The Letter Writer

by Ann Rinaldi

Eleven-year-old Harriet Whitehead, who serves as the "letter writer" for her blind stepmother, is haunted by her unwitting role in Nat Turner's Rebellion, one of the bloodiest and most effective slave uprisings in the history of America.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547327853
  • ISBN-10: 0547327854
  • Pages: 224
  • Publication Date: 05/24/2010
  • Carton Quantity: 80

About the book

Eleven-year-old Harriet Whitehead is an outsider in her own family. She feels accepted and important only when she is entrusted to write letters for her blind stepmother. Then Nat Turner, a slave preacher, arrives on her family’s plantation and Harriet befriends him, entranced by his gentle manner and eloquent sermons about an all-forgiving God. When Nat asks Harriet for a map of the county to help him spread the word, she draws it for him—wanting to be part of something important. But the map turns out to be the missing piece that sets Nat’s secret plan in motion and makes Harriet an unwitting accomplice to the bloodiest slave uprising in U.S. history.

Award-winning historical novelist Ann Rinaldi has created a bold portrait of an ordinary young girl thrust in to a situation beyond her control.

About the author
Ann Rinaldi

ANN RINALDI is an award-winning author best known for bringing history vividly to life. A self-made writer and newspaper columnist for twenty-one years, Ms. Rinaldi attributes her interest in history to her son, who enlisted her to take part in historical reenactments up and down the East Coast. She lives with her husband in central New Jersey. 




Dear Uncle Andrew: My name is Harriet, and depending on how much you can abide my chatter, I am going to be writing to you a great deal over the next year or so. My brother, Richard, demands it, and when he demands something, the angels concur. He says you are a very intelligent man, and though Mother Whitehead says you are touched in the head, you suffer that malignancy no more than most of us in this family. At any rate, he says you are also an art dealer. And the engraving we have in our center hallway of Mary Wollstonecraft was given to Mother Whitehead by you many years ago. Good grief, I have been passing by it for years! I am eleven years old, love to ride horses and read books. My best friend is my "girl" Violet, who somehow came to be half white and almost part of the family. I don’t know how, but this family is so confused it is like Mother Whitehead’s crochet yarn after Piddles, the cat, gets finished fussing with it. Oh, I must go now, they are calling me for Sunday dinner, and if there is anything Richard hates it is one being late for prayers before meals.

Your servant, Harriet Whitehead


Violet was at the edge of the pond in water up to her knees, cutting the cattails. "Oh, look at this one, Miss Harriet," and she snipped it off expertly with a scissor. "This one’s a beauty." Her skirt was hitched up between her legs showing her light brown thighs. She didn’t wear ruffled pantalets like I did. Slaves didn’t wear pantalets.

I took the cattail in my hands with the three others. It was a good one. I could cut a sharp point and it would prove to make a good pen when dipped in some lampblack. I’d use it to write my next letter, I decided. Maybe this afternoon.

Neither of us paid mind to the rider approaching on the fat white horse until he was nearly on top of us.

"What are you doing there in that pond?" Richard demanded. "Getting cattails again? Violet, get out and put down your skirts. Harriet, give over those cattails."

He reached out his hand. I gave them over.

"Going to use these for writing, are you?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"They’re known around as slave pens," he said. "Look on the back of any barn wall and you’ll see their scratchings. Or messages, made from cattails and lampblack. You know what lampblack does to your clothing, Harriet. And how Mama hates it. Yet you do persist. Why?"

"They’re more of a challenge to use," I answered.

He sighed deeply. "Haven’t you enough challenges in life? Violet, haven’t you anything better to do with your time?"

"It be the Sabbath, Massa Richard. I done went to church. An’ if’n I must say so, you did preach a fine sermon, yessuh." She used the special voice she always used with my brother, the subservient one with the humble tone.

"Such a fine sermon that you come home and raise your skirts in front of everybody, hey? You’re not a child anymore. How old are you now, Violet?"

She was untwisting her skirt and pulling it down. "Fourteen, suh."

"That’s right, I keep forgetting. You’re three years older than Harriet. Well, you keep acting like that and it’ll be time to marry you off."

"But suh, I be Miss Harriet’s girl. I been carin’ for her since she come to us. And I serve Miss Margaret, too, when she come home from that fancy school in Jerusalem. An’ I run and fetch for your mama. They all can’t do without me."

She was begging. And pompous Richard let her beg.

"At any rate, my sister has letters to write this afternoon. And not with cattails. So you go about your business, whatever it is. And if I catch you with your skirts hiked up again, they won’t come down until I’ve given your legs ten stripes. You hear?"


"Yessuh." Violet ran.


Copyright © 2008 by Ann Rinaldi

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.