Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs

Written by Mary E. Lyons
Review by Dana Cohlmeyer

Having reworked the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs (escaped slave turned abolitionist and once as famous as Frederick Douglass) in Letters From a Slave Girl, award-winning author Mary E. Lyons turns her pen to telling the story of Harriet’s son, Joseph. Beginning in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1839, Joseph secretly writes letters to his recently-escaped mother and others who are lost to him sharing the day-to-day details of his life. He soon learns hard lessons as his white friend, Josiah, is forbidden to see Joseph. Slowly realizing the stark reality of the world he inhabits, Joseph dreams of life with his mother up north.

Lyons’s poignant handling of such emotional material is masterful. Readers are drawn into the drama of Joseph’s life and kept on tenterhooks wondering what crisis or adventure the next letter will bring. Imagining Joseph’s thoughts based on the scant letters and writings that survive, Lyons manages to convey the fear and uncertainty as well as the quiet dignity the Jacobs family embodied. At times both sad and humorous, Letters From a Slave Boy (as well as Letters From a Slave Girl) is an intriguing addition to the world of African-American fiction for young people, with its portrayal of fighting against all odds, and is highly recommended.