Edible Plants and the Character Mr. Payne

Esther Kang Suh

Esther Suh’s guest blog reminds us that there are edible flowers that we can enjoy, provided that we learn about them and make knowledgeable choices.  She points out that as Mr. Payne mentors protagonist, Grace Willis, in The Black Alabaster Box he teaches her to identify edible wild plants. 

I like Mr. Payne a lot. When he first came into the story to help Grace along the way, there was something about him that I knew I wasn’t capturing. I kept asking myself, “Who is he?”  Grace, thinks he is a kind man, “never too busy to say hello, even to a young girl,” (p.18).  I knew he had been an army scout. Initially, I thought he was Wagon Captain. But one of the things I have learned–from my daughter’s background in theater–is that if you are going to deal with a character, you need to know/create their backstory. It may never enter into the script/story, but if it isn’t there, characterization will be shallow.

I kept searching for Jim Payne’s backstory. Then it came to me. He couldn’t have been Wagon Captain. “Before the wagon train set out from Kansas City, the men elected a Wagon Captain. Daddy thought Jim Payne would be good. But some of the men didn’t feel right voting for a Free Negro.” (p.18) Grace doesn’t understand. She asks her father why the men didn’t feel right about Mr. Payne when she likes and trusts him. “Daddy said some things were hard to understand, even for grown-ups, and he hoped it would be different in California” (p.18).  

Black Seminole Army Scouts, image in the public domain

Was Jim Payne’s backstory plausible? I knew it was pretty unlikely for a group of people from different parts of the Eastern U.S. going to California in 1856 to elect a black man their Wagon Captain. But might he have been an army scout?

There were black scouts who served the army with distinction. For example, a little later than Mr. Payne, in the 1870s, four Black Seminoles were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Black Seminoles were descendents/children of slaves who escaped to Florida and married Seminole Indians. The U.S. proposed to relocate the Seminoles to Indian Territory in the mid-1800s. Passage of the Fugative Slave Law of 1850 made life dangerous for escaped slaves and their children, even in Indian Territory. If an enslaved mother escaped to a free state, she and any children she bore were considered slaves. They could be captured and returned to their “owners.” Many Black Seminoles moved on to Mexico to escape the possibility of being returned to slavery.  Read more about them at these two websites:  https://www.nps.gov/amis/learn/historyculture/seminole.htm https://www.blackpast.org/tree/U.S./Indian+Wars

            There were also the famous Buffalo Soldiers following the Civil War. An all black cavalry and infantry units, they made a name for themselves in the American West. Their role is surrounded by myth and legend. If you’re into unpacking myth and legend, you’ll find this article by military historian Frank N. Schubert a fascinating read: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/myth-buffalo-soldiers/. Another resource is https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/buffalo-soldiers#section_1

            I was satisfied that Jim Payne was settled in his place in the story. Without his help, Grace Willis would never have survived in her break for freedom after she was kidnapped. I hope you’ll read the book. It isn’t just for kids! And I’d love to hear from you if you do.

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