Canadian ornithologist Alexander Milton Ross, a white man, dedicated years of his life to helping enslaved people escape from the American South.
Ross was raised in Upper Canada, where he roamed the natural landscape and learned the names of birds and plants from his mother. One day, Ross’ father brought home a group of exhausted travelers whose ship had blown off course as they were escaping from slavery in the United States. Ross’ parents treated the escapees as guests, and Ross learned of the cruelty of slavery and lessons of compassion. Ross trained to become a doctor, and his life changed again when he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and began to work in earnest with abolitionists and free blacks to help enslaved people escape, endangering his own life and livelihood. He often gained access to speak with enslaved people by entering plantations with permission to study birds; hence his nickname, Birdman. The earth tones and blues of the soft-focus illustrations become monotonous, but the maps and grids lightly overlaid and the details of place and dress successfully evoke the time period. Some awkwardness creeps into the text. Harrison frequently refers to people as “escaped slaves” or just “slaves” and quotes Ross’ rather turgid writing: “I was struck with their individuality and kindness.” Worse, she uses painfully stereotypical dialect for the enslaved characters’ speech: “Massa, is we near heaven yet?” Still, the book introduces an important perspective and example to young readers.
While this picture book is far from perfect, Ross was a multitalented helper whose story is well worth knowing. (historical note, timeline, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 8-12)