A. McLaurin

Celia, A Slave: A True Story by Melton A. McLaurin
Genre: Non-Fiction History
Pages: 178
Date Published: 1991 (I read a 1999 printing)
Publisher: Avon Books
Source: I purchased this book.
Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Book Description (from the publisher):
Celia was an ordinary slave--until she struck back at her abusive master and became the defendant in a landmark trial that threatened to undermine the very foundations of the South's "Peculiar Institution."
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Celia, A Slave by Melton McLaurin focuses on the trial of a 19-year-old slave in Missouri, charged with the murder of her master in 1855. It examines the politics of slavery (Kansas was being fought over by pro- and anti-slavery groups at the time) and patriarchy in the slave south, and I thought it was fascinating. One of the reasons I thought it was so good was because it takes a small, local event and relates it to the larger issues of the day. Doing this provides the reader with a better understanding of how these larger issues and trends affected people on a personal and individual level--the same reason I like reading autobiographies as well. It was also interesting to read about a woman who fought back against her abusive master in the South.

I assigned this book to my US History Survey course in the spring quarter (2010) because I liked the connections between the political currents of the day and this woman's experience as a slave accused of murder. I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of my students to the book. Sure, some were bored (that first chapter could be a bit too detailed in conveying background information) but for the most part they thought the case was interesting. We had some great discussion in class about it, from the debate over the laws (Celia's lawyers argued that laws protecting women should apply to slave women as well as white women) to questions regarding what choices Celia had to protect herself and her children in her position.

The middle parts of the book were the most engrossing, when the case and the events surrounding the case were discussed. The first and last chapters were a bit slower, as they go into background information on the owner and then a short analysis of how the event fits in with recent scholarship on slavery. But those chapters really ground the story in the wider political currents of the day. Celia, A Slave is quite readable for a scholarly work, and was short enough to keep most of my students' attention (right around 150 pages). I thought it was well done and will probably use this book again in my US History Survey courses, as part of a rotation of books (which includes Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl). I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about what life was like for women in slavery.

**I noticed that this review gets a lot of search engine hits and I can only assume that students are looking for more information on a book they have to read or write about for a class. If this is you, don't copy and paste my information into your paper. It is plagiarism and it is super easy to find this review just by plugging a sentence of it into Google, so don't think you won't get caught. Sure, use my review to help you brainstorm things to write about, but if you use my ideas please cite them properly and include this review in your bibliography. And if you think I've said something so absolutely beautifully that you must quote me, use quotation marks and give me credit. Thank you!

Related Linkage:
Reading Challenges: POC Reading Challenge, Women Unbound


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