cover image Miles' Song

Miles' Song

Alice McGill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $15 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-395-97938-9

McGill (Molly Bannaky) compellingly builds a 12-year-old's transformation from complacent house slave to potential runaway in her historical novel set on a South Carolina slave plantation in 1851. Miles finds his life upended when Master Tillery catches him with a book: ""Slaves caught looking in books on the Tillery Plantation risked being sold away or maybe even put to death."" Instead, Miles's surrogate mother, Mama Cee, forms an ""understanding"" with the mistress, who sends Miles to a ""breakin' ground"" to have his spirit broken by greedy overseers. The author deftly builds Miles's awakening through his exposure to this hard labor and cruelty. A newfound friendship with the educated Elijah fuels his growth; he teaches Miles to read through furtively spelling letters in the sand and on his palms. The characters and their connections to and reactions against one another as they betray or help the others heighten the novel's suspense. When Miles returns to the plantation, only his love for Mama Cee dampens his eager wait for Elijah's escape signal. By confining Miles's role to witness rather than actor, the author undercuts some of the drama of the events portrayed. However, the insights he's gained allow him--and readers--to see how the master fosters the caste system of house servants vs. field slaves to prevent rebellion. Ages 10-14. (Apr.)