Even though slavery has been outlawed for a number of years, living as a free black man during the 1890s in the Deep South of Georgia doesn’t always “feel” free. One person who understands this perception is thirteen-year-old Cy Williams, a sharecropper’s son. Very early in this provocative story, we learn that Cy is in a fix not only because he is friends with Travis, the plantation owner’s son, but because Travis wants Cy to help him run away from his abusive father. Cy knows better than to get involved. “How many times had his own father said that the black man must never get in the middle of white folks’ business?” Nonetheless, when Cy's uncle alerts him that Travis has run away, Cy is torn because he is the only one who knows where to find him. Prior to pursuing his friend, Cy divulges this secret location to his uncle.
"Definitely a gripping plot that is filled with unforgettable characters, Cy in Chains, in my humble opinion, should be earmarked for a book award in historical fiction."
As expected, Cy locates Travis, but so does Travis’s father, since he pressured Cy's uncle to reveal Travis's whereabouts. Travis's father wastes no time to teach both a harsh lesson. Trying to avoid another blow from his father, Travis manages to break free, but drowns in his attempt to run away. Certain that Travis’s father will lay blame of his son’s death on him, Cy grows suspicious when he hears that he’s been forgiven. His suspicion is confirmed when he is kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken to a camp, where he is sold as a chain-gang laborer.
Dudley is careful not to mince words about Cy's horrific life experiences. Though the story is fictional, there once lived a Cy Williams who was in a chain gang, and the chain-gang experience --- a way to keep free blacks enslaved --- actually occurred in the Deep South. With that in mind, it is not surprising that very few boys are allowed to leave the camp. Cy wonders if the others are restless for their freedom and why they haven’t made attempts to flee. Regardless, Cy longs to be liberated. It isn’t until West, one of the boys in his gang, foretells Cy’s future when Cy realizes that fear is the driving factor keeping him and the boys from escaping. He concludes that "fear is the master, not white men with whips, horses, packs of bloodhounds, and guns." Reminded of West’s message that he will experience freedom -- “First one kind, then another,” Cy knows that in order for him to be a free man, he will have to get past fear. Through amazing and unpredictable events, West’s prophecy is fulfilled, but not in the way Cy had in mind.
I am always grateful when another puzzle piece of black history comes to the forefront because it helps to complete the picture of truth in the U.S. Every country has its ugly stories, and the U.S. is not exempt. I am also grateful to Dudley, who accepted the challenge to take his master storytelling skills to another level by imagining and sharing Cy's story. Definitely a gripping plot that is filled with unforgettable characters, Cy in Chains, in my humble opinion, should be earmarked for a book award in historical fiction.
Reviewed by Anita Lock on December 17, 2013