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Five Thousand Years of Slavery

by Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen

As its title suggests, Five Thousand Years of Slavery traces the epic history of slavery across major world cultures. It has an expository, academic tone and includes an abundance of quotations from actual slaves. While the research on display is impressive, the book lacks focus. For one thing, readers must wend their way through this lengthy compilation of heart-wrenching, bleak stories without the guidance of a helpful narrator.

While the book contains sporadic attempts to inject a more personal tone, difficult songs, poems, and tales are rarely interpreted to assist understanding. The authors don’t provide enough heroic examples or happy outcomes to allow young readers some respite from the revulsion and discomfort they will no doubt feel. The  target age is far too low for the stomach-churning accounts of slaves who have been stripped of their dignity, maimed, and tortured.

The darkness of the subject matter is not leavened by the book’s text-heavy pages and static design. Photos, diagrams, and portraits add interest, but are often disturbing and graphic, with images of leg shackles, amputated hands, and a boy chained to a heavy timber. Sidebars offer a visual break, but ultimately only add to the gloom with more first-hand accounts of life as a slave. Toward the end of the book, one sidebar about Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger is fractured over four pages.

Five Thousand Years of Slavery will undoubtedly spark discussion, but measured against books by authors such as Deborah Ellis, Sharon McKay, or Janet Wilson, it misses the mark.