Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006


By Walter Mosley

2005, $16.99 , ISBN 0316110353
Reviewed by Rick Triplett

“Neither nigger nor master be.”

This advice, from the mythic co-protagonist Tall John, of Walter Mosley’s short novel, isn’t merely good advice. It defines everything he does, everything he stands for; it is a principle—not just a platitude, but a fundamental, practical, life-changing principle. When Forty-seven, the other protagonist, first hears it he has no notion what it means. He likes the sound of it, but it takes time and many life-lessons before it fully soaks into him.

As a libertarian I like this principle, too. It is a folksy way of stating our basic view of ethics: equal rights. It is equivalent to Jefferson’s statement,

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

Inspired by the American slave tale of High John the Conqueror, Mosley has written a sci-fi adventure that educates and edifies. Under the confident, steady, and optimistic tutelage of a traveler from the stars, a young slave in 1832—given the number cum name Forty-seven—is introduced to the work regimen of his plantation, meets good and bad slaves and good and bad whites, suffers, loves, learns, discovers hope, beauty, and goodness—but most of all discovers and falls in love with freedom:

The truth was dawning on both of us. We were free. Free to do what we wanted to do. Freedom—what every slave dreamed about from morning to night and from night to morning, every day of their lives....

In the distance dogs were howling and the smell of smoke was in the air but we didn’t care about all of that. We were free under the pale blue morning skies. Even if they caught us and hung us from the tree we hid behind we still had the greatest treasure in the world.

Mosely is an accomplished writer, but he is not a libertarian (see for a sample of his liberal politics), yet the case could be made that his novel is. I make this claim based on four points.

(1) His equal rights statement, the first line of this review, is the predominant ethic of the novel. At every turn of events, Tall John and (eventually) Forty-seven make choices based not on hatred, vengeance, reparations, or expedience, but on the hopeful and good-hearted construction of something good.

(2) He keeps his liberal views in check. There is no politics in this novel! This must have been difficult for Mosley, but apparently he wanted to create a story that was timeless and inspiring, rather than just a commentary on our times; and several reviewers on the jacket have indeed describe 47 this way. He does bring up Plato —“You carry within you the potential of what farty old Plato called the philosopher-king.”—but calling him “farty” suggests that Tall John was complimenting Forty-seven’s thoughtfulness, not recommending an aristocracy.

(3) Tall John does not rely on mysticism. Although he makes overtures to Idealism or Epiphenomenalism with his depiction of mind existing independently of the body, this view is not critical to the agenda of freedom. Moreover, he seems to be saluting the laws of physics when he says “I have no master, Forty-seven. No master but the power that keeps my feet on the ground.”

(4) Individualism and the power of one’s mind are honored:

“I know who I am,” I said.

“Not if you call yourself nigger,” he said.

“You notice things and you don’t only notice but you ask why. Those are only two of the reasons why you are destined to become a great hero.”

“You, Forty-seven. You are the promise. Your blood is capable of great power, your heart is free from hatred, and your mind dares to consider new ways.”

Mosley believes we can be inspired by our dreams, and this is, of course, one of the reasons we in LFS give awards; we understand the power of drama to inspire. And although his novel can and will be read and enjoyed by adults of any age, he apparently adjusted his writing style for a “young adult” audience. He clearly has more respect for the flexibility of children than of adults:

Children resist slavery better than grown men and women because children believe in dreams. I dreamed of lazy days in the barn and stolen spoonfuls of honey from the table ... And being a child, I thought that my dreams just might one day come true.

I appreciated her gratitude but there was something else that was even more important to me. I really had saved her life. I had used my mind and my courage to brave Death and Master Tobias to do what I thought was right. These actions made me a man, and a real man, I knew, couldn’t be a slave.”

From that moment on I never thought of myself as a slave again.

But none of that mattered because there I was, alone in the woods with the most wonderful person I had ever known. When he looked at me he liked my black skin and dusty hair, he thought that I was a hero and who was I to say no?

Mosley’s 47 is a powerfully moving tale. The reader comes out of it with a renewed appreciation for freedom. Readers won’t automatically conclude that taxation, regulation, etc. are forms of slavery. But a refreshed admiration for the concept of equal rights, of not wanting to rule or to be ruled, is both welcome and likely.

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