by Alice McGill; ill. by Chris K. Soentpiet
Houghton Mifflin, 1999
It’s November: time for Thanksgiving, along with all the stories and lessons that accompany it. My daughter came home from school yesterday with a drawing of the Mayflower; the local children’s librarian is displaying books about colonists and Native Americans.
July 4 may be our nation’s official birthday, but Thanksgiving, it seems, is when we look back to our deepest roots.
Most of the stories told at this time of year revolved around the Pilgrims and their flight from religious oppression. In recent years, it seems, the Native American side of the story has also entered the national Thanksgiving dialogue; at least, it has much more visibility than it did when I was a kid.
The story of America’s founding, however, is much more nuanced than the typical Thanksgiving stories suggest. The earliest settlers comprised more than just Pilgrims: they were also slaves, entrepreneurs, convicts, and opportunists. The Mayflower folks got along with their native neighbors, but plenty of other colonists and Native Americans didn’t.
And while almost all the settlers came in the name of God, many were far from godly in their conduct. The underlying assumption of colonialism–that simply being born a white European Christian gave a person the right to travel to an already-occupied land and take it over, by violence if necessary–is deeply troubling.
I want my daughter to understand all that, to look beyond Thanksgiving’s hallmark (or is it Hallmark?) narrative to the realities, both light and dark, of where the United States began. I also want her to hear and read the stories of the people that narrative often overlooks: Native Americans, the very earliest colonists, women, slaves.
Alice McGill and Chris K. Soentpiet’s Molly Bannaky is the kind of book that takes us one step closer to those goals. It’s the true story of the grandmother of Benjamin Banneker, a noted 18th-century scientist and mathematician who helped plan the city of Washington, D.C.
The story begins in 1683, when Molly is a dairymaid on an English lord’s estate. After being convicted of “stealing” for repeatedly spilling milk, she escapes the usual death sentence (yes, death sentence) by proving that she can read the Bible. At the court’s behest, she serves seven years as an indentured servant in the colony of Maryland; when her servitude (and sentence) end, she strikes out on her own as a tobacco farmer.
After she buys an African slave named Bannaky to help her with the overwhelming workload, the two end up falling in love. They marry, despite Colonial anti-miscegenation laws, and raise four children together. The story closes as Molly shares the gift of literacy with her grandson Benjamin.
One of the reasons I love this book is because it prompts nearly as many questions as it answers–and they’re big questions, about justice, freedom, and the nature of right and wrong. Why would a government execute someone for stealing? Why would someone who had been an indentured servant want to support slavery? Why did Colonial law forbid interracial marriage?
To me, this is precisely what picture books about difficult times and subjects are supposed to do: tell the essentials, plant the seed, make kids want to learn more and dig deeper.
That is inspiration enough, but of course there’s also Molly herself. How strong and brave does a 17-year-old serving girl have to be to stand up for herself before a 17th-century court of law? And then to travel alone, across the ocean, and survive seven years of back-breaking labor. Not to mention having the moxie to start her own tobacco farm and marry in defiance of the law.
What this story says to my daughter, I hope, is that a girl can be stronger than injustice. That she can make a life for herself and her family–not entirely alone, but definitely against the weight of social oppression. And that’s inspiration my daughter can communicate to others, as Molly did to her grandson, or hold for herself. Inspiration to encourage her to fight back against injustice not only in her own life, but in the lives of others.