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Mosley's Intergalactic Coming-of-Age Tale: '47'

by Steven Barnes
Jul 6, 2006 (All Things Considered)

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Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.

Walter Mosley's 47 tells the tale of a 14-year-old slave in the antebellum South. It's not the typical subject matter for a summer read, but 47 is taut, hypnotic, fascinating and deeply moving. Mosley, the creator of the best-selling Easy Rawlings mysteries, has accomplished something remarkable here: He used the struggles of one frightened boy to represent the yearning for meaning and freedom of expression common to all human beings.

47, named after the eponymous slave at the center of the story, is gripping from the opening scene, a first-person narrative of loss, hope, shattered dreams and small victories. The tale becomes both fantastic and allegorical when a mysterious, omniscient runaway shows up at the plantation: Tall John, who carries a yellow carpet bag of healing potions, impossible devices and something even more revolutionary: the belief that there are no masters and no slaves.

Tall John, you see, is a visitor from another planet in a galaxy far, far away. Claiming to have crossed centuries and light-years in his travels, he says that he and his kind have been embroiled in a battle against evil aliens known as the Calash. By delicious coincidence, 47's cruel slave master and overseer are both Calash in disguise, and must be defeated to save all civilized creation.

That opening gambit triggers a whirlwind tale of time travel, shape-shifting, and intergalactic intrigue. It also opens a chapter of America's past that most of us would rather forget. Mosley's brilliance lies in placing historical realities in a fantastic setting. Surely, we think, real human beings would not treat each other in such a horrific fashion. But just as we reach the limits of our endurance, another flight of fantasy allows us to relax and remember that this is all merely make-believe.

47 is simply told. Categorized as a novel for young adults, it offers an uncommon and undeniably original coming-of-age story. But 47 also deals with adult themes and images that give it a real "kick" — fast, easy reading that weaves its storytelling magic with deceptive grace. We all — young, old, black, white — need to find the hero within us. To fight against oppression and cruelty. To believe in ourselves, even if the world tells us that we cannot attain our dreams — or worse, that we do not deserve dreams at all.

Ultimately, Tall John becomes 47's alter ego, until one suspects that the book is the escapist fantasy of an extraordinarily intelligent and creative boy in drastically limited circumstances. But that would transform 47 from a tale of heroes and victory into a psychotragedy. For all its dark implications, 47 is upbeat, inspiring, deceptively complex and, on occasion, hysterically funny. Do yourself a favor and stuff a copy of 47 into your beach bag. Then let yourself fly away to a world that now exists only in the memories of historians, and the imagination of artists such as Walter Mosley. A blend of science-fiction, fantasy, and exquisitely rendered history, 47 is as singular as its protagonist. And that's saying quite a bit.

NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

As a boy, Steven Barnes felt he "would rather fail as a writer than succeed at anything else." That decided, he threw caution to the wind and published two million words of fiction. He has been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Cable Ace awards, and his novel Lion's Blood won the 2003 Endeavour Award for Pacific Northwest writers. His 20th novel, Great Sky Woman, was published by Ballantine in June of 2006. He has lectured at venues ranging from UCLA to the Smithsonian Institute, and currently lives in California with his wife, novelist Tananarive Due.

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