I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly Discussion Guide
- Grades: 3–5
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
What was it like to be a slave one day and be free the next? What do you do with that freedom when slavery is all you've known? How does it feel to be thought of as a slow dunce only to carry inside you a fire for learning, a love for books, and the secret that you can read and write? The answers to these questions are at the heart of I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl by Joyce Hansen, former New York City public school teacher and author of two Coretta Scott King Honor books as well as other books about the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.
The idea for Hansen's addition to the Dear America series came to her while she was working on another book. She says, "A few years ago when I was writing a nonfiction book on Reconstruction, I read the diary of a woman, Emma Holmes, who had lived in Charleston, South Carolina, during and after the Civil War. In a May 1865 entry, she describes a servant girl, a former slave, named Ann. She wrote that Ann was 'lame, solitary, very dull, slow, timid, and friendless.'
The description resonated for me. I'd found one of those little gems that I sometimes discover when doing historical research. I was fascinated by this 'timid, friendless' girl. Was she really timid and dull? Why was she friendless? What had happened to her mother and father? Had she always lived with Emma Holmes? Suppose she wasn't as mentally slow and dull as Holmes thought? What if she were actually quite bright?
These questions couldn't be answered, for Holmes never again mentioned Ann in her diary. But I tucked Ann away in a corner of my mind and thought that maybe someday, I'd create a character based on her. Three years later, I found the chance to bring her to life in this story of Patsy, a freed girl."
Readers of Patsy's diary will come away with a human portrait of what is was like to be a freed girl in the south during Reconstruction. More importantly, they'll meet a bright, young girl whose love for reading and writing is contagious. Patsy's courageous story of making dreams come true and believing in yourself transcends the place and time of South Carolina in 1865.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you didn't know your age or even your birthday? If you didn't have a family? If you were unable to speak or run? For the past twelve or thirteen years, these are the questions that have disturbed the little house slave, Patsy. She arrived at the Davis Hall Plantation as a infant — sick, motherless, and close to death. "I don't know who my mother or father is. No one has ever told me my history. I wonder if either one had a bad leg like me, or if people called them slow. I wonder sometimes if I ever had a mother or father-maybe God spit me out and I got this bad leg when I fell to the ground." Patsy has developed a way of compensating for her problems, however: She has learned to read and write. The words that falter and refuse to emerge clearly from her lips, slide silently through her mind and glide smoothly out through her pen.
After the Civil War ends and slavery is abolished, Patsy believes Master Davis's promise to pay the former house slaves, as well as his pledge to share the crops and land with the field hands, and his guarantee of a school for the children of his plantation. But gradually her faith erodes as unfulfilled promises fall apart. And even though Patsy is handicapped, she trudges along, growing stronger and working harder. Day by day, Patsy accepts new chores, first from Cook, who teaches her to knead the dough for biscuits and gingerbread, then later from Ruth, who teaches her the responsibilities of housekeeper and laundress. But Patsy has a skill that only she can provide to her fellow freed men and women, a skill that can nurture their souls and hearts.
When the Master ignores his promise to establish a school, and the Freedmen's Bureau cannot provide a teacher because of increasing violence and intolerance, Patsy steps in. She teaches her students the way she saw the Master's niece and nephew being taught. Soon, several of the boys and girls can recite their letters and read their names. Even the old people who sit and listen to the lessons begin to recognize letters. When the adults gather in the evenings for their Union League meetings, Patsy reads the newspaper for them. Soon, she is known to all as the Little Teacher and adopts the new name of Phillis Frederick, in honor of the famous African American slaves Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass.
Author Joyce Hansen has drawn on her extensive research of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period to create a stirring view of the initial days of freedom on a South Carolina plantation. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is Patsy's journey toward intellectual freedom, toward a place where her physical infirmities cannot hamper her. As she concludes her diary, we feel her hope for the future and hear her jubilant voice when she writes, "This was a wonderful day, Friend. For some reason, even though I do not know what will happen to me, I am starting to feel less anxious about the future."
Thinking About the Book
- Besides Patsy, who is your favorite character in this book? Why?
- Cook describes Patsy this way: "Patsy don't give no trouble. Just a bit slowful." Why do people think Patsy is slow?
- Patsy gains confidence as she learns she has some special gifts such as being a good teacher. Looking back over the diary, what qualities does Patsy have that make her a good teacher? What do you think are the things that make a teacher great?
- One of the traditional arguments that pro-slavery people used to justify their position was that the slaves were dependent on their owners for everything — they could not survive without their Masters and Mistresses. However, Patsy paints a different picture of the strengths and dependencies of plantation owners. Find places in the text which indicate that the masters were really more dependent than the slaves.
- The plantation owners attend St. Phillip's Church, where Father Holmes preaches and reads the catechism. Most of the slaves worship in the bush arbor. Patsy's diary allows us to visit each place. What are the differences between worshiping in the church and worshiping in the arbor?
- When Cook tells Ma'am that she is leaving the plantation, she says, "If I stay in this house where I been a slave, I'll never know I'm free." Throughout the book, Patsy wonders if she will also have to leave to be free. Why does Cook believe she cannot be free if she stays at Davis Hall? Why is it so hard for Patsy and the others to leave the plantation? Find passages in the book to support your ideas.
- Joyce Hansen, the author of I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly says she hopes "...that youngsters, after reading this story, understand the importance of believing in yourself." How do you think Patsy's diary shows the importance of believing in yourself?
- To gain a deeper understanding of Patsy's diary and the history of the period, it helps to know some special terms. Using the "Historical Note" section of I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly, write a definition for the following terms:
- the Emancipation Proclamation
- the Freedmen's Bureau
- the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments
- The Dear America series includes another book about a slave girl who learns to read and write. Read A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl. How are the lives of Clotee and Patsy similar? How are they different? Create a visual display to show what you have discovered.
- Patsy writes about her two favorite books, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes and A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys. Why do you think Patsy liked to read these books so much?
- In the diary on May 26, 1865, Patsy writes down a favorite story Mister Joe told her about people flying. The story Mister Joe tells is a version of one of the most famous tales in black folklore, "The People Could Fly." Read this folktale in a collection such as Virginia Hamilton's book The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. How did the version you read differ from the version Patsy wrote down? Why do you think this was such an important story for Patsy and the other slaves?
- Through Patsy's diary readers get a glimpse into a plantation kitchen and the work required to prepare meals for a family in 1865. Try sampling some early American cooking by making "Hard Gingerbread" from the recipe that appears in the back section off I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl.
- Patsy spends a good deal of time writing about how she learned to read and what her favorite books were. Think back to how you learned to read. Share your recollections with your discussion group and include the titles of your two favorite books. Did each of the members of your group learn to read the same way?
- When Patsy finally chooses a new name, she calls herself Phillis Frederick after two people who were her heroes: Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass. She chose these two writers because they possessed qualities she admired. Who are your heroes? Create a new name for yourself and explain why you chose it.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.