My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: FORTY ACRES AND MAYBE A MULE by Harriette Gillem Robinet

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

The book I read for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge this month was the 1999 award winner, Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet.

This middle grade historical fiction begins in April 1865 when Pascal’s brother, Gideon, returns to the plantation after serving Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army in Georgia where he’d heard that Sherman had ordered that former slaves be given “forty acres and maybe a mule.” Pascal and Gideon set off, along with a little former slave girl, to obtain their new land. They meet up with an older man, and the four form a new family. They escape men wanting to return them to slavery, make friends with a poor white family, obtain their land, start farming, and even attend school. But then, Sherman’s order is rescinded.

History lesson:

Sherman’s order–In January 1865, Gen. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15–approved by President Abraham Lincoln–that some coastal land and islands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida be given in forty-acre chunks to former slaves and white union supporters. Sherman’s plan was two-fold: it would be a punishment for the Confederate plantation owners to lose their land, and it would be a means for the freed slaves to support themselves.

At this time the war was still raging to the north, but the Freedman’s Bureau was helping the former slaves in some of the Union-controlled area with legal matters, and various organization were opening schools for the newly freed.

However, in April, President Lincoln was assassinated, and his successor, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order in September depriving most of the freedman of their new farms.

Writing lessons:

Dialect–Many older books, especially historical fiction, use a lot of dialect. The dialect can bring to life the time period and the culture. However, dialect can be difficult to read. The usage of dialect in Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule made it hard for me to read. A child, with even less exposure to historical dialects, might have an even more difficult time.

The heavy usage of dialect (as well as accents) has fallen out of favor with current readers. Why?

I believe we are even more removed from the historical dialects than our parents and grandparents were. But, also, we also don’t have the patience to struggle with books that are more difficult to read.

I’m not advocating “dumbing down” language and stories, but at least for newer readers, we can give them the flavor of other times and places without making the text discouraging to read. We can judiciously use authentic vocabulary and grammar to suggest the different time, place, culture–keeping our characters’ dialogue authentic to their racial, social-economic backgrounds–without replicating a totally accurate dialect.

For more information:

Sherman’s Field Order No. 15

Harriette Gillem Robinet

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Join me Oct. 27 to discuss the 1986 winner, Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia McLachlan.

Have you read any other of Robinet’s books or other stories for kids about the beginnings of Reconstruction? How do you handle dialect?


  1. Jane Heitman Healy

    This was an interesting post, Deb. I don’t recall ever even hearing of this book! I agree about use of dialect–a little goes a long way. Huckleberry Finn, the B’rer Rabbit stories, and spirituals come to mind. I had less difficulty understanding it when I heard it out loud than when I tried to read the text. Thanks for introducing me to this book.

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