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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

January's Sparrow, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco. Penguin, 2009. $28.50 ages 8 and up

"When Sadie got to the kitchen, everyone was at the table. It was groanin' with good food. They was hotcakes, molasses, eggs, bacon and grits, and fresh milk! It was the first time the Crosswhites had sat at a table in so long. Sadie eased into a chair. Then she looked out the winda."

Patricia Polacco has the ability to tell inspiring stories of family and hope as if they are her own. In her newest storybook she shares Sadie's story of slavery, sadness, hope and freedom.

Sadie is the youngest Crosswhite child and knows daily fear. She is frantic as she watches the plantation owner drag her friend January back and tie him to stakes in the ground. Sadie knew he was planning to run, and she did nothing to stop him. Now, he will be punished for that running. The plantation slaves are forced to watch his whipping. When the work of the day is done, the family knows that January has been buried in a grave dug by his own foster father.

It is a unsettling and frightening beginning to this tale based on a real event. Despite their fear, that very night, the Crosswhite family makes a momentous decision to run themselves, aware that their sons are to be sold at auction in the morning. They leave with nothing and flee over water (with help from a young girl and a rowboat)to Indiana, a free state. They travel on with continued help, bound for Canada and safety. The dogs never seem far behind. Upon reaching Marshall, Michigan and being assured that it is free and part of the Underground Railway, the family settles and finds work, and even some peace. They must tell no one that they are runaways, and they will be accepted as part of the community. It is their chance to rest before resuming their trek to Canada. Not once do they let down their guard.

Always watchful and cautious when slave catchers are in the area, the family lives in relative peace until a guarded warning arrives on their doorstep one day. It is the sparrow that January had carved for Sadie so long ago and it is meant to warn the family that they have been discovered. Soon, they are awakened by Francis Troutman and his henchmen, all from their slave plantation. They try to force the Crosswhite family into their slave wagon to take them back to their master. With the help of their friends and the people of Marshall, and the surprise appearance of their beloved January, the slave catchers are jailed for attempted kidnapping, allowing the family time to pack up and take the train to Detroit. From there they will cross the border into Canada.

Following the Civil War, the Crosswhite family returned to Marshall and lived among their old friends in peace and harmony. Their story is worthy of Patricia Polacco's inspired and heartfelt telling. Her compassion for people and the events of their lives provides grist for her unique storytelling mill and gives us memorable characters who live long within us.

"Upon January's death and shortly before her own, Sadie Crosswhite-Crosby held her most prized possession bundled in a faded piece of worn calico. Inside was a small carved sparrow. She took it to her fireplace and committed it to the flames.
Then she spoke these last words to her only son:
'It's fixin' to fly...and so is I.'"

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