This is a short novel, set in 1850s America, which tells the story of a small band of runaway slaves on a dangerous journey to freedom.
The writer has centred the story on the Underground Railroad, a system of secret routes and safe houses used by Afro-American slaves to escape into Canada, with the help of abolitionists and their allies, both black and white. Incidents on the journey are seen through the eyes of ten year old Tommy, who falls under the spell of the ‘conductor’, Peg Leg Joe, himself a former slave, now a free man, who is assigned to help lead the little band over the border to ‘Canaan’, the promised land.
I think this may be the first time these events have been the subject of young fiction since Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada – a controversial book in the seventies, criticised among other things for not informing young readers of the true harshness of slavery. Francesco d’Adamo, doubtless because he is writing for an even younger audience, also chooses not to describe the cruel realities in graphic detail, but focuses on the journey away from them.
While readers will not learn much about the true barbaric nature of the situation, they will find the story tense and exciting and will be carried along with it. The main characters are vividly drawn. There’s Tommy’s role model, Peg Leg Joe, who empowers him and helps him grow during the narrative, and the cruel, vain Jim Kniff, plantation overseer, his whip and greasy hat symbolising his power. Readers also learn some historical facts about Harriet Tubman, called ‘the Black Moses’, and about the treatment of Native American Indians. Most of all, they will identify with Tommy, who is sensitively portrayed as a little boy who has to be brave, taking on the huge responsibility of leading the way from station to station,but often feeling small and scared, and coming during the journey to understand his own father’s situation better.
Although readers are protected from the harshest details, they will learn something of the situation and will maybe wish to find out more. They will surely enjoy the pace and the excitement of the story, and for these reasons I would recommend the novel both for reading aloud and having a place in the class library in the upper primary years.
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