Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem

by Marilyn Nelson

In 1798 a slave called Fortune died at the age of sixty. He had been owned by a doctor... read more

In 1798 a slave called Fortune died at the age of sixty. He had been owned by a doctor who preserved his skeleton, rather than burying him, and passed the skeleton on through four generations of doctors in his family. Years later, the bones ended up in a museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, where they were on public display for decades. By then, little was known about the skeleton, which had playfully been renamed Larry. Historical research was initiated in 1996 to learn more about the skeleton – who he had been and what his life was like. After learning Fortune’s history, the museum commission poet Marilyn Nelson to write a requiem for him. As she did in her book, Carver: A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001), Nelson has written poems from multiple viewpoints. There is Fortune’s wife, Dinah, who had to dust his bones as part of her regular household duties; Dr. Porter, who prepared the skeleton for his own academic use; various people who encountered the skeleton over the generations; and Fortune himself: “You are not your body, / You are not your bones. / What’s essential about you / is what can’t be owned.” Historical background notes, photographs and drawings accompany the text of this slender and thought-provoking volume. (Ages 12–18)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2005

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