Nubian Circle Book Club

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The Thief of Letters Book Review

Phyllis Rhodes

The Thief of Letters is yet another tale of the tragic mulatto however, this time Johnson's vivid imagination and outstanding writing skills breathes new life into a tired story line.  This is the story of Brandy/Helen who was sold away from her mother at a young age.  (I pause here to relay that the imagery painted by Johnson for this scene in the novel was powerful and heartbreaking--the mother's pain and humiliation crept from the pages into the reader's mind).  The reader follows Helen into adulthood as she evolves from being the masters daughters helpmate to the mistress of the master's son.  

True to the tragic mulatto formula, Helen is largely ostracized by the majority of the slaves because of her light skin and initial station as a house Negro.  Her association to the local slave/witch who practices voodoo causes nearly all the slaves to fear her.   Her torment is exacerbated when the master notices her strength and stamina during play and places her in the field with the very Negroes who despise and fear her.

Her solace comes in the form of stealing letters (one at a time) from the master's children's spelling books to learn the alphabet.  She eventually teaches herself to read.  This ability will save her life (and others) repeatedly throughout her adventures in pursuit of freedom.  There is so much more to this book that this review does not cover because of space and time constraints.  Simply said:  The author is a great storyteller and the book is superbly written.  There are so many underlying issues and topics of discussion that were intertwined in the novel that one simply has to read it for themselves to appreciate this body of work.  Well done, Ms. Johnson!  This book is on my Best Reads List of 2002! 







The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for The Thief of Letters is 4.5 out of 5 stars. We welcome your comments and thoughts about this book review.  Please e-mail us at this address: