Reviews /

Journey Back to Freedom – The Olaudah Equiano Story

Authored by Catherine Johnson
Illustrated by Katie Hickey
Published by Barrington Stoke Ltd

Journey Back to Freedom – The Olaudah Equiano Story: My name is Olaudah, but I have had so many names: Michael, Jacob, Gustavo and Olaudah. Olaudah is the name my parents gave me, but most of my life I have tried hard not to think about them. The other names were given to me as a slave. So, you, friend, may call me Olu.

So opens Catherine Johnson’s first person retelling of the early life of Olaudah Equiano. A direct address to the reader. Allusion to lost parents, to enslavement and trauma. And then she has him call us ‘friend’. It’s as breathtaking an opening to a piece of writing as I have read in a long time.

Olaudah Equiano was born in Africa and was enslaved as a child. Taken to North America he was passed from owner to owner. Became skilful as a clerk, a personal servant, a barber and as a sailor. Fought in the Royal Navy. Then, eventually, bought his own freedom and returned to the UK, where he spent a little time during the period of his enslavement, to become a successful gentleman. Very clearly this is not the biography of a ‘typical’ enslaved African. It is, however, the biography of this particular person. And a fascinating and enlightening biography it is. One which, for any reader, would challenge preconceived ideas of what ‘slaves’ or, for that matter, slave owners are like.

In her afterword, Catherine Johnson tells us a little about how she crafted her retelling of Equiano’s life. The little we know of the life of Olaudah Equiano we have in his own words from the book he published in 1789. As author, she has condensed and reordered a little of the timeline and invented some minor characters. She has created some conversations but other parts of dialogue – notably an extraordinary exchange between Equiano and a former owner after his freedom – come straight from his own book.

Throughout this brief book, Johnson has Equiano speak in brief, plain language. There is no flowery language or overwritten description. This gives the story great immediacy and convinces us of Equiano’s plain dealing – he is telling it as it is. The language is cleverly pitched such that while it certainly doesn’t pass itself off as eighteenth-century English – which might have been very challenging to the intended audience – it does have a sense of being slightly archaic in a way that I found pleasing and helpful to the sense of time and place.

We learn of some of the horrors of eighteenth century American and British slavery through his eyes. Reflecting on the voyage that took him to the new world he says, ‘The sounds and smells were overwhelming, and I had never seen so much death. Babies especially died fast and were thrown overboard by the sailors like trash’. Arriving at his first house in the Americas, Equiano meets an enslaved woman ‘bound with so many iron restraints that it was a wonder she could do the work she had been set to’. We hear of the kidnapping of a man, Joseph Clipson, who had bought his own freedom but who was, nonetheless, stolen back into slavery. Equiano does encounter kindness and friendship along the way, and that is portrayed in the book. One does sense, however, that the degree of everyday kindness is more than counterbalanced by the brutality and injustice or the unkindness. The book does allow for optimism – Equiano ends up as a free person at the end – but there are no rose tinted spectacles.

Equiano witnessed terrible things and Johnson does not turn away from that. There is no gore however, the book gives every enslaved person their dignity. Johnson’s Equiano is somehow less emotional than we would expect. He says, ‘I had to put all my memories in a kind of box inside my head’. This gives a tone that borders on the dispassionate. With this voice as our guide, we encounter the horrors that Equiano endured and witnessed and find that it is our sense of justice that is appealed to rather than a sense of emotional outrage. This makes the retelling the more powerful for me.

Olaudah Equiano left Africa at a very early age. The book does not attempt to depict his life before enslavement. Instead of giving us an exoticising glimpse of his life before he encountered the west, it focusses on seeing this new world through his eyes. Seeing paintings in their ornate, gilt frames for the first time he was shocked ‘they looked like windows into other rooms. Other worlds where European men and women no taller than the length of my forearm stood in fields with small horses or cattle. I wondered if they were the spirits of the dead, trapped and imprisoned’. To young Equiano, it’s not his own world but ours that is strange and alien. Johnson captures this beautifully throughout the book.

Taking the life of a person who endured such great adversity and injustice gives the author a huge responsibility. This is not some fictional human, and it is not a cipher who stands in for a race – or for the many races who were enslaved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Olaudah Equiano was a real person who lived, wrote his own story, married and had children. The responsibility to tell this story in a way which honours the subject’s particularity and authenticity is carried beautifully by Catherine Johnson. In her afterword she remarks than, in his own writing, Equiano can come over as a little smug at times. And why not, he endured much and achieved extraordinary things. However, she is careful to present him in terms that I think he would have been happy with.

There is also great responsibility in presenting this story for readers who may well be coming to this subject matter for the first time. The book assumes an upper KS2 or KS3 reader. If they have not ‘done’ the slave trade in their history curriculum this could be the first time they learn about it. For them to hear of it told through African eyes and with such dignity means a great deal. Adults who may have read other own voices slave biographies or, perhaps, watched Roots or Twelve Years a Slave there is still a great deal of value here. The danger of a ‘single story’ is very great and it’s especially acute in the example of the Atlantic Slave trade which removed people’s identities quite purposefully and on an industrial scale. Every individual’s story we hear underlines again the particularity of experience. As Johnson has Equiano say, as he watches porpoises and whales from the deck of a ship – ‘I was beginning to see that the world was wider and more incredible than I had ever imagined’.

This book is published by the reliably remarkable Barrington Stoke. All books by this publisher are created with the struggling or reluctant reader in mind. They aren’t too long – this one is a little over sixty pages – are printed on cream paper that many readers report is more comfortable on the eye and uses a dyslexia friendly font. Barrington Stoke books never condescend to their readers; the publisher commissions books with real subject matter from really good authors. Lark by Anthony McGowan which moved so many of us and won the Carnegie in 2020 was a Barrington Stoke book. No one should make the mistake of thinking that these books are ‘lighter’ than books from any other publisher just because they take accessibility seriously. If anything that focus on ensuring that the writing is engaging, accessible and genuinely ‘worth reading’ tends to make their list stronger.

I enjoyed Journey Back to Freedom enormously. I learned a great deal that I hadn’t known before and I recommend it to adult readers as much as to older children and young people. Catherine Johnson has done Olaudah Equiano proud. The book deserves every success.