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Review of My Seneca Village

nelson_my seneca villagestar2 My Seneca Village
by Marilyn Nelson
Middle School, High School   Namelos   88 pp.
11/15   978-1-60898-196-0   $21.95
Paper ed. 978-1-60898-197-7   $11.95
e-book ed. 978-1-60898-198-4   $9.95

Seneca Village in Manhattan was founded in 1825 by free African Americans; by 1857 it had been razed to make way for the construction of Central Park. In forty-one poems Nelson spans the life of the village through the imagined reflections of its inhabitants. Some we meet just once, while others reappear: Epiphany Davis, forecaster of the future; Frederick Riddles, schoolboy turned soldier; and Sarah Matilda White, hair-braider and gossip. Most of the characters are African American, with a few Irish and German immigrants who also made their home there. Through a range of poetic forms and voices, Nelson communicates the desires, fulfillments, and disappointments of the village residents, along with episodes from daily life and larger historical incidents such as the Shakespeare 
Riot and an address by Frederick Douglass (italicized historical notes help contextualize events). Poems appear on right-hand pages and are prefaced by brief text on the left — reminiscent of stage directions — that helps set the scene (“We’re in Sarah’s kitchen again. The woman whose hair she is braiding looks very shocked”) and knit a light narrative from the chronologically sequential poems. Nelson’s natural and musical poetic lines (mostly in iambic pentameter) suggest reading aloud yet are accessible on the page and lend themselves to multiple reading experiences: as history; as story; as poetry, to be read sequentially or browsed and revisited. The drab cover is unfortunate, but readers who get past it will find one of Nelson’s finest works.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is supervising librarian for children’s services at the Oakland Library in Oakland, California.

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