53 pages 1 hour read

Elizabeth Yates

Amos Fortune, Free Man

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1950

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Summary and Study Guide


Amos Fortune, Free Man (1950) is a middle-grade biographical novel based loosely on the life of Amos Fortune (c. 1710-1801). The title not only refers to the person at the center of the book but also his status as a “freeman,” the term typically used to describe people of African descent who were formerly enslaved but acquired their freedom. In 1951, Amos Fortune, Free Man won the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature.

The book was written by Elizabeth Yates, a New York-born writer who traveled widely and spent her prolific writing career mainly on children’s literature. Yates decided to write Amos Fortune, Free Man after “viewing this former slave’s gravestone outside of a building where she was to attend a meeting” (“Elizabeth Yates,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.). The novel came out of subsequent research she did about his life. However, because there is little documentation about much of Fortune’s life, Yates invented much of the story. Other books by Yates include Mountain Born (1943), Skeezer: Dog With a Mission (1973), and Children of the Bible (1996). This guide cites the 1950 Aladdin Books edition.

Content Warning: The source material features slavery and anti-Black racist sentiments that are discussed extensively in this guide. 

Plot Summary

Amos Fortune, Free Man is a biographical novel following the life of African-born Amos Fortune (formerly named “At-mun”). While Amos Fortune was a real man, the novel is a largely fictionalized interpretation of his life, based loosely on the sparse historical documents that survive him. Amos Fortune, Free Man explores subjects of freedom, family, and faith as Fortune develops in each of those areas. Through the figure of Fortune, the novel communicates the value of hard work and the edict to “love your neighbor as yourself,” drawing directly on hallmarks of traditional United States national identity as individualist, industrious, and Christian. Emphasizing those values, Yates makes Fortune legible for her largely white, mid-20th-century reading audience. While the novel communicates Yates’s good intentions, it has also been subject to criticism for the ways that it perpetuates anti-Black sentiments and racist stereotypes. For this reason, what was perhaps meant to be a simple children’s book is, in fact, a complicated novel inviting a critical reader. Amos Fortune, Free Man is both an opportunity to consider the difficult history of chattel slavery and interrogate the myriad ways that writers and historians have represented—or misrepresented—that history.

Chapter 1 opens in 1725 on the outskirts of an unspecified African village where the At-mun-shi people live. Led by their chief and his two children—Prince At-mun (to be Amos Fortune) and Princess Ath-mun—the people gather to sing, dance, and play music to welcome the harvest. Late that night, they are ambushed and most of them are captured, including Prince At-mun.

In Chapter 2, the captured At-mun-shi people are forced to walk to a river, where they are carried away toward the coast in canoes. Arriving at the coast, the captives are kept there for weeks before they are sold to a white man and taken to North America on a slave ship. At-mun is sold in Boston to a Quaker man named Caleb Copeland.

Chapter 3 describes At-mun’s time with Copeland and his wife, Celia Copeland. They rename him “Amos” and teach him to read, follow Christianity, and assimilate to Western customs. He grows up in their household and earns the nickname “Fortune” because his friends regard him as lucky. Though Caleb Copeland had promised to free Fortune, when Caleb suddenly dies, Fortune is instead sold to pay off Caleb’s debts.

Chapter 4 covers Fortune’s time with the next man to purchase him, Ichabod Richardson. Now living in Woburn, Fortune learns how to be a skilled tanner from Richardson. Richardson decides he will free Fortune when he earns a certain sum of money, but when Richardson dies before Fortune can reach this amount, Mrs. Richardson frees Fortune. Now free, Fortune works for several years to buy the freedom of an enslaved Black woman named Lily. He succeeds, and they marry, but she dies shortly after. Fortune later marries another woman named Lydia, who he must also work to free. Lydia dies within a year after they get married.

In Chapter 5, Fortune is remarried to a woman named Violet. He also worked to purchase her freedom, as well as that of her young daughter, Celyndia. Fortune travels to Keene on his own to scope out a new place to move. Though he faces some slight challenges, he finds that the people of Jaffrey, an area near Keene, need a skilled tanner. Chapter 6 picks up a year later once Fortune has earned enough money to move his family to Jaffrey. Fortune is able to rent land from the parson, who welcomes the Fortune family warmly.

In Chapter 7, the Fortunes build their new house in Jaffrey along with his tannery, which becomes successful. The Fortunes also attend a local church, where they befriended the Burdoo family. Lois Burdoo, a widow, and her children love Fortune very much. Violet has her misgivings about the Burdoos because they are consistently poor despite how much help they receive. In Chapter 8, Fortune considers spending his savings on helping them instead of the land he had hoped to buy, but Violet and a sign from God convince him to buy the land.

Chapter 9 begins with the Fortune building a new house on their new land. Fortune’s reputation and wealth grow. Meanwhile, the people in town have grown tired of helping the Burdoos, so they have decided to auction off two Burdoo children, as well as several other poor children in town. Concerned for Polly Burdoo, Fortune buys her himself. Shortly after, Polly falls ill and dies while with the Fortunes.

By Chapter 10 Fortune is an old man satisfied with what he has accomplished in his life. He takes on a few apprentices to support his successful tanning business. Reflecting on his life, he decides to draw up a will and donate the rest of his savings to the local school and church.