One of my New Year resolutions: to find people whose stories haven’t been told.
Whose stories do we get to hear? Usually, it’s the stories of the people in power. There’s a good reason for that: their stories are memorialized in documentary evidence. Historians can examine papers and books and stitch together stories. The problem is, that leaves out the stories of most of humanity. So is it possible to tell the stories of the dispossessed, of those who lost the wars, those who were ignored in their lifetime?
Historians (like Jennifer Nez Denetdale) are beginning to use oral histories and folktales to illuminate the past. But there is a danger that their carefully-explained process may begin to transform universities and colleges but somehow skip the youngest readers. In Lift Your Light a Little Higher, Heather Henson tackles the problem head-on. In it, she tells the story of Stephen Bishop, the nineteenth century slave who was the first to extensively explore Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. She acknowledges in the back matter:
In reality, not much is known about Stephen as a person. And so in this book, I tried to imagine his life inside the cave from a few written descriptions, from a few facts.
From the beginning, the narrative is organized around the idea that understanding the past is like trying to find a path through a dark cave:
The past is like a cave sometimes. Dim and dusty, and full of twisting ways. Not an easy thing to journey down. ‘Specially when you’re searching out a path that’s hardly been lit, a trail that’s never been smooth or flat or plain to follow.
This book, about a man who has been dead for more than 150 years, is written in first person present tense:
The color of my skin is black. The name I’m called is Guide. My home is in Kentucky.
Henson uses the first person narration to set up a conversational back-and-forth that allows her to insert historical explanations where they’re needed:
What’s that? You take a stumble already? You got a question so soon? Why? Is that what you want to know? Why is it against the law to teach me my letters? Because I am a slave. Because I am the property of a white man.
The book never uses invented dialogue, but the first person narrator perhaps moves it out of the strict nonfiction category. Nonetheless, it succeeded admirably in telling children, in an accessible, properly scaffolded way, the moving story of a historical character, using the few written records and facts that have survived. Its lyrical voice verged on poetry.
Bryan Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations capture the darkness of the cave and the excitement of exploration, as well as the dignity of a brave slave-explorer.
Check out this interview where Henson talks about why she chose to write in first person here.
Lift Your Light a Little Higher, The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heathern Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Atheneum 2016.