Thursday, 24 March 2011

BOOK REVIEWS ~ Escape North! The Story of Harriet Tubman ~ Step Into Reading

Step Into Reading - Level 3

Imagine being born into slavery and sent out to work at the age of seven!  Most contemporary children have no clue about the tribulations faced by thousands of Blacks, who lived in the southern states, little more than a century ago.  One of these individuals, who suffered the injustice of slavery, was Harriet Tubman.

"Escape North!  The Story of Harriet Tubman" is an easy-to-read introduction to the life of this heroic woman, written at a Grade 2/3 level.  It is one of the titles in the "Step Into Reading" series, published by Random House.  I read this book aloud to both Isobel and Alisdair.  

The 48-page book begins in 1851 with Harriet Tubman acting as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad.  The author, Monica Kulling, explains, "the Underground Railroad wasn't a real railroad.  It was the name people gave the route taking slaves north to freedom.  Years before, a slave had run off.  He had seemed to disappear right in front of his owner's eyes.  'He must have gone on an underground railroad,' said the owner.  The story spread.  There was a way north to the free states!  There were people who would help.  They would hide you in their homes.  These safe houses were stations on the Underground Railroad"  (Page 6 and 7).

In the first chapter, titled "Escape North," the author describes Tubman's rescue of a party of ten slaves who relied upon her to lead them to safety.  The second section, "Born a Slave," brings out facts from Tubman's childhood.  She was born, in about 1820, on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, owned by Edward Brodas.  She was named Araminta Ross but was nicknamed "Minty."  When Araminta got a little older, she began to call herself "Harriet," which was her Mother's name.       

Harriet Tubman
(Photo appears on Page 48)
"Harriet's family lived in a small cabin near the Master's house.  It had no windows and only a bare earth floor.  The family slept on beds made of straw.  They used rags for blankets.  They didn't have much to eat.  Harriet didn't go to school.  Slaves weren't allowed to learn to read or write.  Instead, she helped her mother cook.  She carried buckets of water to the slaves working in the fields.  She picked insects off tobacco plants" (Pages 12 and 13).

As a seven-year old, Harriet was sent to a neighbour's to work.  She was whipped if the yarn she was winding broke.  She was also sent to work outside.  "Day after day, Harriet stood in the swamp, checking muskrat traps.  Finally she got sick, and Mr. Cook took her home" (Page 15).  When Harriet recovered, she was sent to the tobacco fields to work long hours in the hot sun.

The next chapter is called "The Accident."  It briefly outlines an incident that took place "when Harriet was a teenager.  A slave working in the fields ran off.  The bossman threw a weight at him to stop him.  But it hit Harriet instead."  We are told "Harriet wasn't the same after that.  She fell asleep without warning.  Sometimes her head would drop in the middle of a sentence and she would be asleep" (Page 18).  It sounds more like physical abuse rather than an accident! 

"Daddy Ben, her father, knew Harriet would run.  He wanted her to make it when she did.  He showed Harriet where to hide in the woods.  He showed her which plants and berries were safe to eat.  He taught her how to run quickly and silently through the forest.  Most important, he taught Harriet how to find north.  'See the Big Dipper in the sky,' said Daddy Ben one evening.  Harriet picked out the stars that formed a dipping ladle. 'See that bright star above the bowl?' asked Daddy Ben .  'That's the North Star.  Follow it and you'll be heading toward freedom' (Page 21).

In the fourth chapter, "Harriet Escapes."  She had married another slave, named John Tubman, by "jumping the broom," (slaves weren't allowed to officially marry), when she was 28.  John had no interest in running away in search of freedom.  In fact, he threatened to tell the Master if Harriet kept talking about wanting to run away.  So Harriet made plans on her own.  "One day, Harriet found out that she had been sold.  It was time to act!"  (Page 24).

"The next Saturday, Harriet waited until John was asleep.  She wrapped cornbread and salt herring in a handkerchief.  She silently opened the cabin door.  Outside the North Star pointed the way. Harriet didn't look back.  She took off into the woods, running fast!" (Page 25). 

The heartstopping story of Harriet's escape continues in Chapter Five - "Free at Last."  "Harriet ran for hours.  Sharp pains stabbed her sides.  But she didn't stop.  She followed the Choptank River to the Maryland border.  As she ran, Harriet remembered Daddy Ben's words:  'Walk through water when you can.  The dogs will lose your scent.'  Harriet took off her shoes and stepped into the icy river.  When the sun rose, she heard the baying of hounds.  The bossman was on her trail!" (Page 26 and 27).

We are told Harriet hid in a hollow log and fell asleep.  The slave catcher's galloped past, unaware that she was there.  In Camden, Delaware, Harriet was assisted by some kind folk that had a brightly coloured quilt on their clothesline.  It was a signal that it was safe for "Harriet to knock" (Page 28).  She was hidden in the attic, was fed and was able to sleep.  Then Harriet left in search of the next safe house along the route to freedom. She experienced yet another close call when "she woke up just as a group of slave hunters were approaching.  Harriet scrambled into a ditch and covered herself with mud.  She prayed the hunters wouldn't see her.  Somehow they never did" (Page 30).

This chapter ends with a heartwarming description of Harriet's emotional state when she finally crossed into "the free state of Pennsylvania.  She looked at her hands.  She was the same person.  But something about her had changed.  Her hands belonged to her now, not to anyone else.  Harriet Tubman was free!" (Page 31).

Once in Philadelphia, Harriet found a room to rent and found work as a cook.  She met William Still, the secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society.  Tubman became involved and attended their secret meetings.  "One night at a meeting, Harriet found out that her sister's family had escaped.  They were hiding in Baltimore. They needed someone to lead them to safety.  'I will lead them,' said Harriet.  The men at the meeting were shocked.  There were no women conductors on the Underground Railroad.  It was too dangerous.  But Harriet would not be swayed.  She was going to free her people, just like Moses in the Bible" (Page 33). 

The next chapter, "No Turning Back," is a flashback to the first few pages of the book describing Harriet's assistance to a party of ten slaves. "This way!" she told the runaways (Page 34).  But when the group finally arrived at a safe house, they weren't let in.  The stationmaster was "afraid of the Fugitive Slave Act.  The new law said that anyone helping runaways could be severely punished.  Harriet led the group back into the woods.  Everyone was tired and hungry.  One woman was so weak that Harriet had to carry her" (Page 35).

"Suddenly, one of the men stopped.  'I'm going back,' he said.  'It's better to be a slave than suffer like this.'  Harriet stood in his way.  If the slave catchers caught him, they would beat the secrets of the Underground Railroad out of him.  Harriet couldn't let that happen.  She pointed her gun at the man.  'You run back and you'll never run again,' she said.  'Come with me now or die.  The group trudged on" (Page 36).  The group finally found refuge in Wilmington, Delaware with a Quaker man named Thomas Garrett.  He owned a shoe store and hid the runaways in a secret room "behind a wall of shoe boxes."  He also gave "them each a pair of shoes" when they were "ready to leave" (Page 39).  We are then told when they reached Philadelphia, William Still "gave Harriet money to take the group on to Canada.  He wrote in his journal:  'Harriet Tubman is not afraid.  The idea that she could be caught at any time doesn't seem to enter her mind' "  (Page 40).

"Saving Daddy Ben and Old Rit" is the title of Chapter Seven.  Harriet's parents were in their seventies.  "Running would be hard for them.  But Harriet wanted her parents to know freedom.  In 1857, she went back to Maryland dressed as an old woman.  Daddy Ben and Old Rit were overjoyed to see her" (Page 42).  With the help of a horse and wagon, Harriet succeeded in hiding her parents under some old blankets.  "She drove the horse as fast as she could.  She wanted to be out of Maryland by daybreak" (Page 43).  She succeeded, getting her loved ones to Delaware where they managed to purchase train tickets.  "Daddy Ben and Old Rit could hardly believe it.  They had been slaves all their lives.  Now Harriet was using Daddy Ben's lessons to bring them to freedom" (Page 43).

The last five pages of the book are a brief summary of "Harriet's Last Years."  Here we find a brief description of the Civil War.  "As always, Harriet was quick to join the fight.  She worked as a spy and a scout for the North.  She also worked as a nurse" (Page 44).  When the North won the Civil War, in 1865, there was no longer a need for "The Underground Railroad."  "The fight to free the slaves was over" (Page 44).  The author tells us "Harriet spent her later years in Auburn, New York, taking care of her parents.  After many years, the government decided to give her a reward for her work.  She used the money to build a home for elderly Blacks who had no place to live" (Page 46).

In 1913, even though Harriet was too "sick to get out of bed" she sent a message to the for the"women fighting for the right to vote" telling them to " 'Stand together.'  It was a message that had helped her people win the victory over slavery.  One day, it would help women win the vote" (Page 47).

Harriet Tubman died at age 93, after having made at least 19 trips south and bringing out more than 300 slaves to freedom.  She used to say, "I've never run a train off the track, and I've never lost a passenger."  Tubman is remembered as "the 'Moses of Her People' and one of the bravest soldiers in the fight against slavery" (Page 48).

This book provides an excellent starting point in familiarizing children with the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.  It is written in simple terms that are easy to understand.  In addition to this title, we have also ordered a two other books about this amazing woman through inter-library loans.  One  provides other additional details, while the other is a moving picture book about God's provision for Harriet Tubman during her escape.  Watch for futher posts on this topic!

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