Nathaniel Dunn, an 11-year-old boy, arrives in America to find his new world filled with hardship and loss. His mother dies of ship fever, and his father abandons him, selling himself and son Nathaniel into indentured service to pay their passage.
On the Virginia plantation where he serves, Nathaniel gains a friend—Moses, an African slave. Moses looks after Nathaniel, and Nathaniel teaches Moses the alphabet.
The plantation master declares bankruptcy and sells everything, separating Nathaniel and Moses. A blacksmith buys Nathaniel’s contract at auction, then loses his temper and beats Nathaniel.
Basil Wilkinson, a school teacher, takes pity on Nathaniel, and sells valuable books to scrape together enough money to outbid the blacksmith for Nathaniel’s contract. In return, Nathaniel offers Basil his grandfather’s German flute, but Basil teaches him to play it.
Nathaniel goes to Williamsburg to live with Basil. He begins an apprenticeship to a Williamsburg carriage house where he meets Ben, a young idealist. Conflict develops quickly and the reader roots for Nathaniel and his friends as the carriage shop becomes caught up in opposing Loyalist and Patriot sympathies.
"Give Me Liberty," an historical novel written for age groups nine and up, is an excellent supplement to social studies curriculum, adding rich detail of daily life in Colonial America.
Elliott captures the struggle of the era through her portrayal of common people living out their lives in a period of social upheaval. Her characters display a strong sense of loyalty mixed with desire for self-determination. Nathaniel questions whether the revolution fueled by Patrick Henry’s words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” will apply to slaves like Moses:
“If Moses is fighting for the British to secure his liberty, something wasn’t right with the patriot cause.”
Elliott’s style is fun to read and filled with delightful descriptions such as this of Basil: “He was an angular, older man, all elbows and knees it seemed, like a grasshopper…., and his eyebrows were hairy and a bit wild, sticking almost straight up.” Readers who’ve had the pleasure to know Latin teachers can easily imagine Basil’s mixture of humility and wit.
An added bonus, Elliott includes period English lyrics “borrowed” by the Colonist’s and reworded as Patriot songs.
In a touch of irony, Ben, a zealot—but a poor-student—is wounded before he’s called to fight. Through Basil, he learns the value of words to support the cause; while Nathaniel—a good student—decides to fight alongside Basil as Patriots. Ben says to Nathaniel: "You’re stronger than you think, Nat; I’ve learned that steady men make better leaders.”
“Give Me Liberty” raises important issues for classroom and home school discussions. Neighbors, good and honest people, find themselves on opposing sides of the Revolutionary War; and many question the morality of slavery’s continued existence in colonies fighting for liberty. Guided by Basil, Nathaniel and Ben grow in wisdom and character, each adopting for himself Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the inherent “nobility of common man.”
Read More about L. M. Elliott
L. M. Elliott Essay, HarperChildrens Reading Group Guide PDF, Elliott on Reenacting,
Revolutionary War Reenacting Brigade
“Give Me Liberty,” L. M. Elliott, HarperCollins Children's Books, 2006. ISBN:0060744219.
Elliott has written two YA historical novels, “Annie, Between the States,”
and “Under a War-Torn Sky"