Jupiter Williams by S I Martin
|Jupiter Williams by S I Martin|
|Genre: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Fabulous novel about a little known aspect of nineteenth century London - its black population. It's a journey of discovery for Jupiter, who is a horrible little snob, but somehow an endearingly unreliable narrator. The true heroes are his brothers, if only he knew it. Great stuff.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: October 2007|
|Publisher: Hodder Children's Books|
Jupiter Williams and his brother Robert attend the African Academy in Clapham. It's 1803 and the campaign against the slave trade is gathering momentum. Jupiter's own family has fought its way out of slavery in the Americas and gone through Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, home of an African diaspora and an emerging merchant class. Jupiter's father is one of that class.
Life at the Academy isn't particularly pleasant - it's like many a boarding school of its time. The food is awful, the masters' chastisements are violent. But it is, nonetheless, a life of privilege. Beyond the village of Clapham - for such it was then - lies the Thames and the slums of London. Life for the black communities in these areas make Jupiter's life look like one of ease. So when his brother Robert disappears, possibly captured by highwaymen, possibly in the company of a shady-looking man who has been hanging about, Jupiter has no choice but to try to rescue him.
I really did enjoy Jupiter Williams. It's exciting and tense and it brings early nineteenth century London to life in a vivid, earthy and very realistic way. This is a book where politics are important not for dates and facts, but for impact on credible, believable lives. There is a great deal of violence - both in the relatively privileged setting of the African Academy and among the poor black communities struggling for survival in the deprived areas along the Thames. Suddenly, the "plastic" violence in the high-octane thrillers currently popular with children seems rather offensive, when set against the everyday violence encountered for real by these people of history. It struck me very forcefully, and I think it will have a similar impact on its intended readership.
Jupiter himself is in some ways a terribly comic character. He's pompous and snobby and he gets a lot of things wrong. But it's not surprising. In some ways, Jupiter is superior in social standing - he comes from a wealthy Sierra Leonean family and he feels like a person of privilege. But of course, he is also the victim of both passive and active racism, and as soon as his wealth is taken away, he falls to the bottom of the pile with the rest of London's dispossessed, black and white alike. And in this world, family and sect loyalty can stand for a great deal.
In trying to maintain some degree of dignity and superiority, Jupiter misses a great deal that's important - not the least of which is heroic behaviour from both his brothers. But his heart is in the right place and his pride in his roots is rather inspirational. By giving us this sympathetic but unreliable narrator, Martin has cleverly made Jupiter's education the reader's education also. I thought this was a great way to approach it.
Super stuff, and it's made me want to find out more.
My thanks to the nice people at Hodder for sending the book. Children interested in black history shouldn't miss the Mildred D Taylor classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
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