________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 3. . . .September 18, 2009


A Desperate Road to Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson. (Dear Canada).

Karleen Bradford.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2009.
240 pp., hardcover, $14.99.
ISBN 978-0-545-99619-8.

Subject Headings:
Underground Railroad-Juvenile fiction.
Fugitive slaves-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Fugitive slaves-United States-Juvenile fiction.
Canada-Race relations-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Michelle Superle.

**** /4



Sunday, April 26th, 1863


We made it! We’re here, safe and sound! We were met the moment we got off the boat by the kindliest preacher I’ve ever known. He gathered us up and carried us to his home. He’s been free all his life - imagine that. His missus gave us a good hot meal, more clean almost-new clothes, and then let us sleep in soft beds with clean white sheets! . . . . There’s been no time for writing till now. Too many new things and too much happening! I’m almost getting used to it, but I still get scared now and then. We’ve been scared for so long, it’s not something you get shut of easily. But the folks here are so kind. There are escaped slaves like us, then there’s free coloured folk like Reverend Parks . . . . The coloured folk hereabouts can do anything they put a mind to. There’s folks who own their own stores, even a doctor. The doctor lives right near to us.

And I’ve been going to school!

Fans of the “Dear Canada” series will be thrilled that a new title is available. A Desperate Road to Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson makes an impressive addition to these popular fictional historical diaries for nine- to thirteen-year-olds. Not only does Karleen Bradford’s story provide a long needed supplement - or even replacement - for Barbara Smucker’s now-classic Underground to Canada, it also provides a gripping read, period. Any reader, of any age or background, reading for any purpose at all, will surely be unable to put this book down. It is a work of outstanding excellence.

     Bradford wields the notoriously difficult diary form effortlessly, overcoming such potential stumbling blocks as plausibility in relation to historical accuracy, reiteration of dialogue, and even issues of spelling, with ingenuity and grace. Her protagonist, Julia May, a gifted, determined learner and spirited girl who is also charmingly tenderhearted towards her family and friends, provides a hook that draws in readers from the first page right through to the last. Julia May is such an interesting character that her domestic interactions alone would provide a compelling narrative; in combination with a pitch perfect plot that follows her harrowing escape from slavery in Virginia, her adjustment to a new life in Toronto, and finally her challenging relocation to Owen Sound, Julia May’s story becomes a page-turner. But this is not the stuff of romance and fancy: Bradford’s meticulous research, as well as the inspiration of her own ancestors’ real experiences, is abundantly evident throughout. Although Julia May was not a real person, she very well could have been. This, in conjunction with her irresistible, endearing nature, provide an effective way to build readers’ understanding of and empathy for African American slaves of this period, driving home a still-current message about universal human rights.

     In weaving together all of these elements, Bradford delivers on the “Dear Canada” promise, providing a book that is rewarding to read in and of itself, but one that can also be used as the basis for a multitude of school projects. In addition to providing a useful tie-in to the topic of the Underground Railroad, this book also celebrates the early roots of multiculturalism in Canada which are worth remembering today, when a multitude of challenges threaten it; children deserve to be reminded of our egalitarian Canadian values, and this book provides an excellent way to do so.

     There is no doubt that A Desperate Road to Freedom should have a place in every library and classroom in Canadian schools. This book will become a new classic.

Highly Recommended.

Michelle Superle teaches children’s literature, composition, and creative writing at the University of the Fraser Valley.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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