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Chasing Freedom

by Gloria Ann Wesley

The story of the Underground Railroad is a natural source of inspiration for children’s writers. It has the shape of a journey, plausible possibilities for autonomous child participation, plenty of suspense, and a built-in ethical structure. A recent contribution to the literature of the Underground Railroad is Morning Star by Judith Plaxton, who lives in Clarksburg, Ontario, an area that was a terminus. Her freedom seekers are Flower, her parents, and her baby brother, slaves who flee the plantation to follow the North Star to Canada, “a different country with diff­erent laws.”

On their journey they face hunger, illness, injury, despair, imprisonment, and the constant threat of slave catchers. Aided by Quakers and other kind people along the way, the family completes its passage intact; a flash-forward shows them farming near St. Catharines, Ontario, with another baby on the way. 

In alternating chapters, Plaxton interweaves a modern storyline with Flower’s. Middle-grader Felicia moves with her mother and grandmother from a multicultural city to a small town, where her “dark brown eyes, golden brown skin” stand out. Like Flower, she encounters kindness, but still has to deal with the racist attitudes of the ubiquitous mean girl and her clique. The two stories come together when Felicia visits the Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum and sees an embroidered quilt Flower was making in the previous chapter. 

The challenge of a dual narrative lies in giving each half equal heft, otherwise one thread becomes an interruption of the “real” story. Plaxton doesn’t quite manage this balancing act. The historical part of the novel draws the reader in with well orchestrated cliffhangers and a fully realized setting. We see how the unrelenting tension of the situation causes stress among the characters, and we believe in Flower’s vulnerabilities and strengths. It is hard, however, to move from such a highly pitched, life-and-death journey to Felicia’s story, which includes horseback riding, school projects and the ever-s­witching rivalries and alliances of middle school.
    In the historical strand we get strong rhythmical writing: 
    “You folks are spent,”
        said Abe.
    “We truly are.”
    “And more miles to
    “We pray we have the
        strength,” said Cleo.
In the 21st-century strand descriptions tend to be generic. Girls from Felicia’s school are “slender and attractive.”

Flower’s story does not need Felicia’s to explain or support it. It stands firmly on its own, a straightforward historical narrative that is well suited to younger readers.

In Chasing Freedom, Nova Scotia poet Gloria Ann Wesley presents a tale of Loyalist slaves who came to Canada during the American Civil War. The slaves were given their freedom by the British, but that freedom turned out to be tenuous and, ultimately, provisional.

Set in Birchtown, N.S., the first black settlement in Canada, this is the story of Sarah, her father, and her grandmother, Lydia, and their lives in a new and inhospitable land. The plot is filled with suspenseful situations: will Sarah’s father, Fortune, find his way home? After being wrongfully accused of murder, will he find justice? Will Lydia, who was a “breeding slave,” find the courage to claim her grown children? Wesley holds a complicated plot together with deft storytelling and a distinctive voice. 

Appalling things happen, but the book’s tone has a dignity and emotional restraint that matches the characters’ experiences. As Sarah says of her grandmother, “She had trained herself to hold emotions back because crying was a sign of weakness. A weak slave made good sport for an overseer.”

The innovative novel is a true ensemble piece. We get inside the heads of major and minor characters, including a despicable slave hunter known as Boll weevil, sometimes just for a line or two, which creates a true community portrait. The writing is spare and earthy, and Wesley lets carefully chosen details speak for themselves. When Sarah receives her Certificate of Freedom, it is “the first piece of writing she had ever held.” Not read, not owned – held.

Chasing Freedom is a big story, fashioned from small, powerful moments, and a fine contribution to the literature of arrivals and encounters.


Reviewer: Sarah Ellis

Publisher: Roseway Publishing


Price: $18.95

Page Count: 240 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-55266-423-0

Released: Sept

Issue Date: 2011-10

Categories: Children and YA Non-fiction

Age Range: 12+

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