Nightjohn Summary

Gary Paulsen

Nightjohn

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Nightjohn Summary

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Nightjohn, a young adult novel by Gary Paulsen (1993), takes place shortly before the Civil War on a Southern plantation. It tells the story of one slave’s mission to teach other slaves the illegal skill of reading.

The story is narrated by Sarny, a young girl slave. She lives on the Waller plantation. One day, she overhears the plantation owner’s wife complaining that her husband spent a lot of money on a new slave. She is intrigued, but does not inquire any further. The next day, she sees her master come back with a new slave attached to his horse cart.

Waller is a cruel master, and he has tied the slave naked to the horse cart and forced him to pull it by his neck. He has stripped him completely naked, and Sarny can see the whip marks on his back. She wonders why Waller would bother with a slave that is obviously so much trouble.

The slaves sleep in barracks, and that night Sarny hears the new slave, who is called John, call out asking if anyone has any tobacco to trade. She has tobacco in her pocket, but she does not understand what he could possibly have to trade since he came to the plantation without anything.

He tells her that he will trade her knowledge of letters, reading, and writing. This is a skill forbidden to slaves. Despite the danger, she agrees to this deal, and he begins to teach her. They meet in the middle of the night to go over letters and sounds by tracing them into the dirt. Because of these meetings, he earns the nickname, Nightjohn.

When Sarny’s caretaker, a slave named Mammy, overhears their lesson one night, she becomes enraged and attacks John. She demands to know why he is putting her in such danger. He tells her that he could not take the torture and abuse, so he escaped to the North years earlier where he learned to read and write. He was so grateful that he returned to the south to give this gift back to others still in slavery, teaching secretly at night and escaping before morning.

He was eventually caught again and sold back into slavery. This is how he came to be at the Waller plantation. He is still teaching slaves to read so their stories do not die with time. When he finishes this story, Mammy decides to let him continue to teach without interference.

One day, Sarny is scratching a word into the dirt when Waller sees it. He begins to beat her, demanding to know who has been teaching her. Sarny refuses to give up John, so he begins to beat Mammy as well. John steps forward and admits he taught Sarny, so that Waller will stop. Waller chops off two of his toes as punishment. John spends a few days recovering and then, in the middle of the night, slips away to escape back to the North.

Sarny believes that she will never see him again, but one night a few months later, he comes back for her. He takes her to a secret camp where he is still teaching slaves to read. The novel ends with the knowledge that John has returned and will continue to give hope and relief to slaves in the form of the liberating act of learning to read.

A significant theme of the book is the idea that reading and writing are keys to liberation, even when one is physically captive. John is so grateful that he was able to learn after he escaped that he willingly returned to a hostile environment, risking danger to himself, to give the gift to others who could not escape. He believed so strongly in the power of the written word that the only thought on his mind was teaching.

He could have stayed in the North and taught escaped slaves and free men, but he understood that part of the mental agony of slavery was isolation and dehumanization. Writing their stories and being able to read others’ might provide a reprieve, and help slaves document their experiences for the future. When it seemed there would be no future, words had the power to help others transcend their circumstances.

Another theme is the idea that one person can make a difference even if it seems small. John is a hero to those who learned to read through him. He might not be famous, or well known, but for Sarny, he has given her the gift of freedom in a small way. He understands what he must do with his life, and chooses to act against his self-interest to be a light for others. This kind of heroism is unusual in that it is quiet and goes unnoticed aside from the few people who are changed by it.

Nightjohn is a hopeful book in a dark situation. It is an example of the resilience of the human spirit and the power that knowledge can have in our lives even in the worst of times.