Archive for the ‘Smucker, Barbara’ Category

underground to canada barbara smuckerUnderground to Canada by Barbara Smucker ~ 1977. This edition: Puffin (Penguin), 1999. Introduction by Lawrence Hill. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-130686-6. 144 pages.

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.


Author’s Note:

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.


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White Mist by Barbara Smucker ~ 1985. This edition: Puffin Books, 1987. Paperback. Includes research bibliography. ISBN: 0-14-032144-6. 157 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Just barely. It’s more like a 4, but I gave the author an extra point because of her well meaning earnestness. The message is a good one, but the presentation is deeply lacking in finesse.

I wonder what a typical nowadays young reader would think of this one? It might be perfectly acceptable; I’ve read much worse “kid lit”. From my adult perspective it was a tough slog, though. The author tried to pack too much into this one; in my opinion she should have let off a bit on the info-dump and paid more attention to the story.

And the “Indian = good, White Man = bad” thing was oversimplified.


I’ve been trying to cull our overwhelming book collection, and this was one that got a second look when I was sorting through several boxes of kids’ books this week.

Barbara Smucker, as you Canadians with children or schoolroom experience may know, is famously the author of the multi-award-winning Underground to Canada, about the legendary “underground railway” system of helpers and safe houses by which black slaves escaped to freedom in Canada in the mid-19th century. I haven’t read Underground for years; not since my own children were quite young, but in my memory it was a well-done juvenile historical fiction. I may need to review that one after reading White Mist, to see if it holds up to my positive memory of it.

Smucker, born  Barbara Claasen, was a New Order Mennonite from Kansas, where she attended college and received a journalism degree in 1939. After graduation, she married a Mennonite minister, Donavan Smucker, and the two of them, and eventually their three children, travelled widely throughout the United States. In the late 1960s, the Smuckers found themselves in Mississippi, where Barbara became deeply interested in the civil rights movement. As Mennonites, the Smuckers were already passionate about peaceful resolution and non-violent solutions, as well as justice and minority rights. These themes run through every one of  Barbara’s subsequent stories.

In 1969 the Smuckers moved to Ontario, and, while working as a public librarian, Barbara’s writing career took off, at the relatively advance age of sixty-two, with Underground to Canada’s 1977 publication. This was followed by Days of Terror in 1979, about a Russo-Mennonite family fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Amish Adventure in 1983, about the challenges facing the contemporary Amish. White Mist, 1985, deals with ecological issues, as well as First Nations (“Indian”) displacement and rights.

Here is the plot outline of White Mist, from a review written by Susan Ratcliffe in 1986:

Grades 5-6/Ages 10-11.

The message of Barbara Smucker’s newest novel is clearly stated by one of the main characters: “If we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves. We are one with the earth.” She has chosen a rather unusual, and somewhat awkward narrative method to convey this theme.

May is a young, dark-skinned, dark-haired teenager, abandoned as a baby on the door-step of the Applebys, who subsequently adopted her. She thus has no knowledge of her parentage or heritage, and suffers the teasing of other kids in her Sarnia [Ontario] school. She feels an outcast from their society. Every summer she and her parents go to work in their nursery on the shores of Lake Michigan, but find the lake changed this year. The beaches are dirty and littered with dead fish; the water is smelly and unfit for swimming. This year too, Lee, an Indian boy from the local reserve, comes to work at the nursery. He and May gradually become the captives of a strange, swirling white mist that eventually takes them back to a time when there were virgin forests on the shores of a clean lake, a thriving lumber town, and a village of the Potawatomi Indians. They are absorbed into the village life and learn pride in their native heritage. May even meets her great-grandmother, and gains a sense of family and roots.

The awkwardness comes in the switch from the present to the past. May and Lee are surprisingly knowledgeable about every detail of the area and people of 1835. At several points in the story, one or the other of them has to give the source of their information: “I studied all winter at the Reserve library about the Potawatomi…”. “I read about it in Uncle Steve’s books on local history…”. “Uncle Steve had told her…”. Their interest and historical retention is astonishing for their age.

The messages of the novel are strong and worthwhile; pollution and the environment, and the prejudices against native peoples. The characters are bright and attractive, but the method chosen to tell the story is too contrived and unbelievable. However, Barbara Smucker’s many fans may forgive her, because of the appeal of the themes.

I was interested to read that this reviewer felt the same way that I did; that the novel was awkwardly presented and the young protagonists unrealistically knowledgeable about local history. I also felt that the “Indian” characters whom May and Lee met in their deeply contrived time travel were presented in a very stereotyped way, as almost impossibly good, noble, and completely in touch with nature at all times, in the literary “noble savage” tradition.

I do appreciate the use of First Nations characters in leading roles, and it was sweet to see May’s relationship with her white foster parents so lovingly depicted. May’s confusion about her racial history and quest for a way to balance her origins and her present life was very exaggerated, but it was good to see those topics addressed head on. Lee’s recent tragic history of losing a close friend to suicide on his troubled reserve doesn’t get much discussion, but is presented in a matter-of-fact fashion; this is Lee’s reality, and explains why he is so ready to embrace a more positive past. Lee’s fierce pride in his ancestry, and his impatience with May’s ambiguity towards her ancestors ring true to Lee’s characterization.

While many of the non-First Nations characters are presented in a negative, one-dimensional way, there are several exceptions: May’s foster parents are seen as unreservedly “good”; May in her distressed first days as a time traveller meets with kindness from a pioneer woman, and from a cook in a logging camp; and many of the “white” lakeside dwellers embrace the ecological message when Lee and May return from their blip into the past and make their heartfelt presentation for a crusade against pollution.

I didn’t enjoy this book, though. Its flaws were too many and too glaring to ignore, and I can’t recommend it.

I give the author a decided nod for her good  intentions, but it’s a very faked-up story, and I ultimately couldn’t get past that. Into the giveaway box.

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