CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 4 . . . . October 15, 2004
There are many romanticized tales of the Underground Railroad that focus on the network of rescuers, with their secret codes and signals, their camouflaged hiding-places, their quick-witted excuses and diversions. Often overshadowed are the actual experiences of the fugitives themselves, and their courage and stamina. Most attempts at flight were solitary undertakings, or were carried out by a small company of friends or family members. Far from being the passive recipients of the good deeds of others, thousands achieved their freedom unaided.
I Came as a Stranger is a welcome addition to a perennially popular subject for young adult nonfiction. Prince's lively writing brings a fresh perspective by successfully shifting the spotlight from Underground Railroad “conductors” onto the “passengers,” the brave, resourceful and determined men, women and children who dared to flee slavery and make their way north.
Prince refuses to simplify his subject. The stories of flight that he relates are terrifying in the risks that escaping slaves were compelled to take, but exciting when the risks paid off. Escaping their owners often was the simplest task. Surviving the arduous trek north, often on foot, dogged by slave catchers and bounty hunters, was much more difficult. And though many knew that the Underground Railroad existed, it was not always clear who could be trusted. Laws that required all citizens to help capture runaway slaves and cash rewards paid by owners meant that slaves risked betrayal every time they dared to rely upon the kindness of strangers. And as Prince makes clear, deep and bitter racism was nearly as common in the northern United States and Canada as in the South.
Some clever runaways used this racism to advantage. Prince relates the story of a man who wrote himself a note authorizing him to travel on his master's business. Trusting that most whites wouldn't believe a black man was capable of reading and writing, the man showed the note to whomever asked and so escaped to freedom. This was an exception. For most, the racism encountered by escaped slaves led to hostility, sometimes violence, economic disadvantage and social isolation. Prince writes movingly of the sad experiences of former slaves who arrived in Canada, reputed to be the great northern land of freedom, only to find that they were not welcome into some communities or were confronted with attitudes and policies designed to restrict their movements and opportunities.
As a result, most escaped slaves settled in black communities where they were welcomed and encouraged to better themselves. Even so, many found that living in freedom had its own challenges. In climate and culture this new land was much different from the old, and some decided to return to America after only a brief stay in Canada. Others found that the slavery laws of the United States could reach as far as Canada and were compelled to return to their masters. But no small number braved the cold and wrestled with nature to carve out fields and build communities that offered the best possible argument against racism: successful farms and thriving, godly villages, complete with schools and churches.
Prince's writing method is to introduce a topic and then tell stories that illustrate aspects of that topic. This effectively brings the focus of the book onto the men and women who escaped from slavery, but it also makes the book difficult to dip into and out of. Readers who are used to the World Wide Web or “Eyewitness” style non-fiction may find I Came as a Stranger a tough read at times. Overall, the book is text heavy, but the illustrations that have been included are fascinating, offering visual testimony of people whose stories deserve to be remembered and celebrated. This book should be recommended to confident readers or to readers who have a particular interest in the Underground Railroad.
One caveat. I Came as a Stranger: The Underground Railroad relates stories of slaves who escaped to Ontario. What of Montreal, Halifax and points in between? Unfortunately, Prince does not indicate either in title or introduction that his book focuses only on Ontario. Readers could not be faulted for believing, mistakenly, that Ontario was the only region in which former slaves arrived and settled.
This is a book that should be in young adult collections, especially in Ontario. Prince brings to his subject extensive research and a passionate desire to tell the stories of the forgotten. The result is a fascinating, moving read.
Greg Bak works at the Canadian Public Health Association, in Ottawa, ON, managing HIV/AIDS information resources for a virtual library.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.