A historical picture book posits the question: what if blacksmiths used their hammers to communicate with runaways on the Underground Railroad?
When the African-American narrator wakes to find Pa sick but still at the forge (slaves didn’t get sick days), the child is worried Pa won’t be well enough to hammer out vital information to travelers on the Underground Railroad that night, “sending word to the folks in the woods, who are waiting to hear when it’s time to leave.” Wondering when their family will run, the child is comforted by Ma with one word—“Soon”—and an affectionate embrace, the pair backlit by the warm glow of a fire. The child’s anxious impatience is fascinating—it’s a familiar trope of childhood placed within the harsh realities of American slavery. Rich’s oil paintings evoke a sense of time and place, portraying various depictions of slave life. Later, when Pa doesn’t have the strength to pound out his blacksmith’s song, the child (who’s practiced the rhythm, tapping it out on the henhouse, dancing to it, etc., throughout the story) must take up the hammer. Then finally! It’s time for the family to run. Though believing a sick man could successfully run away requires some suspension of contemporary disbelief, the core of the story is completely credible: the ingenuity of communication among slaves and their intense commitment to freedom.
An intriguing new angle on an important story. (author’s note) (Picture book. 5-9)