| Imagine lying in your bed sick one morning,
and that afternoon being taken prisoner by those who were supposed
to do your chores for you. In When Daylight Comes by Ellen Howard,
this happens to Helena, a young girl living on the island St. John
in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The setting for this environment is a
large island with many different sections to it, including forested
areas as well as a visible coastline all around it. This island has
many black slaves that work on it, with a majority of the families
on the island in fact owning slaves. When Helena's family goes on
vacation to visit their cousins on another island, Helena is forced
to stay home when she becomes sick right before the trip. A couple
of weeks later as she begins to feel better she hears people in her
house, then the screams of her grandfather before she is dragged out
of bed by black slaves from the island. The slaves were starting a
rebellion against their white masters for their freedom. From this
point on in the book, Helena is officially declared a personal slave
to Queen Lodama, the new ruler of the island. Helena is told that
she is the last remaining white girl on the island, and that everyone
else she had known was killed.
Starting out as being a slave for them, Helena still thinks the
way she did in her old life. She does not like being told what to
do, especially by her former personal slave Caroline. Before the
revolt Helena hardly ever mentioned a few words to Caroline that
were not commands or orders, but soon she begins to form a friendship
with her and sees that blacks are not people that could never have
a proper place in society, a fact that Helena often had heard her
grandfather saying. After these beginning incidents, Helena starts
to develop a feel for the work she does, which includes field work
later on in the book. As Helena is developing these skills with
her hands though, those in command of her are having troubles of
their own. There are constant battles between competing black "tribes"
on the island and many die in battles among them. Towards the middle
of the book Queen Lodama and the other women in the camp Helena
is staying at leave the men and find a camp of their own. They thought
they were doing too much of the work and that there was not enough
food in the men's camp, with Queen Lodama needing more food as of
her recently becoming pregnant. In this new camp Helena comes to
adopt a child whose mother ran out on her. Helena cares for this
child during her time in the new camp, and later comes to take on
a second child, a boy with weak eyes. As the leaders of the men's
camp begin to realize the blacks cannot win fighting against each
other, they begin to try to gain peace with the other black tribes
on the island.
picture from the back of the book shows the white man
in front of the black man, but the black man is looking
towards his possible future.
Helena is a very obnoxious girl at the beginning of the story,
not seeing the light and still living with her own ideas that black
people could not function as actual members of society. As she is
taken slave by them though and forced to work the same way they
did for her, she begins to realize their reasons for doing what
they did and why in the past they acted the way they did. This realization
allows her to gain more understanding for their culture and begin
to further appreciate what they can do. Early in her life it is
obvious that the idea of what black folks could do was communicated
to her incorrectly, causing her to form a wrong idea about them.
The same could be said for the black folks in the story. They grew
up slaves to these white masters, and because of that think that
their masters are lazy and worthless human beings. The blacks prove
to Helena through this story that they are intelligent, and could
very well perform as members of society. An example of such a realization
is when Helena and Caroline end up playing in the ocean when they
are washing their bodies. "Helena laughed too, found her footing
again, and splashed back at Caroline. Then they were rolling and
tumbling in the water like two puppies, splashing in a puddle. For
a little while, Helena forgot everything but the warmth of the sun
and coolness of the sea and the answering laughter in Caroline's
eyes" (66). Helena put away the thoughts she had about Caroline
before at this point, and realized that she was just like any other
kid her age. In the same way the slaves thought of Helena. Working
in the field later in the book, Breddu, a strong woman who used
to do field work makes the comment that Helena can do half the work
of a child and is worthless. "I say, kill the missy!"
said Breffu's voice. "She do half a child's work, or less"
(82). From the work that Breffu saw Helena do before the rebellion,she
thought that she was weak. Even if this was true it does not mean
that Helena could not change that though. As Helena is working the
fields with Breffu she gradually becomes stronger, and near the
end of her field working days Breffu mutters to her one day "as
she strolled past, a low, reluctant, "Good" (122). In
both these cases between the two groups, they see what each other
are capable of, and that neither group is evil, and that those thoughts
are simply based on a miscommunication they were raised with, or
grew up thinking.
This idea of miscommunication is also one of the themes that can
be found in this book. A theme is a recurring point that occurs
in the story and makes that idea understandable to the reader. The
ignorance between the two cultures is seen all the way through the
book. When Helena was told to go clean out a room the slaves had
taken over along with Caroline she is irritated that after they
finish the job, Caroline doesn't want to help her sweep the floor.
If Helena had given Caroline such a task before the revolt she probably
would not have helped at all, as well as not felt guilty about it.
This theme of ignorance between the two cultures is brought up many
times in the beginning, especially as Helena is getting used to
the life of a slave.
This book was written mostly in a simple format to understand,
and should not be a challenge for most readers. Told from Helena's perspective,
it also gives the perspective of others, and allows the reader to
get a broad idea of what was going on during this time. This
detail of the different people told allows the reader to really
get into this event, and fully understand it and the facts it presents.
When Daylight Comes was Ellen Howard's second book, and was brought
about as a result of a trip to the island of St. John in the U.S.
Virgin Islands. It was there that in 1733 the St. Jan slave rebellion
occurred. Ellen, who was born in New Bern, North Carolina, but has
lived in Portland, Oregon since she was six, wondered what children
who were living on the island during that time were caught up in.
Overall I found the book to be rather interesting to read, although
if not a little too dark at times. The dark moments in the book
can make it a tad scary for some at times, but mostly these events
that occur simply allow the reader to fully understand the horror
of what is happening and why it is happening. I think it is important
to read this book in order to understand how a person can change
from one mindset to another simply because of the events that she
saw in those months that she was forced to be a slave. She began
to see herself in a different way and came to realize that many
of the ideas that she had thought before the slave revolt were wrong.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn about
this particular topic in time and how being exposed to the events
such as Helena was in this book can change you for the better and
make you realize things you had never thought of before. If you
want to read a book that allows you to further understand what people
of this time and place were thinking, then this book would make
an excellent choice.