The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part One: The Witnesses, by Sharon Ewell Foster, explores what it means to love others as yourself – or rather, how not to love others as yourself. When Harriet Beecher Stowe is asked by Frederick Douglass to retell the story of Nat Turner and the 1831 slave uprising in the small town of Cross Keys in southern Virginia, she balks. Having already received death threats, as well as a bounty on her head if she ever steps foot in a southern state after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, does not make her want to research the story. But as she hears stories from people who were there during the massacre, she starts to wonder if the “official” account of the matter tells the whole truth.
Whereas this book is a work of fiction, it uses historical figures like Stowe and Douglass to propel the story forward. Also, it is written about real people. Most of the named characters actually lived during the time the novel takes place. It is written from the third-person perspective, but comes from the viewpoints of multiple characters, some slave, some free. But every story revolves around what led up to the massacre, the uprising itself, its aftermath, and the summary trials and execution of many of the slaves involved, as well as possibly some who were not. Also, each story has its own section in the book. In fact, one could even read the book like a courtroom scene, each section being the testimony of that character, while Harriet and the reader act as judge and jury.
Six titular “witnesses” come to the stand, as it were: three slaves, Easter, Will, and Nancie (also known by her Ethiopian name, Nikahywot); and three slave owners, Sallie Travis, William Parker, and Nathaniel Francis. Easter, Will, and Nancie all show what led to the uprising, each story uncovering more and more corruption among slave owners and realistically telling what is was like to be a slave. Easter and Will have been slaves from birth, but Nancie was kidnapped from her home in Ethiopia and forced into slavery. Sallie Travis and William Parker are shown to be sympathetic characters, though both are slave owners. These two provide a balance that allows the reader to see into the mind of southern men and women before the Civil War and to understand what and how they thought. Nathaniel Francis is the main antagonist of the book, hating Nat Turner and treating his slaves like trash. He is shown to be the example of the majority of the slave owners.
Sharon Ewell Foster is one of the best writers I have found. Many authors can write believable characters, but the characters in The Witnesses come alive with every word. Every character is a real person to readers, not just words on the page. One can practically feel the hopeless resignation of Easter or the simmering murderous hatred of Will. Sallie’s perspective of living among white southern women is anthropologically brilliant, uncovering the layers of the society in which she lived. William Parker shows that not all the southern slave owners were despicable men, as he defends Nat Turner and other slaves in court, even going to the governor of Virginia in his quest for justice. Nathaniel Francis is portrayed as a true villain, not caring about the slaves he owns.
The most powerful description comes through the eyes of Nancie, the Ethiopian woman captured into slavery and the mother of Nat Turner. Through her eyes, the readers see and feel the exotic wonder of her culture. The readers behold the horror of her capture and enslavement, as though they were experiencing it themselves. And it is her surprisingly Christian perspective that uncovers the theme of the book. Nancie was an Ethiopian Christian before her capture, yet it is by Christians themselves that she is enslaved and abused. Throughout her story, the greatest and second greatest commandment are explored, especially the second one. In Matthew 22:39, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. He even describes who one’s neighbor is with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Nancie herself has to come to grips with the realization that, while she was free, she did not follow this commandment, and now as a slave, she finds the result of not loving others as herself.
Foster describes the lives of slaves realistically, but with dignity. One of the aspects of a female slave’s life has to deal with sexual abuse by the slave owners. While it is mentioned several times, Foster never actually lowers herself to giving graphic accounts of the abuse. Rather she uses the victim’s thoughts, feelings, and words afterward to show the impact it has on the slaves, how they were treated like property, rather than people deserving respect.
As a person who enjoys history, especially discovering the people involved in history, I found this book to be wonderfully detailed and vivid, bringing to life events I didn’t know about before reading it. Sharon Ewell Foster captured my imagination with her unforgettable writing and characters. I highly recommend this novel for anyone who loves history or even just enjoys reading a well-written book. – Nathan Sturgis, www.ChrsitianBookPreviews.com
In The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses, Sharon Ewell Foster embeds the struggle for social equality in a historical novel about the life of Nat Turner, an educated slave from Southampton County, Virginia. The whites persecute Nat Turner for preaching God’s Word against their sinful acts. In preaching to his fellow slaves, Turner claims that their masters have overlooked the message in Job 31:13-15, “ “If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me, what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?” Foster displays the harsh reality of social injustice while reminding readers that God’s Old Testament promise of deliverance remains relevant.
In the novel, Foster retells the account of Nat Turner through the eyes of seven witnesses. Through the personal narratives, Foster unfolds the conflict between the slaves and the white slave owners. Because Nat Turner’s first master, Benjamin Turner, educated him, the whites target Nat Turner, allowing him to be the focus of their abusive acts. The slave owners, however, are unaware of Nat Turner’s calling to be a modern-day Moses and deliver his people from the oppression of the whites. Eventually, Nat Turner organizes and leads a rebellion against the owners and their families.
Although writing a novel, Foster sticks to the factual account of Nat Turner’s life, embellishing the dialogue and description to move the story along and place the reader alongside the slaves as they suffer. The dates, people, and events are the same in history and the book. Foster’s description of slavery and use of dialogue, specifically Nat Turner’s sermons, help her recreate the life of Nat Turner, showing his weaknesses, rage, and revenge. These weaknesses, however, fuel his passion and desire to rid the world of hypocrites, whatever the cost. These writing techniques portray Nat Turner’s hatred for the social injustice that defines his race and contrast the hope of God with the desolate reality of enslavement.
Sharon Ewell Foster is brutally honest about the injustice of slavery and the horrendous fact that it was tolerated and encouraged by Christians. She does not sugarcoat the truth; therefore, readers who want an enjoyable, upbeat book should look elsewhere. In The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses, Foster uncovers the truth about social inequality, the slaves’ struggle for justice, and the slave owners’ inevitable judgment. At the end of the novel, my heart was broken from the blatant sin of the slave masters and the violent acts of the slaves, but a sense of hope remained: God still delivers and fights for equality. We should, too. – Sarah Clark, www.ChristianBookPreviews.com
The truth has been buried more than one hundred years . . .
Leading a small army of slaves, Nat Turner was a man born with a mission: to set the captives free. When words failed, he ignited an uprising that left over fifty whites dead. In the predawn hours of August 22, 1831, Nat Turner stormed into history with a Bible in one hand, brandishing a sword in the other. His rebellion shined a national spotlight on slavery and the state of Virginia and divided a nation's trust. Turner himself became a lightning rod for abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and a terror and secret shame for slave owners.
In The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses, Nat Turner's story is revealed through the eyes and minds of slaves and masters, friends and foes. In their words is the truth of the mystery and conspiracy of Nat Turner's life, death, and confession.
The Resurrection of Nat Turner spans more than sixty years, sweeping from the majestic highlands of Ethiopia to the towns of Cross Keys and Jerusalem in Southampton County. Using extensive research, Sharon Ewell Foster breaks hallowed ground in this epic novel, revealing long-buried secrets about this tragic hero.