CM . . . . Volume XX Number 13 . . . . November 29, 2013
Underground to Canada takes place sometime between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and the U.S. Civil War which began in 1861. The Fugitive Slave Law allowed slave owners to "retake human property" in any state of the union. Several hundred slaves a year had been escaping to the northern states, and the South wanted it stopped. Anyone aiding a runaway slave by providing him or her with food and shelter would be imprisoned for six months and fined $1,000, a huge sum at that time.
Escaped slaves were no longer safe in northern states, but they sought freedom in Canada. In 1791, slavery had been partially banned in Upper Canada under Governor Simcoe. Abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 made it illegal in the British North American colonies that would unite as "Canada" in 1867.
Barbara Smucker (1915-2003), an American children's author and educator, lived for a while in Ontario. Underground to Canada was first published in 1977 with an introductory quote from Martin Luther King's 1967 Massey Lecture in Toronto. Now it has been reissued as a Puffin Classic with a new introduction by Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes. Hill recommends two books for further reading: The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada and The Classic Slave Narratives. Indeed, in her introduction, Smucker wrote that the fictional characters' experiences were based on accounts she read in the "narratives of fugitive slaves."
Underground to Canada is the story of 12-year-old Julilly's escape from a harsh Mississippi plantation. As the story opens, she is living with her mother on the Hensen plantation in Virginia. When Mr. Hensen dies, his widow sells the land and the slaves, destroying their fragile families and community.
Lawrence Hill is right in saying that Smucker "pulls back from describing the full bloodiness of the institution of slavery", but "... does provide a few glimpses of how barbaric slavery was." Smucker keeps the horrors at a level that children from 9 to 12 can handle, yet she also clearly explains the anguish of separation and the indignity of being treated as commodities. She writes, for example: "Someone said the buyer lined the slaves up one by one like cows and pigs. They'd sell a mother to one man and all her children to another."
Julilly is loaded onto a cart with young children, including a two-year-old wrenched from his mother's arms. Like a "silver snake" attached to their cart, a chain connects the men being marched to the Deep South. After a nightmare journey in which "one day was swallowed by the next", the slaves arrive at the Riley cotton plantation in Mississippi. There, slaves are often beaten, badly fed, worked to exhaustion and forbidden to hold dances and church services.
In writing about slavery, it is important that an author depict the slaves, not as passive recipients saved by white abolitionists' kindness and initiative, but as people so intent on freedom that they gave their lives for it. By having Julilly and her friend Liza travel hundreds of miles on foot without a guide, Smucker shows their thirst for freedom. Before escape seems possible, the girls talk about how to use the stars to find the way north. Liza says that the "front end of the drinking gourd [Big Dipper] points straight up to the North Star. You follow that. Then you get to Canada and you are free." Of Lester, a young man from the Hansen plantation sold to the Rileys with Julilly, readers are told, "[H]e would never stay at Massa Riley's place even if he was whipped until he died."
The Canadian who helps four slaves escape from the Riley plantation was a real person. Alexander Milton Ross (1832-1897), a naturalist and doctor, started making trips to the Deep South in 1855, where he posed as an ornithologist and secretly informed slaves of the secret network, the Underground Railway, which would provide help on their flight for freedom. Disguised as boys, the girls and two men, Adam and Lester, hide in the swamps to escape bloodhounds. They live off the land, travelling barefoot from Mississippi to Tennessee where they meet a Quaker who hides them. Shortly after that, Lester and Adam are captured, and the girls must go on alone. Their story is a roller-coaster of hardships, narrow escapes and uncomfortable hiding places. German Mennonite settlers aid them in Tennessee. In Cincinnati, Ohio, Levi Cotton, another historical figure, helps them stow away on a boat crossing Lake Erie, to Canada.
The happy ending, involving a reunion, is suitable for a children's novel. A sad note adds realism - one of the four who escaped the Riley plantation does not survive.
This new edition of Underground to Canada has a lengthy study guide including an author bio, a character list (identifying those who were real people), a glossary, websites, a bibliography, suggested assignments and discussion points. One such discussion point is the use of the "N" word. Smucker uses it sparingly, putting it into the mouths of villainous characters. The study guide explains that it is there for authenticity, and the guide invites students to think about when - and if - it should be used. Lawrence Hill writes that the word is offensive in the extreme by modern standards "as was the institution of slavery, as is the Holocaust. But writers, teachers and parents do no one a favour by pretending that such things didn't exist. Much better to acknowledge them, to understand them and to ensure that our children and grandchildren are better equipped than we are to learn from the monstrous mistakes of our past."
Underground to Canada is an excellent introduction to a period of history that everyone should learn about.
Ruth Latta's most recent book is the "tween" novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, email@example.com).
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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.