Saturday, May 23, 2015

What I Read in January Part II . . .

What I Read in January Part II . . .

The Poison Place by Mary E. Lyons -- Middle Grades Historical Fiction

The Poison PlaceThis is the story of Moses Williams, former slave to the famous colonial era artist Charles Willson Peale. Asa small child Moses grew up alongside Master Peale's eldest son Raffaele. The boys played together and got into mischief together. As they got older, Moses discovers what it means to be a slave. Peale, full of ideas but frequently broke, was a complicated master. He both hated slavery and owned slaves. He treated Moses kindly but never forgot the boy was a slave. As an adult, Moses was made to work with the dangerous poison arsenic that was used in taxidermy. He saw the effects of arsenic poisoning on his master and was determined to avoid the same fate. He worries about his former friend Raff, but can not speak for fear of losing his job.

This is a short but powerful novel. Of course I have heard of Charles Willson Peale and Rembrandt Peale but I didn't know anything about them or their lives. The story really illuminates the complexities of our history and how one could be against slavery but still own slaves. Peale wasn't portrayed very well in the novel. Of course he wouldn't be seen in a good light from the point-of-view of one of his former slaves. I didn't find his son Raffaele very appealing either, yet I felt sorry for him at times. I liked Moses but not always his voice. It was difficult at first to understand his dialect but fortunately the author uses it sparingly. He sounds like a real character and it was heartbreaking to look at his dates and know he only had a dozen years left to live, probably due to arsenic poisoning.

I especially love the author's use of primary source material and how she worked it into the story. The drawings, engravings, etc. all add to the authentic feel of the narrative. I wish she had included picture credits though. There's an excellent bibliography at the end. The book made me curious about the Peale family and the natural history museum.

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