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Nat Turner’s Stolen Book

The Confessions of Nat Turner is a heavy novel.

But one of William Styron’s strengths is balancing that heaviness with light humor or just observations on the normal day-to-day lives of slaves in the 1800s.

Styron uses flashbacks to show how some events—such as Nat Turner witnessing his mother getting raped by a plantation manager —affected him throughout his life. He shows Nat’s desire to educate himself, despite the enormous obstacles in his way.

Even as a child, Nat Turner was extremely smart, risking a lot for a small pleasure so many of us take for granted—just the opportunity to “read” a book.

In Samuel Turner’s library, where my mother had gone to fetch a new silver ladle for the kitchen, the books had been locked up behind wire, row after row of lustrous leather-swaddled volumes imprisoned as in a cage. On the morning I accompanied her there, I lingered long enough to be captured by the sight of two volumes, almost exactly alike in size and shape, lying together on a table. Opening one of them, seeing that it was aswarm with words, I was seized with the old queasy excitement in my guts, and fright clashed with my greedy desire. My yearning worn out, however, so that later that I crept back to the library and kept the book, covering with a flour sack and leaving behind its companion—something which I later learned was called Grace Abounding. Just as I had expected, and to my wild anxiety, the fact that the book was missing was gossiped throughout the house. Yet I was not alarmed as I might have been, since I think I must have instinctively reasoned that although white people will rightly suspect a nigger of taking almost anything that is not nailed down, they would certainly not suspect him of taking a book.

Little Nat Turner’s entire experience of “literature” to that point in his life had been reading the labels on sides of jars in a kitchen cellar. Labels like, “Sugar, “Salt” and “Molasses.”

This library adventure reveals so much about a young, impressionable Nat Turner—a lot of it revealed in that final sentence of the passage. This was a world in which no one would ever expect a black man, much less a black child, to steal a book.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is a winner so far.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree you are spot on , I am reading this now.


    October 9, 2014
  2. The only Styron I ever read was Sophie’s Choice and it struck me that he was a very erudite person trying to impress with his vocabulary. Or maybe just enjoying the power of words, I’m not sure. Maybe one day I’ll attempt this book.


    October 9, 2014

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