Wolf by the Ears Book Summary and Study Guide

Detailed plot synopsis reviews of Wolf by the Ears

Harriet is fair-skinned enough that she is given the chance to pass as a white woman and become a integrated into white society, during a period in history where even freed slaves struggle against oppression. Harriet Hemings is a black servant of the famous Thomas Jefferson who is content living a fairly idyllic life on her master's estate in the town of Monticello, Virginia. It is 1820 and she is 19 years old. Unlike many black servants of the time, her master is encourages his servants to learn how to read and write and treats his slaves very kindly. One day, her master gives her a leather journal to write her thoughts in. Harriet thinks that Thomas Jefferson is her real father, as, unlike the other black folk, she is very fair skinned and even has reddish hair. One day, her mother asks Harriet to bring in breakfast for Thomas's son-in-law, Mister Randolph. Mister Randolph is a bit of an eccentric who immediately recognizes that Harriet is Thomas Jefferson's illegitimate daughter. Even though Harriet doesn't consider herself to be a slave, Mister Randolph insists that's what she is, no matter how nice Thomas Jefferson treats her. He thinks it is wrong that slavery still exists, and vows to introduce a resolution in legislature that all Virginia's slaves are to be freed. He is disgusted with his father-in-law, who can't seem to make up his mind about slavery enough to take a firm stance. Harriet thinks Mister Randolph is crazy, as she feels freedom is to be perfectly loved by the father-like figure, Thomas Jefferson. Her mother, however, is obsessed about freedom and thinks Harriet is deluding herself.
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Over the next few months, Harriet begins to notice more and more than she really isn't a free citizen like the other people, despite the fact that she is treated very well by Thomas Jefferson. Despite this, she continues to be loyal to her master. When Harriet reaches 21 years old, she will have the option to marry or leave the estate as a free woman. Harriet loves her home too much to think about leaving but she doesn't want to marry, either. Her friend, Thurston, tells her that she won't be safe if she decides to stay on the estate because Thomas Jefferson is old and may die, soon. After he dies, Thurston believes that everyone will be sold and her next master will not be as kind. Harriet doesn't believe that Thomas Jefferson would sell anyone.

One night, Harriet is accosted by Mister Randolph's son-in-law, Mister Bankhead. Thurston burst in on the scene and gets into a tousle with Mister Bankhead. Mister Randolph appears just in time to take control of the situation. After banishing Mister Bankhead from his estates, Mister Randolph proposes that Harriet seriously decide what she's going to do when she reaches 21 years old. He tells her that if she doesn't marry, one of the overseers may force her to marry someone not of her choice. If she wants to take freedom, she will be forced to leave Virginia and the life of a free black person can sometimes be worse than life as a slave, safe in Thomas Jefferson's care because of discrimination. Mister Randolph offers to help Harriet by telling her that she is so fair she looks like a “white” woman and could easily marry a white man and live a much freer life, pretending to be white. This is controversial to Harriet, who is proud of her African heritage.

Harriet consults her mother for guidance. Her mother reveals that Tom, Harriet's brother, had successfully integrated himself into white society because he was so fair, as well. Harriet is finally convinced this may be the only way to live a free life. Her master, Thomas Jefferson, agrees to help her learn how to behave like a white woman so that she may appear to have high education and breeding. Mister Randolph's wife takes it upon herself to teach Harriet history, literature, music, French, drawing and the domestic arts.

One day, Harriet meets Thad Sandridge, the man that Mister Randolph was hoping Harriet would want to marry. Thad turns out to be a very kind and thoughtful man who, like Mister Randolph, is against slavery. Thad tells Harriet that he would like to be her friend and if she would permit it, marry her. He informs her that if they do marry, he plans on taking her with him to Washington City. Harriet is charmed by Thad. Harriet and Thad marry and Harriet is slated to leave for Washington City in a few months.

In the meantime, Harriet's younger brother, Beverley, has decided he is going to run away and enter a university. It is revealed that he plans on passing himself off as a white man, as well. Harriet is proud of her brother for pursuing his dream but it is also bittersweet, since he must also hide his true identity.

The story ends with Harriet saying her last goodbyes to her mother and to her kind master, Thomas Jefferson before journeying to Washington City where she settles into her new life as a free white woman.
Best part of story, including ending: I like that this story highlights how slavery distorts a person's perspective of themselves. Harriet didn't believe she was a slave because she was treated so kindly and never called a slave. In the end, however, her name was on her master's "list of goods", proving that despite all his kind intentions, he still regarded her as below him.

Best scene in story: My favorite scene was when Harriet meets Thad for the first time. The man was so sincere and honorable in his intentions - I was glad that Harriet got lucky and found such a man to help her in her next chapter of life. At the same time, it was also tragic that this was the only way she could live a free life in society.

Opinion about the main character: I didn't like how naive Harriet was about her situation. Even though she claims she was not a slave, she was still calling Thomas Jefferson her master and having her freedoms restricted - I found it hard to believe that she could be so ignorant of her own situation. Also I didn't like how she considered herself better than the darker skinned slaves because of her light-skin.

The review of this Book prepared by Sharon C. a Level 12 Black-Throated Green Warbler scholar

Chapter Analysis of Wolf by the Ears

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Plot & Themes

Tone of book?    -   thoughtful Time/era of story    -   1600-1899 Political/social activism    -   Yes Plotlet:    -   slavery Is this an adult or child's book?    -   Adult or Young Adult Book

Main Character

Gender    -   Female Profession/status:    -   slave Age:    -   a teen Ethnicity/Nationality    -   Black (American)


How much descriptions of surroundings?    -   3 () United States    -   Yes The US:    -   Northeast Misc setting    -   fancy mansion

Writing Style

Amount of dialog    -   roughly even amounts of descript and dialog

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Ann Rinaldi Books Note: the views expressed here are only those of the reviewer(s).
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