A slave boy travels from a Maryland plantation to freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad in this debut middle-grade historical novel.
Noonan convincingly re-creates the voice of 12-year-old slave Moses, who works in the tobacco fields at Maryland’s Oakley Plantation. His mother is going to be sold, which he takes as a cue to escape: “If they was gonna rip me away from her like seed outta cotton, then I was gonna be free.” After seeing his mother off at the train station, he slips into the woods and travels to his first Underground Railroad stop, a flour mill owned by Quakers. From there, he crosses Pennsylvania, shuttling mostly between anti-slavery activists and members of the clergy. Along the way, abolitionists and free, educated blacks teach him basic literacy. Moses’ visual description of the letters of his own name—“Mountains. A wheel. And snakes with Jacob’s ladder right in between”—provides a good example of his literal, folksy vocabulary. His homespun metaphors are as charming as they are everyday (“My eyes musta growed big as those biscuits I had for breakfast”; “A woman’s voice drifted through the air like butter on grits”). During a stay with a reverend, Moses meets Tillie, a runaway slave–turned-maid. When the Fugitive Slave Act passes, Moses and Tillie decide to continue on to Canada. On their fraught journey, they fend off wolves, hire a part-Iroquois guide, and hide in an outhouse and church bell tower. The writer and statesman Frederick Douglass makes a delightful cameo appearance when the couple meet at his print shop; he encourages Moses to continue writing his own narrative about escaping slavery. Moses and Tillie frequently encounter minor characters, and these helpers are all so distinctive that they never blend together. The escape storyline, by its very nature, has some built-in repetition, but the author’s careful insertion of historical research about slavery laws and escape routes, and the suspense of slave-catchers being hot on the young people’s trail, keeps the narrative rollicking along. Despite a melodramatic climax, younger teenage readers should find inspiration as well as information here.
A story that will bring Civil War history alive for adolescent readers and will make a useful addition to middle school curricula.