PROMISES TO THE DEAD by Mary Downing Hahn


Age Range: 10 - 14
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In this fast-paced but flawed historical novel, Hahn (Anna All Year Round, 1998, etc.) recounts the harrowing story, told in the first person, of a journey undertaken by two young boys in the early days of the Civil War and of the bond that develops between them. Twelve-year-old Jesse Sherman is accosted at knifepoint in the woods near his home in rural Maryland by Lydia, a dying runaway slave, who implores Jesse to take her small son, Perry, to a white friend in Baltimore. Perry is the child of this friend’s deceased brother, and Lydia believes that she is Perry's only hope for safety. After Lydia dies, the boys make their way to Baltimore, where they get caught up in a riot instigated by Confederate sympathizers against Union troops heading South. Jesse is brutally attacked by his nemesis, a vicious slave hunter, who kidnaps Perry. The boys are ultimately reunited—with great difficulty—but their troubles are hardly over. Through an unlikely coincidence, they easily locate Lydia’s friend, but she proves unhelpful. Other setbacks include an armed skirmish; the reappearance of the slave hunter seemingly at every turn; and the ever-present dangers that beset other runaway slaves the boys meet (some of who turn out to be Perry's relatives). While the dialogue is frequently uneven and some plot details are not always credible, the action and suspense will keep readers interested, as will the touching friendship forged by the two protagonists and the startling revelation at the end that forces Jesse to keep yet other promises to the dead. Historical events are placed in context in an afterward. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: April 17th, 2000
ISBN: 0-395-96394-X
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Clarion
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2000


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