Railroad of Courage
Reviewed by Jerry Mizell Williams
By Dan Rubenstein and Nancy Dyson. Ronsdale Press, 2017. 162 pages. $11.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 9–12.
Against the stark reality of slavery on a South Carolina plantation unfolds the imaginative courage of 12-year-old Rebecca, who in 1854 envisions freedom from bondage for her family when she overhears a conversation about runaways that are smuggled into Canada. Intuitive about her limited circumstances as a slave, Rebecca begins to nurture thoughts of living in a more humane world. Initially unable to respond to this question from the slave owner’s daughter (“Can you imagine being free, Rebecca?”), her mind takes flight. Rebecca’s autobiographical narrative describes her journey of escape coupled with (self) discovery.
The evening Moses (the nickname for Harriet Tubman) calls to spirit the family away via the Underground Railroad is the start of an odyssey whose perils range from transportation by steamship, raft, and in coffins to boxcars, handcars, and horse-drawn wagons. Moses, the mentor, counterbalances Rebecca’s inexperience and trepidation with logic and decisive actions, and the two quickly bond. At times more persistent than her parents but no less weary, Rebecca sets about honoring the (biblical) meaning of her name. Each leg of the sometimes-improvised itinerary distances Rebecca from the plantation, bounty hunters, bloodhounds, and federal marshals.
At the heart of the book is Rebecca’s engagement with Quaker society, including her impressions about their work as abolitionists and her curiosity about Quaker dress and speech. The valiant acts of Friends and freed slaves to eradicate slavery help shape Rebecca’s emerging view of her role in the struggle for liberty. Aided by Charles Coffin and tutored by Lucretia Mott, whose lives and convictions model Quaker commitment, Rebecca embarks on yet another journey of courage over which she is part conductor: the path toward literacy. When Mott proclaims, “Words are important in the battle against slavery,” our protagonist comes to realize that with this ability she could not only write her own story but also chronicle and rescue from obscurity the contributions of those brave individuals whose courage made possible her freedom. It is through the catalyst and gift of literacy that Rebecca strengthens her voice and determination.
In the 18 short chapters of this well-researched cliffhanger, young readers are introduced to history lessons on numerous topics. The characters are expertly delineated and their heroic deeds entreat readers to ponder the definition of courage and the importance of family and f/Friends. In a lively manner, the authors exercise poetic license in crafting dialogue between Rebecca and Quaker allies. The book is fast paced and skillfully crafted to hold the attention of young readers. It is relevant to Canadian Friends and particularly to educators who teach about slavery in the K–12 curriculum. Rubenstein and Dyson have struck an intelligent balance by neither underreporting nor sensationalizing that chapter of U.S. history. Parents and educators will find opportunities to draw on the book’s rich content of names, places, and facts, which are accurately referenced and supported by a list of “later events in the fight for equality.” For its instructional value, the book merits a place in the library of Quaker and non-Quaker children alike.