A mix of historical and science fiction, American author Walter Mosley’s first book for young adults, 47
(2005), tells the story of a young teenage slave boy, known only as Forty-seven, whose life changes when he meets a mysterious runaway slave Tall John. Over the course of the novel, Forty-seven comes of age, gaining self-awareness and a deeper understanding of the meaning of freedom.
From a point in the distant future, Forty-seven narrates the story of his youth as a slave on the Corinthian Plantation in Georgia in 1832. Forty-seven, “most likely about fourteen,” is owned by Master Tobias Turner. He has no name, just the number Master Tobias gave him that once belonged to another slave who was “put down.”
Forty-seven’s mother, a slave named Psalma, died giving birth to him and he doesn’t know his father. As a young “babychile” Forty-seven grows up under the protection of Big Mama Flore. Honoring his dead wife’s wishes, Master Tobias allows Forty-seven to stay with Mama Flore until he is big enough to move to the slave quarters and work in the cotton fields. Forty-seven lives in the barn, feeding and grooming the horses and admiring Eloise, Master Tobias’s pale, red-headed daughter, from afar. Eventually, Master Tobias places him under the supervision of the evil overseer, Mr. Stewart.
Mama Flore enlists the help of two friends, Mud Albert, the oldest slave on the property, and Champ Nolan, the strongest, to look out for Forty-seven. In the slave cabins, men are crowded two to a bunk and chained to the floor at night. Pritchard, a crippled, cruel slave, brands Forty-seven’s number on his shoulder. Forty-seven picks cotton in the fields with Eighty-four, a tough, regal slave girl. His hands are cut and bloodied.
When Twelve, a slave named Ned, dies, Mister Tobias gives a callous eulogy at the burial service in the slave graveyard. Mr. Pike, a neighboring slaveowner, arrives on horseback, looking for a runaway, but doesn’t find him. Shaken by Mister Tobias’s disrespect of the dead and by his own rebellious thoughts, Forty-seven runs into the woods. He recognizes this as the beginning of his “transition from childhood to maturity.” Forty-seven meets Tall John. They are about the same age, and Forty-seven immediately feels that he has always known him. John says he has “found” Forty-seven, at last, telling him that he is special and destined to save the world. They encounter Master Tobias and his bloodhounds on the forest path.
Master Tobias claims John as a new slave, giving him dead Ned’s number, Twelve. John gets along well with the other slaves, laughing and joking, but Forty-seven notices that John hides his true nature from most people, speaking one way to white people, another way to slaves, and another way to him when they are alone. Mud Albert wonders if John is High John the Conqueror, a trickster god from Africa come to free the slaves and bring them home.
John tells Forty-seven that he must be neither a master nor a slave, stating that no one owns anything except his or her own mind. Forty-seven asserts that he knows who he is, but John disagrees, saying Forty-seven cannot know himself as long as he thinks he is a slave. “Nobody can give you freedom. All freedom is, is you.” He informs Forty-seven that he is from the planet Elle and has been searching for Forty-seven for 3,000 years. John heals Forty-seven’s injured hands with strange medicines from his yellow bag.
When Eloise becomes sick, John offers to heal her. He and Forty-seven search for medicinal plants. John shows Forty-seven a vision of his planet. He describes the evil Calash, who want to tear open the fabric of the world to feast on the energy of the God-Mind. An evil Calash named Wall is on earth in the body of Mr. Pike, searching for a green powder that will destroy the world. John heals Eloise and Forty-seven brings her literally back from death. Forty-seven knows that act “made him a man,” saying, “from that moment on I never thought of myself as a slave again.”
Tobias, however, angrily claiming God healed Eloise, orders Mr. Stewart to take the two boys to the Tomb—a hotbox where he punishes slaves without permanently damaging them. John is already weakened from healing Eloise, but he and Forty-seven survive the heat thanks to some supplies Eighty-four brings them. When the hotbox is opened, Master Tobias has the entire slave population gathered to watch as the two are lashed. Mama Flore protests and is gravely injured. Mud Albert is shot dead trying to protect her, and Champ Nolan is beaten up going to their defense. John is taken to Mr. Stewart’s killin’ shack.
Eighty-four and Forty-seven kill Mr. Stewart and rescue John. John gives Forty-seven the child of his “cha,” a spirit of his power and knowledge that will grow within Forty-seven. They return to the plantation to find that Mama Flore is dying, and Mr. Stewart has been resurrected by Wall as a ghoul. Wall, in the body of Mr. Pike, attacks the plantation with a group of men, killing Master Tobias in the melee. Forty-seven releases the other slaves, frees Champ from the hotbox, and saves Eloise and her half-sister, Nola, from Mr. Stewart. John cures Mama Flore and Champ. Together Forty-seven and John hurry to John’s buried spaceship where Wall is removing a key component to use in his evil deeds.
Battling Wall, John sacrifices himself to give Forty-seven time to prepare for Wall’s final attack in the future. He tells Forty-seven, “Think of me and I will be there.” Forty-seven takes up John’s yellow bag. He knows that John is alive in his heart, and “Nothing is ever truly gone from the world.” Together Forty-seven, Champ, Eighty-Four, Mama Flore, and Nola make it to freedom in Canada.