A powerful and impactful dramatisation of a real life story that should be required reading for every child and adult.
‘Everyting is dangerous here, Moa. Even living ‘til de next day.
The line above from chapter two of Cane Warriors effectively sums up life for fourteen year old Moa and the rest of the slaves on the Jamaican Frontier sugar plantation. The work is brutal and the punishments worse. It’s not, therefore, surprising that so many men are willing to risk everything and follow fellow slave and charismatic leader, Tacky, to fight for their freedom and that of the enslaved population on nearby plantations. Moa is the youngest but he’s willing to shoulder his share, even when that means taking up his billhook and killing the white men.
Although there is little in this book that I didn’t already know about slavery, the difference between reading a dusty school textbook (my schooldays were before the internet) and reading a perfectly crafted dramatised novel is striking. This book vividly exposes the full horror of slavery through powerful descriptions and carefully researched details. As I read the opening chapters, I could almost feel the Jamaican heat and the ache in Moa’s back from seemingly endless hours hacking cane. I winced as overseer, Misser Donaldson, twirled his backripper and my stomach rumbled in sympathy as Moa scraped every last drop of cornmeal into his mouth in the knowledge it would be six hours before the piece of salted pork and scrap of bread that would be his next meal.
The terrifyingly real setting is accompanied by powerful characterisation. While we stay with Moa’s narration throughout, I found myself equally moved by the plight of many of the supporting characters. Moa’s father’s warning not to get involved in the rebellion – and his threat to tell – has particular resonance given the appalling injuries he has sustained (the machine he works is still stained with his blood). And, a week after finishing this book, I am still haunted by eleven-year old Hamaya’s pleas to take her away because the white men have already begun to notice her.
As a true story, the plot is constrained by real-life events but it works well as a novel. Although I knew nothing of the true events of Tacky’s War in Jamaica, I was guessing things weren’t going to work out for our cane warriors. This was, after all, 1760. I couldn’t, however, help cheering them on at every stage. I was wondering how author, Alex Wheatle, would manage to structure the end given the book is told from Moa’s first person viewpoint. The conclusion is clever given the circumstances and works well, ensuring a realistic yet not totally downbeat ending (a mean feat given the subject matter!)
I’d like to be able to recommend another equally good fictional account of slavery but the only one I’ve yet read is classic, The Colour Purple by Toni Morrison. I can, however, recommend Alex Wheatle’s other books and there’s a review on this site of one of his shorter stories, written for Barrington Stoke – Kerb Stain Boys: The Crongton Broadway Robbery by Alex Wheatle. Alternatively, if you’re looking for another impactful book that includes issues of race, I’d wholeheartedly recommend you read Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence.
Publication Date: October 2020
Publisher: Andersen Press