Russell illuminates a little-known piece of American history in this well-researched novel for middle-grade readers.
When Aunt Winnie—not a blood relation but the only family Jem has ever known—sends him away from Charles Town with a strange conjure-woman named Phaedra, the 13-year-old is confused and resentful. It’s 1739; Florida is held by England’s sworn enemy Spain. The Spanish governor at St. Augustine offers freedom, support and baptism into the Catholic faith to any escaped slave who vows to fight the English, but Phaedra insists Jem is too young to join the militia or take a vow. Instead, he spends his days running errands for Phaedra in the forests and marshlands around Fort Mose, an earthwork fort built and staffed by the ex-slave militia, wishing for more manly duties. Recent escapees bring news of a violent slave rebellion along the Stono River; the English blame the Spanish and declare war. The unfamiliar but engrossing topic and fast-paced action will keep readers interested. Phaedra and other members of the colony are well-drawn, but Jem’s characterization wobbles; his resentment, coming as it does after his rescue from near-certain death at the hands of his master, seems ill-placed.
Still, a welcome and well-written work of history. (Historical fiction. 9-14)