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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Crossing to Freedom, written by Virginia Frances Schwartz. Scholastic, 2010. $8.99 ages 10 and up

"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..."


This fine book was written as a result of the many questions that Virginia Frances Schwartz fielded from the children and young adults who read her first two books about slavery, If I Had Just Two Wings (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2002) and Send One Angel Down (Fitzhenry andWhiteside, 2005). Each is set, for the most part, in southwestern Ontario and tries to provide information about what happened to the many slaves who managed to break free from their owners, find guidance and protective safety on the Underground Railroad and finally, freedom for themselves and their families in the North.

This third book is about Solomon, his grandfather and their friend Levi. It is summer in 1857 and our first glimpse of them is as hidden cargo on a wagon, which is traveling at night near the Canadian border. They have walked endless miles on the journey from their Georgia plantation. When they hear people passing them by while discussing Levi and the slavecatchers, they know they need a plan that will ensure safety for all three across the Canadian border. Together they flee, and seek safety in the woods while they formulate that plan.

The action is fast-paced and the tension palpable for the carefully crafted characters. Each has a role to play, whether major or minor. They are filled with the passion needed to seek freedom, or to help those escaping slavery. We are made painfully aware of the racism, and of the lack of opportunities for schooling that faced these former slaves in their new home. The author has meticulously researched the time and the conditions; and she uses that research to tell her powerful and moving tale.

In her 'Author's Notes' she shares with her readers the historical background gathered as she prepared to write her book. When they reach Buffalo Solomon is inspired by what appears to be equal opportunity for blacks alongside whites, but he is also aware that there are slavecatchers present.

Buxton is the settlement that provides permanence and some sense of comfort for Solomon and Levi. Those familiar with Christopher Paul Curtis' tale called Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2009) will recognize it as a safe haven for those seeking a better life. That life is not perfect. Solomon has recurring nightmares about his past, a load of worry about his grandfather who had to be left behind to recover from the arduous journey north, and his inability to concentrate on his school work.  When the nightmares abate, and encouraging voices replace them, he is able to think about those he left behind him and find a way to ensure their freedom.

In a 2004 interview in Canadian Materials, Virginia Frances Schwartz talked about her reasons for writing about slavery. She said 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.' True then, and true now. Such books help us identify with those who have lived lives so many cannot fathom. Perhaps by making a connection to compelling, courageous characters, that will change!

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