Gigi Amateau didn't want to write this book.
The story of the attempted August 1800 slave uprising led by Gabriel, owned by Thomas Henry Prosser of Henrico County, isn’t the typical story for a writer of young adult fiction, even one whose recent work has been acclaimed. Amateau’s books, including A Certain Strain of Peculiar and Claiming Georgia Tate, receive merits for their muscularity of language and a refusal to shy away from the tough topics or talk down to readers.
Yet the result of her effort, Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and The Black General Gabriel, weaves together the tantalizing remnants of historical text with fiction that enhances the greater story without sensationalizing its inherent drama.
“I think I started taking notes about it in 2004,” she recalls during an interview at a bustling coffee shop. “I’d scribble on the edge of noetebooks and things. The big question for me most of the time: Why do I want to tell this story? Do I have the right? Is it all our stories? Do we all get to tell it?”
Amateau’s stories, though, tend to be about the importance of friendship, family — however that’s defined — and coming into one’s own as a person. The verities of love, death and struggle are in every good story, and the epic sweep of the “business” undertaken by Gabriel and his followers embraces all of these themes and more. Still, Amateau tried to push the story into another form, perhaps an anthology of poets and others to interpret the uprising their way. Finally, her editor Leigh Feldman told Amateau, “No, you need to tell this story.”
Amateau’s obsession proved that writers often don’t choose stories, the stories demand that you give them life. And so she did.
The legacy of Gabriel’s Rebellion has been difficult for some adults to consider. What about kids?
“Kids are smart,” she says. “They can handle a story like Gabriel’s in some ways better even than adults, I think. The premise for the founding of our nation was freedom or death, right? Lots of blood has been and continues to be spilled in defense of our right to determine the course of our own lives. Is Gabriel’s motivation any harder to comprehend than some of the other folks who we lift up as patriots?”
Gabriel’s motivation — to become free, against all odds — isn’t that far away from the weirdness of the YA hit The Hunger Games, which pits teenagers against each other in a blending of The Running Man, Rollerball and the Japanese novel Battle Royale. These are all dystopic worlds whereas Gabriel, a real slave living right here in the real world, yearned to ignite the cause of liberty, whatever the cost. It’s also a love story, between Gabriel and his wife, Nan (a union the state didn't recognize). She's pregnant, and this, too, motivates him to make the world better for their child. Amateau's book is a story about families and their bonds to each other.
Amateau grew up in Hanover County, near its airport, and she knew Route 1 before Virginia Center Commons (not that long ago, really). She grew up at Skate Nation. She and her friends went to the Celebrity Room for Friday-night pizza, on a site very close to the blacksmith shop of Gabriel and his brother Solomon — who would later testify against him.
There are historical accounts of the uprising, including newspapers, letters and diaries, enough for a fictional account. Somehow there hasn't been one since the 1930s novel Black Thunder, and that was filled with the biases of its time. When Amateau's fictional interpretation of known events — the incident during which Gabriel bit the ear off a farmer, for example, or the case of mysterious Frenchman, Charles Quersey, a possible supporter — come forth, there’s an “Ah-hah!” quality to their appearance. Maybe it really didn’t happen that way, but you can see how it could’ve. Other elements cannot change.
“You want to make it a happy ending,” Amateau says, especially after spending time getting acquainted with Gabriel and his immediate circle. “And there’s not one. It’s a huge tragedy, for Gabriel and for the country, and for us. Nan was pregnant and was sent away. She survived. And in that I suppose there’s some shred of light.”
Come August, Come Freedom Events
Oct. 11: Writer House, 7 p.m., 508 Dale Avenue, Charlottesville
Oct. 16: Book talk Tuesday, 7 p.m., Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, Va.
Oct. 20-21: Amateau will appear as a panelist at the James River Writers Conference. Greater Richmond Convention Center, 403 N. Third St., Richmond.