Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: (1-5, 5 is a starred review) 3
What did you like about the book? Twelve-year old Callista (Callie) Wilcomb, is a young slave owned by Susannah, daughter of Henry Warren, the master of a small plantation in Virginia. Callie’s mother and brothers are also enslaved with her. Her father, Hampton, however, is a freed man who remains working for Warren to keep his family together. As the half-brother of the mistress of the house (with whom he was raised) he enjoys some special privilege.
The story opens in April 1861 as the Civil War breaks out. Master Warren has just sold Callie’s stepbrother to raise money for the war effort. He himself is about to enter battle. Both Callie’s family and Susannah’s family are suffering from the uncertainty of the future. Meanwhile Hampton hears tell of a nearby fort that is offering refuge to slaves. As the events unfold, Callie’s confusion and fear become confidence and hope. With the help of a beloved schoolteacher, she learns what it feels like to be educated and free.
While the story is told primarily through young Callie’s eyes, the author takes advantage of the omniscient point of view to add depth and nuance to the narrative by incorporating the perspective of Hampton, Mama Ruth, Master and Mistress Warren as well as other characters who people Callie’s life.
I admire Nolen for taking on a complex and little known aspect of this painful time in American history. As she explains in her historical note, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act obligated citizens to assist in the return of fugitive or runaway slaves. In May of 1861, when three slaves surrendered themselves to union soldiers at Fort Monroe, they were given sanctuary. General Benjamin Butler then refused to cooperate with an emissary from their owner who demanded their return. Butler declared that Virginia had seceded from the union and therefore was a foreign country. The slaves were thus “contraband of war” and “seized” by the army. When word got out, hundreds of slaves made their way to the fort and freedom.
Anything you didn’t like about it? Despite the dramatic nature of Callie’s story, the pace drags and is complicated by the multiple points of view, some of which are beyond the ken of the targeted audience. Background knowledge is essential to comprehension and Nolen makes an admirable attempt at providing it via an author’s note, a timeline, historical background notes, mini-history lessons serving as chapter introductions and an afterword. Not to mention, a bibliography and endnotes. Unfortunately even with all this scaffolding, this will be a difficult book for many children to understand. I appreciated and was educated reading this book as an adult however.
To whom would you recommend this book? (Read-alikes if you can think of them)- Who should buy this book? Elementary schools and public libraries
Where would you shelve it? Juvenile fiction
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No.
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Nancy Riemer Kellner, Peaslee Elementary School Library, Northborough, MA
Date of review: 1/8/2017