Posts tagged ‘Underground railroad’

FREE OR SLAVE?

Runaway

Written by Dennis Maley

Runaway,pic

This work of historical fiction which stretches nearly two hundred pages is a fascinating study of white and black characters struggling with each other not in the North and South but in the new western territories caught in the battle between slave and free. Maley’s protagonist is a fourteen year old black boy named Blanche Bruce who begins life as a slave in Virginia, but later struggles to assert his independence in Missouri after his current master’s death. Here he is owned by a printer who relies on him to set type for his newspaper. Bruce had secretly learned to read and write as a young boy. The author admits that Blanche is a composite character, but his thoughts and actions are very believable as the intricate plot unfolds.

Bruce will take a journey along the Underground Railroad, while he is pursued by the pro-slavery forces he left behind in Missouri. They consist of an unlikely alliance of preachers, lawmen, politicians and citizens. Butler reveals himself as a clever young man struggling to differentiate between exactly who are his friends and enemies. The pro-slavers found opposition in the abolitionists and free soil settlers who hoped to make the new territories a land of new opportunity. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot as Blanche struggles to find a safe haven. At the end of the tale, which has a surprise ending, the author provides an epilogue illuminating what facts are real and which are fiction. This section is instrumental in understanding the plot; the reader might wish she had it earlier as sometimes the story line becomes complicated to follow.

I still recommend the book as an interesting one appropriate for adults and children age twelve and older. It presents a good psychological study of the pre-civil war era that is a lot less widely known and understood. Students of mid-nineteenth history can use it as a vehicle for examining the personal, moral and political conflict occurring in America’s new territories at that time.

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FINDING ONE’S WAY

 

The Candle Star (Divided Decade Trilogy)

Written by Michelle Isenhoff

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This is the first book in a trilogy examining the Civil War through the Underground railroad setting in Michigan in 1858. In this first volume, the protagonist is fourteen year old Emily whose petulant personality and insolent behavior has resulted in her parents’ shipping her off to stay with an uncle in Michigan. Emily has never been off the Ella Wood plantation in the Carolinas. She presumes her life will be much the same, and her faithful slave Zeke tries to make her comfortable.

Things turn out very differently. Emily will not have a tutor, she will have to walk to a school, do chores in her Uncle Issac’s inn, and learn to deal with free slaves who are her equal. Emily rebels at once, she steals a neighbor’s horse, skips school, and treats the household members as if they were “her slaves.” Her uncle refuses to give in to her; he cringes when she befriends slave bounty hunters from Virginia as her equals. Emily is curious to find out what her uncle writes in a small book hidden in a secret compartment. But gradually she must learn to respect another way of thinking, her black friend Malachi makes her realize that her way of thinking may be jaded. He encourages her to pursue her dreams of painting and not to limit her goals to become a proper Southern plantation wife.

Isenhoff has done her research. She introduces characters based on real prototypes like Frederick Douglass and George deBaptiste. Her language is smooth and polished. Take the following excerpt: “Emily looked the boy over. He had skin the color of strong tea before the cream was added, and his eyes were as dark as the midnight sky.” The reader quickly assimilates himself into the character. Only complaint I have is that the story line sometimes seems to move too slowly, but it is certainly not predictable. There are many twists and turns and lots of surprises before Emily is ready to return home to her plantation. Changes are on the horizon for the country. Will Emily be successful in acclimating herself to a changed order? What will happen to her uncle and staff at the River Inn?

I would recommend this book to children and adults age ten and up. There are lots of issues that middle grade students are facing that are addressed in the book irrespective of the difference in time period. Any reader who enjoys history, character study and good writing will enjoy this book series. Classroom teachers and librarians should consider it a good resource to a study of the pre-Civil War period from a humanistic point of view.

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