CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 18. . . .January 14, 2011.
Crossing to Freedom.
Virginia Frances Schwartz.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2010.
231 pp., pbk., $8.99.
Fugitive slaves-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Black Canadians-Ontario-History-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
Crossing to Freedom is author/educator Virginia Frances Schwartz's sixth novel and her third work of historical fiction on the theme of slavery. Teaching in New York City, she saw a need for children's novels about the struggle of African American slaves to free themselves, and so she wrote If I Just Had Two Wings and Send One Angel Down. Crossing to Freedom, set mostly southwestern Ontario, was written in response to young people's questions about what life was like for those who escaped to Canada.
If you go up to Canaan Land, someone told us, you are free on the spot, just like those people in the Bible. I wondered how that happens, how you go from a slave to a free person. Was there a borderline you passed through, cutting you from the past and pushing you straight into the future...
I could tell no one that half of me lived on the other side, still in hiding.
It wasn't all roses.
Crossing to Freedom begins in June 1857, with 11-year-old Solomon, his grandfather, Jacob, and their friend, Levi who is in his early twenties, lying flat in a hired wagon, hidden beneath horse blankets, travelling by night near Buffalo, New York, with Canada West (now Ontario) just across the Niagara River. The three have come 800 miles, mainly on foot, after escaping from a Georgia plantation. After hearing male passers-by talking about capturing Levi, the three jump out of the wagon and hide in the woods where they formulate an alternative plan.
Schwartz captures readers' attention by beginning in the middle of things and providing plenty of action. Her characters, both central and minor, are courageous and daring in their quest for freedom. Most of the people in the novel, including the three central ones, are African-American and male. Women play minor roles, but interesting ones; the cast includes an elderly white abolitionist, a little girl so traumatized by her experiences in slavery that she has stopped speaking, and a young woman at the Buxton settlement who likes Levi. White people have bit parts, and not all of them are sympathetic characters. Schwartz does not sugarcoat instances of racism in Canada West, particularly regarding education, which she expands upon in her “Author's Notes.”
As Schwartz does not want to slow her novel's pace or give her characters a knowledge of current events that they probably wouldn't have had, she shares the historical background information in her “Author's Notes” and presents some of it through Solomon's observations. In Buffalo, which is in the northern (free) state of New York, Solomon is struck by the egalitarian, elbow-to-elbow association of black and white people as they go about their business downtown. Yet, in Buffalo, he also fears the presence of slavecatchers. Black history websites explain that the Fugitive Slave Law, passed in the U.S. in 1850, gave slave owners and their agents the legal right to detain and hold anyone of African descent as a runaway slave.
Later in the novel, Levi and Solomon thrive in the Buxton settlement. Interested readers may do some research and discover that this community was named in honour of the British parliamentarian who was instrumental in passing the 1834 act which ended slavery in the British Empire. As of 1793, Upper Canada Lieutenant Governor Simcoe had prohibited the import of any new slaves into the province and had ensured the freedom of slave children. Consequently, by the 1850s, when Schwartz's novel takes place, slavery no longer existed in Canada.
Solomon, the central character, has been traumatized by his life in slavery and his terrifying journey north. He has recurring nightmares of a night of violence at the plantation at the time of his father's disappearance. Having to leave Grandpa Jacob behind at a safe church in Buffalo has added to his anxiety. When, at long last, he finds himself at the well-run Buxton school, he has difficulty concentrating.
The theme of death and resurrection runs through the novel. Early on, the three principal characters are lying flat in a wagon, like dead bodies. Next, they hide under piles of leaves "like graves." After that, they walk through the woods in the night "like ghosts." When Solomon and Levi enter a tunnel under the Niagara River that leads to a safe house in Canada, Solomon sees the ghost of a white teenager, warning him not to pass through. Solomon convinces the apparition to let them pass and asks it to protect Grandpa, wherever he may be.
Later, thinking about his grandfather, Solomon wonders if the old man's words of farewell, "See you on the other side," referred, not to Canada, but to heaven. Subsequently, a ghostlike figure, whom Solomon first sees in the Buxton graveyard, turns out to embody the connection between past and present and gives Solomon good counsel. As the novel progresses, Solomon no longer experiences horrific nightmares, but instead, hears encouraging voices. He eventually uses his skills to find out what happened to his missing loved ones.
In Crossing to Freedom, resurrection and reunion occur in the here-and-now. At the same time, our insight into Solomon's inner life and our encounter with Ezekiel suggest a connection between those alive in the present and those who have gone before.
"There are lots of reasons why I wrote about slavery," said Schwartz in a 2004 interview for Canadian Materials, "but one is that... today's children need to revisit it. How can they analyze prejudice if they never understood slavery? They need to examine it because the racial and religious disharmony in our world today threatens to destroy us... Inside, we are all the same, but history has separated us."
Ruth Latta's most recent book is a collection of short stories, Winter Moon, (Ottawa, Baico, 2010).
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