Nightjohn is a young adult historical fiction novel written by Gary Paulsen. The story is told from the perspective of a young slave girl, as she faces the cruelty of life as a slave and learns to read and write. It was published in 1993 and adapted into a Disney Channel TV film of the same name in 1996. The idea for the novel was born when Paulsen began to research Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson, and found stories of slaves who were violently punished for learning to read. Paulsen dedicates the novel to Sally and includes a note detailing that the novel’s events are based on true stories.
This guide is based on the 1995 edition of the novel.
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Content Warning: Nightjohn includes sensitive material, such as mentions of sexual assault and violence.
The SuperSummary difference
Sarny, a 12-year-old slave living on the Waller plantation, describes her life before Nightjohn arrived. She was raised by Mammy, the woman who takes care of all the slave children. Sarny’s biological mother was sold when Sarny was young, so she does not remember much about her. Sarny’s situation is not unique; none of the children have close relationships with their mothers, as the women are used as “breeders” and then sent to work in the fields. Sarny helps Mammy with the day’s chores, and as she goes about her work, she listens and observes. At the end of the day, she reviews the information she collected and mentally adds it to knowledge she accumulated on previous days. Clel Waller is the plantation owner, and he is cruel and hated by the slaves. Mammy counsels Sarny to avoid trouble with Waller by telling her to hide a penny she finds, as slaves are not allowed to have money. Mammy herself is careful about hiding her prayers from Waller, as praying is also forbidden for slaves.
One day, Sarny overhears the master’s wife and her sister talking about a new field hand whom Waller bought for $1,000. The new hand’s name is John, but Sarny also calls him by the nickname Nightjohn. The day Nightjohn arrives, he is in poor physical condition. Waller forces him to walk several miles, naked, tied to a horse’s saddle by a rope around his neck. When Sarny first sees Nightjohn, she is struck by the layers of scars crossing his back from past whippings and wonders why Waller would buy a slave who clearly caused trouble in the past. She also notices his beautiful black skin, which is darker than her own brown skin.
On Nightjohn’s first night at the plantation, he asks if anyone has tobacco, saying he’s willing to make a trade. Sarny has tobacco leaves in her pocket but is skeptical of his offer, as she saw him arrive completely empty-handed. Nightjohn explains that he can exchange knowledge—letters of the alphabet—for the tobacco, and Sarny verifies his ability to read before agreeing to the trade. He teaches Sarny the letter “A,” and all night, her mind buzzes with new knowledge.
Sarny’s lessons with Nightjohn pause temporarily when a slave named Alice attempts to run away and is chased and viciously attacked by Waller’s dogs. Sarny helps Mammy tend to Alice’s wounds. She explains that Alice has amental illness, and that she chose to run away after being forced against her will to be a breeder. Alice was also severely whipped in front of the other slaves for wandering near the master’s white house, which preceded her escape attempt. Sarny reveals that a few other slaves attempted to leave the plantation, but no one has ever escaped successfully. After helping Mammy with Alice, Sarny continues her lessons with Nightjohn. While learning the letter “B,” Sarny and Nightjohn are interrupted by Mammy, who is initially angry that he is teaching the girl to read. She worries for Sarny’s safety, but Nightjohn explains that literacy is the only hope for a better life for slaves. He explains that he escaped to the north in the past but returned to the south to teach reading and writing and was caught. Mammy is shocked that he would willingly leave freedom and seems to change her mind about Sarny learning to read.
Before long, Sarny knows the letters A-G and learns to combine letters to form words. She can’t help her excitement, and one day, Waller catches her writing “bag” in the dirt (61). He punches and kicks her, but she refuses to admit she’s been learning to write. Waller takes Mammy from the slave quarters and shackles her to the spring house wall—the typical site for whipping. He leaves her there all day, so the other slaves can watch her punishment when they return from the fields. Instead of whipping Mammy, Waller forces her to wear a horse harness and pull him in a buggy, whipping her to make her move faster. Nightjohn comes forward and admits to teaching Sarny to read. As punishment, Waller cuts off the middle toes of Nightjohn’s feet and reminds all the slaves that this is the legal punishment for knowing how to read and write.
After a few days of recovery, Nightjohn runs away, but he promises Sarny that he will return. When Waller returns empty-handed a few days later, Sarny and Mammy rejoice; Nightjohn escaped. In Nightjohn’s absence, Sarny continues to review the letters he taught her (A-J) and combines them to make every word she can think of. Seasons pass, and Sarny gets her period. She hides it, knowing she will be sent to the breeding shed and forced to “mate” upon discovery.
One winter night, Nightjohn appears in the slave quarters. He leads Sarny into the forest to a ditch covered with thick brush. Seven people are gathered there for school by the light of pitch torches. Nightjohn produces a catalogue, and Sarny starts to cry as she reads her first word on print: bag. Since Sarny knows more letters than the others, she helps Nightjohn teach the others.
By Gary Paulsen