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Nightjohn: Summary & Characters

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Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Gary Paulsen's ''Nightjohn'' is a middle grade/young adult novel about a 12-year-old girl in the time of slavery in the American South. It's a grim story of heartache and punishment, but also a story of hope. Updated: 06/09/2021

Nightjohn: Background

Gary Paulsen's Nightjohn, published in 1993, gives middle grade and high school students a realistic depiction of the worst of Southern slave-owners during the time just before the Civil War in America. Students should be cautioned that the inhuman and cruel treatment of African people captured or born into slavery is gruesome and detailed. Yet, with this said, the story of Sarny and her drive to learn is an important one, with an important message for contemporary youth who have trouble imagining how these things really happened in our country and elsewhere.

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  • 0:04 ''Nightjohn'' Background
  • 0:39 ''Nightjohn'' Characters
  • 2:39 ''Nightjohn'' Plot Summary
  • 3:46 ''Nightjohn'' Response
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Nightjohn: Characters

The title character is Nightjohn, who's a slave who managed to escape to the North and freedom but returned to the South to teach reading and writing to slaves. Because of this ambition and the activity of teaching slaves, Nightjohn has been beaten and tortured. When he arrives at the Waller plantation, he is naked and chained. Waller has ''run'' him: making the man run to keep up with Waller's horse for ten miles. He is then immediately sent to work in the fields, still unclothed.

His name comes from the fact that he must teach at night, in the dark, because educating slaves is forbidden. But this brave man is determined to bring letters and words, leading to knowledge and freedom, to any of the slaves who want it badly enough to risk punishment.

Sarny is the narrator of the story. She is twelve at the time Nightjohn is bought by Waller; she knows this by the notches on a stick Mammy keeps for all the children. Sarny knows no letters or numbers, but is quite sharp and has a good memory. Soon she starts learning letters from Nightjohn and eventually goes to a secret school he holds at night off the plantation property.

The slave owner, Waller, is a key character because he inflicts so much hardship and punishment on the people working his plantation. Paulsen tells of outrageous incidents, such as allowing dogs to rip the flesh from runaway slaves after the dogs are used to hunt them down. The people living on his plantation are treated like animals, eating from a trough and being forbidden to pray or to learn. They have one bolt of coarse cloth from which Mammy stitches the most basic clothing for all the slaves on the property.

Mammy is the rock of strength for all the slaves, and takes care of their needs as best she can. Sarny has never known any mother but Mammy. After she takes a beating from Waller because of Sarny's writing, Nightjohn comes to respect the core of love and hope in Mammy.

Nightjohn: Plot Summary

The book begins with an introduction to Sarny and her life on the plantation. We learn that the mother who gave birth to her was sold away when Sarny was four, and she has no memory of her. We also learn that Sarny is sharp and observant.

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