Name me all the films you can that involve slaves escaping via The Underground Railroad. No? Okay then, I’ll make it easy on you. Name me a single film, just one, that involves slaves escaping via The Underground Railroad. No? Crazy, isn’t it? Here we have what must be one of the most heroic and harrowing real life escape stories in the history of our country, and Hollywood can’t be bothered to put a single such tale to celluloid. Now in the world of children’s literature, The Underground Railroad is a common topic to write on. Books about it abound, though interestingly enough there isn’t a single Underground Railroad novel that eclipses all the others. Maybe that’s why folks keep writing them. The latest I’ve seen recently is Eliza’s Freedom Road. It’s penned by the former picture book author Jerdine Nolen and features a very basic, very straightforward story of one girl escaping to freedom in Canada with some help. If you are looking for a good introductory novel that introduces not just the concept of slavery but also the definition of what The Underground Railroad even was, this slim little book may prove your best chance to do so. It covers familiar ground but reaches a slightly younger audience.
Twelve-year-old Eliza is on her own. No mother. No father. Her mother, you see, was recently sold away to another state, so Eliza spends her days with Abby the cook. She has her mother’s stories, sewn into patches on a special quilt, and that comforts her but it’s not enough. Eliza’s greatest fear is that she might get sent away too, a fear that is more than justified due to the nasty looks she gets from her master. Years ago her mistress taught Eliza to read and write and now relies on the girl to read to her from the newspaper and books. When the chance to accompany her mistress to Maryland comes up, Eliza leaps at the chance. Once there, she finds that there come opportunities in a person’s life to escape into the unknown. Eliza is ready to take that chance, and she has a woman by the name of Harriet Tubman to help her out. Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, Notes on the Stories, a Bibliography, and a long and detailed list of useful websites.
A couple months ago I was working in my children’s room when I got a request to host a small group of Boy Scouts on one of our late nights. The boys were learning about tall tales so I was asked to read some aloud to them. I selected a variety of tall tale picture books, amongst them Thunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen. When I gave a quickie synopsis of the books I’d chosen and asked the boys which one I should read, they unanimously requested Nolen’s book. And read it to them I did, though the book turned out to be surprisingly long. The author had packed in a lot of text and a lot of descriptions. Halfway through I couldn’t help but think that clearly her heart was on writing something longer, like a novel. So I wasn’t surprised to see Eliza’s Freedom Road come out with the selfsame author’s name on the cover not long after. What did surprise me was that she had decided to go with a diary format. This seemed like a bizarre choice. After all, this was an author who in the aforementioned Thunder Rose could whip out sentences like, “It’s giving me a fortunate feeling rumbling deep in the pit of me. I’ll register it here at the bull’s-eye set in the center of my heart, and see what I can do with it one day!” I thought that with a novel she’d be able to put this descriptive habit to its proper full-length use. Instead, she feels almost hampered by the diary format. Her prose comes out in starts and stops. They’re lovely starts and stops, don’t get me wrong, but I have a feeling that when Ms. Nolen is good and ready she could deliver a full chapter of third person descriptions to make your head turn and spin. Journal entries aren’t quite up to that kind of writing.
Though written to look like a diary of the time, Nolen’s book contains a lot of little changes that make it appropriate reading for kids who are just getting into chapter books that don’t have pictures. In spite of its historical conceit, the book doesn’t seek to replicate the look and spellings of the 1850s, for which I was grateful. There were other aspects to it that make me think that this would make an ideal introductory title for kids just getting into historical fiction. For one thing, it offers a straightforward explanation of what The Underground Railroad actually was. When I was a kid, I remember being incredibly confused by this term. My teachers didn’t really clarify, and I feel as if I spent most of third grade assuming, just as Eliza does at first in this story, that it involved a subterranean train of some sort. A book like this one would have been a godsend.
Of course the characters felt real. Eliza herself manages to sound cute in her youth without sounding precious. A line like “Why am I all the time so full up with thoughts and words in my head?” could easily be rendered intolerable if the author pushed their luck. Nolen doesn’t. I watched with some interest the interactions between Eliza and her mistress, because it was here that Nolen had to walk the finest line of all. On the one hand, Eliza should not be emotionally attached to someone who holds her in bondage. By the same token, this is a woman who has taught her to read, and to not have any human feelings towards her might, to the kids reading anyway, strike them as heartless. That said, I realized partway through the novel that part of the lure of escaped slave tale for children is that the books not only should be but HAVE to be about the self. Children are very interested in their own selves, and Eliza’s Freedom Road speaks to that part of them that looks out for number one. That said, you have to also show your character caring and helping other people or else you might end up with an Ayn Rand novel by mistake.
There’s not a lot of conflict that falls in the path of Eliza and what she wants, so her escape is without much in the way of close calls. I assume that this was done so that the book could cover a lot of ground and tell a lot of stories without losing the younger readers. An Underground Railroad book for smaller children is a tricky choice, and it’s interesting that Ms. Nolen chose to go this route with her first novel. Even here, though, you see her love of storytelling shine through whenever Eliza tells a tale. This is a fine and interesting debut that serves a distinct purpose in any library’s collection. That said, I do hope we’ll see more of Ms. Nolen’s work in the future, and that she won’t confine herself to journal entries and diary dabbles. The story will out.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Hm. I’ve a working theory going on here that kids have a real aversion to brown covers. Wanna guarantee that a kid eschews a great book? Wrap it in a jacket akin to a brown paper bag and watch their attention wane. Now the galley for this book featured full art by Shadra Strickland (you may know her best for the art in Zetta Elliott’s Bird) and it was quite nice. Unfortunately, while I understand why that image was reduced to a circle in the center of a faux diary, did it have to be brown? It looks like an entry in the Dear America series, but even the new Dear America books don’t quite look like this anymore. Hopefully if the book goes to paperback they’ll return to the jacket the ARC sported, which shows Eliza’s quilt as part quilt, part rolling green hills where she must travel in order to be free.
I’m very fond of that picture. Here you can read Ms. Strickland talk about the changes the jacket went through.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Read a bit of Chapter One here.