My rating: 9/10 – A very good historical fiction novel for its intended audience, middle grade to young teen readers. Older readers may notice the simplified plotting and some plausibility gaps, but in general a well-written story with a gripping main character and dramatic situations, well-researched and well-presented.
The escape from Mississippi to Canada by two fictitious characters, Julilly and Liza, could have happened. It is based on first-hand experiences found in the narratives of fugitive slaves; on a careful study of the Underground Railway routes; and on the activities of two Abolitionists: Alexander M. Ross of Canada and Levi Coffin of Ohio.
Twelve-year-old June Lilly – Julilly – is a slave on Massa Hensen’s Virginia plantation. He’s not a bad slave owner, comparatively speaking, but when he gets ill and can no longer oversee his cotton farm, his slaves are offered to a buyer from Mississippi, where conditions are notoriously the worst in the slave-owning states of the South.
Night music droned through the slave quarters of Jeb Hensen’s Virginia plantation. The words couldn’t be heard but they were there beneath the rise and fall of the melody.
Julilly hummed them as she sat in the doorway of her cabin, waiting for Mammy Sally to come home from cooking in the Big House kitchen. She was as still and as black as the night. The words of the song beat in her head.When Israel was in Egypt’s land Let my people go Oppressed so hard, they could not stand Let my people go.
Old Massa Hensen didn’t like this song. He said it came when there were whisperings and trouble around. There were whisperings tonight. They murmured beneath the chirping of the crickets. They crept from ear to ear as soundless as the flickering of the fireflies.
When the slave trader does indeed come, Julilly is separated from her mother and is sent with a group of other young slaves to a much harsher owner in Mississippi. When an opportunity to escape arises, Julilly and her new friend Liza grasp their chance and set out on an epic trek north, finding help through the network of the “underground railway”, hoping beyond hope to one day reach the far off land called “Canada”, where slavery is outlawed.
They succeed, but not without many hardships.
The ending of the story was realistic though rather optimistically contrived in its reconciliation scene between Julilly and her mother; I found it hard to accept so much “coincidence” in such widely separated characters reuniting with such apparent ease. That was really my only objection, though. Oh – and the lack of complexity with the secondary characters. Even though others share the stage, this book is very much centered on one character only – Julilly.
Julilly is a quite beautifully drawn character, and I found myself completely engaged with her story, much as I already knew the plot line both from previous readings and from the inevitability of the stereotyped story arc.
One of Barbara Smucker’s best novels for young readers, and the one which made her reputation as a writer. A very Canadian novel, though most of the action takes place in the United States. Canada’s presence as a destination for the escaping slaves, and the involvement of real Canadian Abolitionist Andrew Ross are key plot elements.
This would be good for independent readers 10 and older. This would also make a good Read-Aloud, for all ages, though the subject matter is intense and might not be suitable for sensitive younger listeners. Era appropriate use of the derogatory term “nigger” throughout; Lawrence Hill’s short Introduction is a must-read for its discussion of this aspect. Fast paced and engagingly written.