Cover Image: A Cage Without Bars

A Cage Without Bars

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Member Reviews

I checked into the historical back ground of this story and was pretty horrified. I had never heard of this even and expected to learn more about it through this historical fiction account. Well, it is for younger kids, so I suppose a lot was sort of watered down. That's not a bad thing, but mostly I felt it was too watered down.  Not a bad story, one that I think needed to be told, just really didn't resonate with  me as I got toward the middle and end of the book. It lost it's steam. But maybe kids will find it interesting enough to look up the true story on their own.
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Initially I was really excited about A Cage Without Bars. It's a middle age/grade book about a tough topic. Set in the late 1500's in Spain we see a twelve-year-old boy taken away from his Jewish parents, only with many other children, and taken to an island where he is enslaved on a sugar plantation. Tough topics in middle age books usually make for great reads. Unfortunately A Cage Without Bars doesn't quite deliver. 

Starts out Strong
This is a simple language book about some harsh conditions. It started off by reminding me some of a book I loved at age twelve called The Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Like that book they both have portions that take place at sea under less than ideal conditions; and both feature a whipping scene. At this point I was really stoked for this to carry forward and continue to give us intense, realistic scenes that middle age children could understand. 

Drops off
Unfortunately Anne Dublin didn't keep the momentum moving. Once we are off the ship and arrive at the island where our children are enslaved to work on a sugar plantation; A Cage Without Bars becomes a typical story of trying to grow sugar under awful conditions. There isn't really much here that even tugs at the heart strings (which really says something given that the children are slaves and starving). I just didn't feel the emotion that I had when our children were on the boat. Not sure what changed but the narrative felt so different. 

I've read a variation of the failed sugar plantation run by slaves dozens of times before. Unfortunately there was nothing new to really add to this one. I wish I had been more wrapped up in the survival of the children; and I wish that we had the perspective of the sister (and not just the lead boy). 
A Cage Without Bars is also very short. So I  suppose that's a positive if you want to add a quick indie book to your list for the year. Overall I just don't think there is enough here to  be worthy of even the short time spent. However, I did finish the story (and not just because it was short). There was just enough to keep me interested; even when I felt like I had read the plantation setting before. So it's not all bad; but not all that great either.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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It is never easy to read about how badly people can be treated. This was especially difficult with the subject being children. I agree with the other reviewer. This is a book that needs to be done as a read along with a teacher or a parent/guardian. The writing took me some time to get used to as events happen one after another with no lead-ins. I would still recommend it.
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Dark tale of a boy’s journey into slavery

Joseph is a young Jewish boy in Spain when, one day before Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, all Jews who would not convert to Christianity were expelled. His family, and thousands of others, walked to Portugal where, for the cost of their family’s life savings, they were a allowed to stay for eight short months. In a cruel twist, just as Joseph and his family were to board a boat to leave Portugal for safety in Antwerp, they and the other Jews were forced to convert or become slaves of the King who had promised them safe passage. The children were separated from their parents, baptized against their will into Christianity, and forced upon a vessel bound for a distant land where they would create and work a sugar plantation.

Just as the Biblical Joseph worked hard to find favor with the Pharaoh, Joseph works to make himself useful wherever he is: on the ship, at the founding, in the sugar mill, and on the plantation as a whole. While his sister gets a position as a house slave, Joseph ends up being the only person on the island who knows anything about making sugar. 

This is a hard book to read, not just for the slavery, but for the recounting of the cruelty, horrors, and deaths upon the ship, the disasters that struck with illnesses, fire, and accidents aboard the ship and on the island. There’s also coverage of the convicts that had been aboard the ship, African slaves that were later brought in, and the dire straits under which all of them labored and slaved in harsh, hot, hazardous conditions.

Personally, I would not recommend that a young child read this book alone, but that it be read by a parent or teacher as a joint venture in learning.  There is a lot of darkness in this book, but it can be an opening for conversations from how slaves were treated, how slaves differentiated among themselves between Jewish and African, how men who had been sentenced to the gallows gained freedom through their three years of labor, the inhumanity of man to man, and the kindnesses of others that reach beyond class or language barrier. There is definitely food for discussion on present day slavery, debt slavery, generational slavery, what is being done to combat slavery, human trafficking and human rights, fair trade practices in the sugar and related industry, sugar boycott rationale for those who don’t even want to purchase fair trade sugar, and even the destruction of indigenous plant and animal life with clear-cut or slash-and-burn farming. The topics are endless.

I’m tempted to detract one star from my rating, because the book ends rather abruptly, but that seems too harsh. There is a sudden resolution and Joseph’s story ends just as he embarks on another ship. I’d really like to have seen the ending be more logical and for possibilities for Joseph’s future discussed or even acted out. However, the end doesn’t negate the power of previous narrative. One other negative aspect is the cover. At first, I considered the historical significance of the primitive wood-cut-type illustration, but then decided that the art, especially of the boy’s face, while reminiscent of religious works, actually is so depressingly dark and off-putting that I think it will keep children from picking up this book. I hope the publisher will one day consider more fitting cover art.

Recommended with the above caveats for supervised reading.

I received this book as an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) from the publisher through NetGalley. My opinions are my own.
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