Fuse #8

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Review of the Day: 5,000 Miles To Freedom

At what point did the National Geographic press for children just decide to whop the competition upside the head and produce book after book after book of fairly fabulous non-fiction like some kind o’ history creatin’ machine? I was willing to turn a blind eye the first two or three times this year they cranked out marvelous material, but after reading “5,000 Miles To Freedom”, I can keep silent no longer. Written by the Fradins, Judith & Dennis respectively, the book is riveting. Mr. Fradin has, on his own, written “almost 150 books” of which I have read zippo. Zilch. Nuthin’. To what, then, do we owe this truly exciting tale of escape, villains, heroism, and more than a touch of cross-dressing? Truly the stars were in alignment when all parties involved decided to work upon this title. Relegated from my “I Don’t Want To Read This Book Because I Suspect That It Is Good For Me” pile to my “I Love This Book and You Can Read It After You’ve Pried It From My Cold Dead Hands” pile, this is the story to hand to kids if you want to inform them about the Underground Railroad and slavery in a manner that is both factual and fascinating. A non-fiction must read, to say the least.

Their story is incredible precisely because it is true. On the morning of December 21, 1848, Ellen and William Craft escaped as slaves from a plantation in Macon, Georgia. Their plan was an original one. Ellen, light-skinned, disguised herself as a young gentleman slave owner. William, darker, was her "slave". Together the two were going to go from Macon to the Altantic coast. From there they would travel, sometimes by boat and sometimes by train to the North. The book follows the two every step of the way, including many of the close calls the two had to suffer. Even when they planted their feet on the New England soil, however, their lives were not at peace. They were heroes for their actions amongst the abolitionists and famous for their cleverness. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, however, there was always the danger of their being recaptured and forced to return. Only living in England, 5,000 miles from Macon, would allow the two to live in relative freedom on their own. This is the story of a couple who would stop at nothing to do what they wanted, whether or not it was what slaveholders or abolitionists had planned for them. It’s a tale about an escape and return and all that those two things would come to entail.

What keeps this book pumping is just how exciting it all is! I never expected when I picked up, “5,000 Miles To Freedom” that what I had on my hands was a truly amazing thriller. Sure, the Crafts’ initial escape is intense. But does it stop when they reach the North? Oh no, sir. They are tracked and hunted and must flee time and time again. It must have been truly awful for them but in terms of writing a book, it creates just the right amount of momentum. Though everything you may find here is based on fact, the excitement locked away in these 96 pages almost strains belief. A person begins to wonder why there hasn’t been a biography of these intrepid couple since the 1971 Simon & Schuster title, “Two Tickets To Freedom”.

So is it a children’s book or a teen book? I guess I say children’s, but with a couple reservations here and there. The Fradins work very hard at trying to let young readers understand just how horrific slavery could be, right from the start. I suppose they want to get it out of the way and establish their heroes and villains from the get go. To do so, however, they tend to describe an array of particularly nasty tortures, sometimes with accompanying illustrations. The rape of slaves is also freely discussed her, once in terms of Ellen’s own mother (explaining successfully why Ellen was light-skinned). Basically, this book is best sold on a kid by kid basis. Some children will be ready for what it has to say. Others may not be. Eventually, however, every kid needs to at least be familiar with its content. It may not always be pleasant, but it certainly is real.

The book is also sophisticated in terms of linking the industrial changes of the time to the “success” of slavery. I have never read a children’s non-fiction book on the subject that took the time this title did to explain that it was the rise of the railroad that made cotton transportation noteworthy and, more importantly, profitable. Plus the fact that “nearly all of the slaves who escaped to free soil came from states near the North such as Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky” was news to me. Later there is a mention that when the Crafts moved to England they found a new kind of prejudice. “England was much less race conscious, but far more class conscious”. Kudos to the Fradins for putting all this information together.

What the Fradins also do well here is to present the facts surrounding the Crafts’ life in such a way that it isn’t all black and white, good vs. bad. Yes, the slavers and slave catchers were perfect villains. More interesting, however, was that sometimes the abolitionists weren’t perfect saints. At one point two Southerners come to Boston to recapture the Crafts. Their plan fails in part because the abolitionists do what they can to protect their friends. At one point, however, a crazed Bostonian pulls a gun and tries to shoot one of the slavers. Later on the Crafts meet with a great deal of resistance when they try to break away from the abolitionists’ hold on them. The couple comes to feel that in many ways they are pets of the movement. Their desire to strike out (as they often did) and do something on their own again and again is almost as breathtaking as their original escape.

I appreciated that the authors took the time to interview and give much respect to the descendants of the Crafts. There’s a lovely Afterword to “5,000 Miles To Freedom” that includes some of the interviewed descendants, as well as their photographs. It’s good for kids today to know that though there isn’t a single photo of the Crafts in this book, they were still real people. And nothing is more real than hearing about a person’s kin living, breathing, and talking today. Plus the heroic duo is all the more interesting when you consider that their story had a happy ending. I don’t know too many escaped slaves that could have said as much.

When you begin this book you notice the following Author’s Note just before the Contents: “Old documents, letters, diaries, newspapers, speeches, and personal narratives provided most of the information for this book. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, by William and Ellen Craft, is the source for nearly all the dialogue”. I’m glad the authors happened to mention this. I, personally, always get a teensy bit out of sorts when I run across a supposedly “non-fiction” book sporting dialogue. Authors of every stripe tend to have a hard time displaying their real life characters in a sympathetic fashion without relying on "hearing" their voices. The irresponsible people will preface a long string of speech with something like, “Mr. X might have said something very much like this when this situation occurred”. Far cleverer to take the words directly from your subject’s own autobiography. Especially if that book gives you the dialogue you need word for word.

When I read the remarkable, “Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl” by Tonya Bolden I recall the author saying something about the illustrations and pictures she included in the book. Ms. Bolden had some difficulty finding depictions of African Americans, “given the scarcity of nonderogatory images of blacks in pre-Civil War America”. The Fradins must certainly have had similar problems. Yet for all that, their book is brimming with remarkable images that aren't in the least bit stereotypical (with the possible exception of freedmen's school). From the breathtaking “first aerial photograph ever taken in the United States” from a balloon over 1860 Boston to the fabulous illustration of Ellen modeling her male garb in the 1851 Illustrated London News, no expense has been spared. The design of this book is very pleasing to the eye. Photographs and reproductions of original receipts abound. It breaks up the text very nicely indeed.

In the back of the book you will find a Time Line, list of Sources, a Bibliography, and an Index. I did notice that the Fradins have offered a very old-fashioned form of Bibliography here. Yes, they cite book, newspaper, video, and personal interview sources. These days, however, it’s always a good idea to include some reliable websites on the matter. Even if Dennis and Judith never spent so much as a minute online, the single best way to keep kids informed on a given subject is to direct them to something other than Google. Children will certainly pick up one of the cited books if they’re interested enough, but for those kids who idly want to know more, you may as well hand them a section entitled For More On the Craft Escape, Try These Websites, or something along those lines.

In the end, though, what the Fradins have done here is capture the paranoia, horror, and bravery of this most remarkable period of American history. They have done what every good biography strives for. The tale of the Crafts isn’t just about two little people. It’s about how they played a part in a massive struggle for basic human decency and freedom. The authors have gone beyond just placing facts on a page and have created a form and a structure that is not only informative and well-cited but also a gripping read. No biographer could hope to do more than what the Fradins have accomplished here. Consider, “5,000 Miles To Freedom” a necessary purchase for every library in America.


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