"MOSES: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom" by Carole Boston Weatherford is a book I'd love to have in our personal library. Unfortunately the copy we received from the Nipawin Library has to be returned today, so we'll have to read it one last time and then reluctantly push it through the "Return Slot."
This book is illustrated by Kadir Nelson, who was also responsible for the award winning illustrations in "Ellington Was Not a Street", "Coretta Scott" (a biography of the wife of Martin Luther King Jr.) and "Henry's Freedom Box" (all previously reviewed on this site). Nelson's realistic art makes the story pop right off the pages and into your heart!
"MOSES" was selected as a "Caldecott Honour Book" in 2007. According to Wikipedia, "The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Assocation, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published that year. Caldecott was named in honour of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. Together with the Newbery Medal, it is the most prestigious American children's book award.... in addition to the Caldecott medal, the committee awards additional citations referred to as the Caldecott Honor to worthy runners-up."
The book also won a "Coretta Scott King Award" for illustrator, Kadir Nelson in 2007.
The book is recommended for children in the 5 to 8 year age range.
The frontspiece describes it as follows:
"I SET THE NORTH STAR IN THE HEAVENS AND I MEAN FOR YOU TO BE FREE . . . .
Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman hears these words from God one summer night and decides to leave her husband and family behind and escape. Taking with her only her faith she must creep through woods with hounds at her feet, sleep for days in a potato hole, and trust people who could have easily turned her in. But she was never alone.
In lyrical text, Carole Boston Weatherford describes Tubman's spiritual journey as she hears the voice of God guiding her north to freedom on that very first trip to escape the brutal practice of forced servitude. Tubman would make nineteen subsequent trips back south, never being caught, but none as profound as this first one. Courageous, compassionate, and deeply religious, Harriet Tubman, with her bravery and relentles pursuit of freedom, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
This is a unique and moving portrait of one of the most inspiring figures of the Underground Railroad. Kadir Nelson's emotionally charged paintings embody strength, healing and hope."
In the "Foreward" we are told "From 1619 to 1865, Africans and their descendants were enslaved in colonial America and the United States. This was the first time in history that enslavement was based solely on skin colour. As property, slaves in the United States had no rights. A person born a slave was a slave for life and was forced to work long hours at sometimes dangerous tasks. Slaves who disobeyed could be severely punished. Further, slaves could be sold by one master to another. Such sales often separated slave families forever. Many states forbade slaves to learn to read and write. Slaves had almost no chance of improving themselves or their living conditions. In 1820, there were about 1.5 million slaves in the United States. By 1861, the slave population had risen to more than 4 million. Slaves were stirred by sermons about the ancient Israelites' journey out of Egypt and drew hope from African American spirituals -- songs that sometimes contained coded messages to aid escapes. Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves escaped to freedom through a loose network of helpers and hideaways known as the Underground Railroad."
The text is written as a poetical prayer ... almost like a Psalm. Harriet "talks" with God and receives responses from nature or is "inspired" to do the right thing. "God speaks in a whip-poor-will's song. Harriet sees the stars twinkling. God wraps her in the blanket of night. And God whispers back in the breeze."
When Harriet prays, "Lord, send me a sign. Owl screeches." She knew the hour had come and slipped into the night. When she isn't sure what to do and prays "I don't know who to trust, Lord" the answer comes "SEARCH FOR MY FACE IN THEIRS AND FOR MY HANDS IN THEIR WORK. WHAT HAVE YOU IN YOUR HANDS?"
"At nightfall, Harriet climbs into a wagon, and the farmer covers her with blankets. As the wagon wobbles along, Harriet worries that it is heading to jail. Should I leap, Lord?
|... Hiding in a wagon ...|
"A boatman rows her upriver. Back on shore, hounds snarl, sniff for Harriet's trail. She races as fast as she can. Lord, I can't outrun them."
|... Rowed upriver...|
"SHED YOUR SHOES; WADE IN THE WATER TO TRICK THE DOGS."
"Upstream, the barking ceases and fear washes away. Thank You, Lord."
For a week Harriet hides in a potato hole, as word has been received that patrollers are nabbing runaways up ahead. "Have You deserted me, Lord?" she asks.
|... Hiding in a potato hole ...|
"And old prayer comes back to her. Lord, make me strong. Help me fight."
"After seven days, Harriet rises from that hole like a sapling, reaches for the sun as if to touch God's hand. By moonlight, she marches on, making her way mile after rugged mile, hiding in haystacks, attics and barns, holding God's hand all the while. She often wearies. How far, Lord?
"AS FAR AS YOU CAN WALK WITH ME, MY CHILD, AND I CAN CARRY YOU."
"When Harriet is about to drop, a couple in a wagon ride by. They say slavery is a sin, and they take her on the last leg of her journey. NOT FAR NOW, CHILD, NOT FAR NOW."
"In the Promised Land, Philadelphia, the sun shines gold in the trees and Harriet feels light as a cloud. She studies herself from head to toe to see if she has wings. Is this heaven, Lord? NOT HEAVEN, HARRIET, FREE SOIL."
Although Harriet enjoys her newfound freedom, she prays, "Lord, I am a stranger here; All my kin are down south. As Harriet dusts, her family's faces appear in the wood grain. She wipes a tear from the table."
Harriet feels like God says to her "WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THEM. THEN GO BACK FOR THEM, DAUGHTER. BUT FIRST, GO TO MY HOUSE TO PREPARE FOR THE JOURNEY."
"And Harriet goes to church, finds not just holy ground but a stopping place, a station along the Underground Railroad that slaves travel to freedom. Harriet hands out shirts and shoes, serves butterbeans and biscuits to newly arrived runaways, while agents who plot escape paths pass on secret routes that she learns by heart. Finally a conductor; a guide, she turns to God. I am ready, Lord. Lead me."
"HARRIET, I WILL MAKE A WAY FOR YOU."
"Risking her own life, Harriet returns to the dreaded South and rescues her family. But she dreams of slaves still in the yoke. She hears their groans, sees their tears, tosses and turns in her sleep. Then, God opens her eyes."
"HARRIET, BE THE MOSES OF YOUR PEOPLE."
Like the Biblical Moses, Harriet protested and said, "But I am a lowly woman, Lord."
Reassurance came. "HARRIET, I HAVE BLESSED YOU WITH A STRONG BODY, A CLEVER MIND. YOU HEAL THE SICK AND SEE THE FUTURE. USE YOUR GIFTS TO BREAK THE CHAINS."
"I will do as You say, Lord. I will show others the way to freedom that You have shown me."
"SAVE ALL YOU CAN, DAUGHTER."
"And Harriet heeds God's call, goes south again and again, keeps her bands of runaways moving -- come storms and rough country -- clear to Canada: Canaanland. And when free souls sing her praises, she gives glory where it is due."
"It wasn't me. It was the Lord. I always trust Him to lead me and He always does."
An "Author's Note" at the conclusion of the book says, "this fictional story is based on the spiritual journey of Harriet Tubman -- as a slave in Maryland; a free woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. Courageous, compassionate, and deeply religious, Tubman saw visions and spoke to God. She believed the Lord called her to free slaves on the Underground Railroad. Her strong faith not only helped her to escape from slavery, but to lead others to freedom."
The remainder of the "Author's Note" gives biographical details from Tubman's life. Much of this information is included in our blog post "Escape North" [March 24, 2011]. Weatherford recounts some of these facts, with a few minor differences.
"One of eleven children of Benjamin and Harriet Ross, Tubman was born into slavery around 1820 on a Bucktown, Maryland plantation. Named Araminta at birth and nicknamed "Minty," Tubman was just seven years old when she was hired out -- rented by her master to another household -- to care for a baby. She was forced to rock the cradle day and night. When the baby cried, Tubman was whipped."
"Eventually, she rebelled against the mistreatment. Once she ran away and hid in a pigpen for several days to avoid a beating. Another time, after Tubman went to work in the fields, she disobeyed an order to tie up a slave who had escaped. When the slave fled again, the master struck Tubman in the head with a two-pound weight, nearly killing her. For the rest of her life, she bore a scar and suffered with severe headaches, blackouts and fits of speechlessness."
"As a young woman, Tubman chopped wood with her father. In the forest, he taught her to gather nuts and berries, make cures from plants and roots, predict the weather, and follow the stars. By adulthood, Tubman had taken her mother's name, Harriet."
"In 1844, Harriet's master forced her to marry John Tubman. When her owner died in 1849, she heard she would be separated from her family and sold south, where slavery was even harsher. Harriet decided to run away, even though her husband refused to go with her and threatened to tell the master. Trusting God, Harriet fled alone on the Underground Railroad, a loosely organized network of safe houses, secret routes, codes and signs, and abolitionists, people who opposed slavery. She journeyed ninety miles, mostly on foot, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Finally free, Harriet felt reborn."
"But she worried about her loved ones still enslaved down south. Vowing to free them, she saved the money she earned as a cook and maid. At a church that was an Underground Railroad station, she learned secret routes and the locations of safe houses."
"In 1851, Harriet returned to Maryland and led her brothers to freedom. Again and again she returned to the South, risking her life to free other slaves. Guided by God, she led her bands of runaways hundreds of miles. She talked to God as to a friend and she heeded His commands. In time, she became known as "the Moses of her people." Slave masters offered a forty-thousand-dollar reward for Harriet's capture. To outsmart slave catchers, she took different routes and donned disguises. She used medicine to hush crying babies and threatened to shoot runaways who begged to turn back. In 1857, Harriet carried her aging parents to Canada. By 1860, she had gone south nineteen times and freed as many as three hundred slaves. She never lost a passenger."
"Harriet Tubman died in 1913."
"WELL DONE, MOSES, WELL DONE."