The Letter Writer

Written by Ann Rinaldi
Review by Kristina Blank Makansi

Popular YA historical novelist Rinaldi has a go at imagining what it was like to be in the middle of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a bloody insurrection that startled the Virginia countryside in the summer of 1831. Eleven-year-old Harriet is the narrator and letter writer of the title. Born outside wedlock and living discontentedly with her missing father’s legitimate family, she is pressed into the service of writing letters for her almost blind stepmother. When the slave Nat Turner is hired to do some work at her plantation, Harriet is drawn to the gentle, mystic preacher and his kindness. He enlists her help in something she knows is forbidden: copying a map of the surrounding countryside so that, he says, he can find his way while preaching the word of God. This makes her an unwitting accomplice in the bloody uprising that follows. Harriet learns, too late, that her despised stepbrother would have laid down his life for her. She goes on, as her family’s survivor, to run the plantation until her father’s return.

Rinaldi tells her grim story of a young person becoming overwhelmed by the events of her time with fast-paced chapters that are unfortunately marred by very informal dialogue and too frequent anachronisms (Christmas trees and pajamas before they were popular in America, and wince-inducing “can I go with you,” “I kind of like Papa,” and “as the only grown-up around here…”).Young people deserve better and more carefully rendered historical novels.