The horrors of the past in terms of slavery and oppression against Black people are finally being talked about on a much more regular basis, but we still need to hear as many voices as we can. Literature is a great way of telling these untold stories. Black YA fiction that tackles this is especially important to allow young people to truly understand what these voices are saying. How Far We’ve Come by Joyce Efia Harmer does exactly this, showing the past and the present side by side… And the problematic elements of both of them.
***AD: This post features press samples – all thoughts are my own***
“From debut author, Joyce Efia Harmer, comes a groundbreaking YA story of friendship and freedom that crosses continents and centuries, in a timeslip novel exploring the legacy of slavery.
Sometime, me love to dream that me is a human, a proper one, like them white folks is.
Enslaved on a plantation in Barbados, Obah dreams of freedom. As talk of rebellion bubbles up around her in the Big House, she imagines escape. Meeting a strange boy who’s not quite of this world, she decides to put her trust in him. But Jacob is from the twenty-first century. Desperate to give Obah a better life, he takes her back with him. At first it seems like dreams really do come true – until the cracks begin to show and Obah sees that freedom comes at an unimaginable cost . . .
Both hopeful and devastating, this powerful novel about equality, how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go introduces an extraordinary new literary voice.”
(Taken from Goodreads)
I’m always drawn to timeslip novels as I love reading about characters from one era as they explore the contexts of another. I especially love characters from the past being brought to the present. They give us a different perspective of things; we see our world from a different set of eyes. I was curious as to how Obah, our heroine from Barbados in 1834 would experience modern day life, especially given the circumstances she has grown up in.
Harmer writes Obah’s apprehension of the 21st century well, not undermining her fear and confusion in an attempt to hurry the plot along. I’ve read timeslip novels before which have done this (or neglected that aspect of time travel completely) which is so distracting for me! I felt that the two time periods worked fluidly together, and that Harmer had really, truly considered how Obah would feel (and how Jacob feels back in the 1800s).
Despite that, I actually found myself enjoying the historical parts more – whilst the 21st century parts are also engrossing, they feel very much plot-driven. The pace of the book quickened at this point (and more towards the end of the novel) and at times I wanted it to slow down a bit. There was of course a need for a sense of urgency, and I presume this was to further the impact of the message Harmer is getting across… It just felt a little heavy-handed at times though, like it was pushing the message towards the reader.
The historical parts were beautifully written though, and I adored every page. Descriptions are vivid, with so much clarity and detail that I felt like I was there. The characters are developed well too, with some interesting side plots and connections between them that make them feel so real. It was obvious that Harmer has done some seriously in-depth research here, and that’s so important given that much of the information we have from that era has been unfortunately whitewashed until no longer even slightly authentic.
Some parts of the book are hard to stomach, but I’m glad that they were included – we can’t tiptoe around such a horrendous topic. The book puts a lot into perspective and illustrates just how awful Black people were treated back then. Reading it made me realise that, although I knew that society was like this, I had perhaps not properly considered what exactly some of those awful treatments might have been. My eyes feel opened in that respect and it’s made me want to research these times further so I can get a more accurate idea of what really went on.
It was also important to me that it explored how problematic today’s society still is. Many people would argue that the present is far more positive for Black people than the past was. Whilst that is true in some ways, it’s important to recognise that, even if racism is less overt nowadays, it’s still present, and no amount of racism should be considered “better” because it can then be considered acceptable (which it clearly isn’t). Harmer does a good job of illustrating this in the modern day parts of the book, showing us that we’ve still got a long way to go.
The subject of slavery is always going to be a difficult one for most, but I strongly believe that we need to face it head on. How Far We’ve Come is a good starting place for young people wanting to read Black YA fiction and understand more about the journey from slavery to now – it’s well-researched and doesn’t shy away from topics that have previously been covered up. The modern day parts weren’t as strong as the historical parts, however I found it a captivating read that’s given me a lot to think about.
“Joyce Efia Harmer was born in London to Ghanaian parents. She has a BA in English Language and Literature at King’s College, London and went on to teach English. In 2016, Joyce was selected as one of six writers to take part in the Megaphone writer’s scheme to support diverse voices in Children’s Literature. In 2017, she was selected as a finalist in Penguin’s WriteNow scheme. She lives in London with her husband and two sons. How Far We’ve Come is her debut novel.”
(Taken from Simon & Schuster)
What are your favourite books by Black authors? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to like and pin! You can read some other reviews of Black YA fiction and Black flash fiction here:
Chaos Theory by Nic Stone – Black YA Fiction Exploring Mental Health
David Mogo Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa – Afrofuturism Literature
Beautiful, Complicated Family by Rosey Lee – Meaningful Flash Fiction About Relationships