CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 19 . . . . May 15, 2009
As the terminal point of the Underground Railway, Canada benefitted from an exodus of remarkable people. The decision to leave slavery was fraught and the journey north, dangerous. Those who eluded the slave hunters, survived hunger, endured grueling night marches on poor trails, and made it all the way to Canada were resourceful, determined and fortunate. Josiah Henson embodied these attributes and added to them an unusual generosity of spirit. Henson, a noted and eloquent preacher, was an entrepreneur and philanthropist as well, committed to the freedom and betterment of all black people. Having fled slavery and made the journey north with his family, he, like Harriet Tubman, became a "conductor" on the Underground Railway, returning to the slave-holding south at his own peril to guide others to freedom. Recognizing that freedom is a beginning and not an end, Henson founded a settlement of former slaves at Dawn, Ontario, providing a school and church as well as employment in a saw mill and wood shop. Henson was the kind of man who, faced with an imperfect world, did his best to make it better.
He also had a knack for connecting with the most important figures and events of his day. He is best remembered today for writing an autobiography – did I mention that he learned to read in his 50s and went on to write his autobiography? – that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and one that Abraham Lincoln credited with starting the US Civil War. Henson was an exhibitor at the 1851 World's Fair in London, displaying wooden furniture made by the skilled woodworkers of Dawn, ON. During the fair, he had his first meeting with Queen Victoria. His second was at Windsor Castle in 1877, at the Queen's own request.
Such a life, jammed with accidents and incidents, personalities and events, traversing North America and crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean, presents its own challenges to biographers. Rona Arato describes the highs and lows of Henson's life in a mere 71 fully-illustrated pages. Arato's accomplishment is to be concise without sacrificing excitement or drama. The story sings along, page by page, replete with photos, drawings, archival documents and maps. It is impossible to stop reading this book. Chapters are two pages or less, breathlessly introduced by titles like "Betrayed!" or "Josiah meets the Queen". And yet, at no point does the story seem rushed. Arato has mined Henson's autobiography for dialogue and included much of it here, allowing Henson to communicate to the modern reader in his own words. Arato's narrative is complemented by sidebars that provide context for the main action, offering descriptions of slave auctions, marriage ceremonies, Canadian racism, and so forth.
Working for Freedom is part of Napoleon Publishing's "Stories of Canada" series of biographies. The personalities highlighted in the series are fascinating, ranging across the centuries and throughout the peoples and places of the nation. It is a shame that the appeal of this book, like others in the series, is limited by unattractive and unimaginative layout and graphic design. Nonetheless, Henson's extraordinary life deserves to be celebrated, and Arato's thrilling account will be a welcome addition to school and public library collections.
Greg Bak is an archivist with Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. ON.
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