“The Day is a White Tablet,” by Jill Fletcher Pelaez

Jill Fletcher Pelaez

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Jill Fletcher Pelaez creates a compelling fictional world steeped in lesser-known details of the last days of the Civil War in her novel The Day is a White Tablet.

The story is told through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Tench Traymore, a black youth charged with the task of caring for his white cousin Lance by Lance’s mother. Tench finds food and cooks it for Lance and does his cousin’s laundry, enabling him to fight in more comfort than other Confederate soldiers. During battles, the terrified Tench remains hidden.

One fateful day, Tench reluctantly agrees to cook a meal for a host of generals, including Pickett and Fitz Lee. In Tench’s absence, Lance is killed in a battle the oblivious generals don’t even know is occurring.

Thus begins Tench’s journey to find his family and inform them of his cousin’s death. As Tench confronts a multitude of obstacles from Federal soldiers to thugs and pirates, he undertakes an inner journey to conquer his fear and become an adult. A theme woven throughout the novel is that overcoming difficulties helps humans grow and discover strengths they didn’t know they had. Green eyes, an outward sign of Tench’s mixed heritage, complicate his journey.

The white matriarch of the Traymore family, Miss Lottie, is a strong, loveable character who tells both boys bedtime stories and passes along her love of the land. “Everything is a thing apart, yet a part of the whole,” she tells them. It is a lesson not only of the natural world, but the underlying concept of the United States. The tension between parts and the unified whole helped fuel the Civil War and still inflames political arguments today.

At times, perhaps, the novel strives too zealously to portray Southerners as saintly. Tench’s white family taught him to read great literature and to write, surely not the fate of most blacks. This background enables Tench to take over the task of keeping Lance’s journal, the white tablet of the novel’s title. In another incident that strikes a false note, a Jew tells Tench the “real source of the prejudice and resentment that [he] thought [he] saw in others, begins in [his] own mind.”  The implication of his remark seems to be that those discriminated against or held as slaves should just change their attitude and all would be well.

Yet the novel hints at darker truths. Tench is sent away from the family when the “real” cousins, the white ones, come to visit. Tench’s mother warns him it isn’t “fittin’ for folks of color to speak unless spoken to.”  And there is honesty in Tench’s anger when he is spoken to in a condescending manner or ignored, “as if no one lived inside [his] skin.”

The virtuous Captain John Wood offers to adopt Tench. Indeed, Captain Wood and General Breckinridge are portrayed as such superior men that Tench and several federal soldiers risk their own lives to help them escape to Cuba. Yet the actions of these leaders reveal them to be nuanced human beings. They rationalize it’s all right to force others to give up their sloop because the captain and general need it more and, after all, they are stealing it from deserters, so it must be okay. Yet this same act is deemed despicable piracy when others do it. And when the entire crew’s lives are at risk in the crossing, all provisions and equipment are jettisoned—all but General Breckinridge’s rum. Toss the food, the ropes, and even the anchor overboard—but by golly, the general can’t get along without his rum.

The most difficult part of the novel to accept is Tench’s leaving his family to accompany Wood and Breckinridge on their escape to Cuba. It is not clear why this young man’s assistance is critical to the mission’s success. Tench’s believing the lives of these “people must not be risked further” is also difficult to swallow. Wood has earned some degree of loyalty from the youth because of the assistance the captain gave him on his journey to find his family. But it is hard to understand why these leaders, especially Breckinridge, rise to such importance to a black youth when 750,000 others lost their lives during the war. Tench gives little thought to those Yankees who fought and died so he would be free to pursue his dreams. But perhaps he wouldn’t, since, as Tench says, “you can only judge and know others by the experiences you’ve had,” and his life with the Traymores was largely pleasant, unlike the lives of the majority of enslaved blacks.

The author engages all the reader’s senses without flinching from unpleasantness. She describes what remains of a dead man’s face as “a bloody mash of clay.”  She paints the texture of moisture so well you know exactly how “a tent of dark clouds and light drizzle” looked and how “torrents of rain” felt when they “slapped” Tench’s face.

This classic coming-of-age novel is well-plotted with plenty of twists and turns and evil villains for Tench to confront. Pelaez clearly did extensive research on the escape of Captain Wood and General Breckinridge to bring their perilous journey through Florida and across the Caribbean to life through the eyes of a fictional youth.

At the story’s end, you can’t help but hope the courageous young Tench will make his dreams come true.

Receiving a contract from Wido Publishing for The Day is a White Tablet was a dream-come-true for Pelaez. Her book was accepted for publication two months before her death at the age of eighty-eight. Sadly, she did not live long enough to hold the printed book in her hands.  Prior to this novel, she published a children’s book, Donkey Tales (Abingdon), and several stories in children’s magazines.

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