In "A Note About the Story" at the back of the picture book, we learn this is an "imagined journey. It is a fictitious story inspired by the Underground Railroad, and it mixes fact and folklore. The Underground Railroad, of course was not actually underground. Nor was it a railroad. It was a secret network of people who helped others to escape slavery. It was most active in the 1850's, in the years just before the Civil War."
Hopkinson also tells her readers: "Just as we don't learn the name of the girl who tells this story, we don't know the names of most who escaped on the Underground Railroad. Activities took place in secret and weren't written down. Those fleeing slavery faced incredible danger and hardships. The free blacks and whites who helped them also faced risks. Many stories have grown up around quilts and the Underground Railroad. Some think quilts included hidden meanings or were hung to mark safe houses, while others believe these stories are simply folklore."
"We do know that fugitives were hidden in many ways, sometimes in secret rooms or tunnels, other times in wagons with false bottoms, or simply under straw in back of carts. We also know from songs like "Follow the Drinking Gourd" that enslaved people used the North Star to help them locate north, where Canada and freedom lay. In this story, the girl finds a star someone has carved in the floor as a hopeful sign of freedom."
"When I was a fourth grader, the Underground Railroad was mentioned in just a few lines in our history textbook. Today many books and Internet sites have information about this part of our history. In communities people are working together to remember family stories and to find and preserve Underground Railroad routes and houses. But some of our past may always be hidden from us, " explains Hopkinson.
|... a quilted pattern on the first and last pages of the book ...|
|... RUNNING ...|
The next stanza says, "I'm running far away from the farm where the master worked us, hoeing and picking, mending and sewing till my hands got raw."
The master is hot on the trail of the slaves. The girl says he wants to track her and "chase me till my breath is gone, fence me in to be a slave again." But the unnamed girl, at the heart of the story, will have none of that and says, ". . . I'll make my steps quick whispers in the dark. I'll run where he won't find me, under the quilt of night." The group of slaves find a hidden boat alongside a river and cross safely to the other side.
The next section is called, "Waiting." It is written in such a way that you can imagine what it was like to be with the slaves awaiting nightfall. "Runaways like us must hide in daylight. So come morning we crouch in the bushes till night. It's hot. Sweat dribbles down my neck. Thorns rake my arms and legs. In the still afternoon, mosquitoes whine and tease just like the overseer's children did. All I can do is wait for the cover of darkness. Oh, if only I could dance into the open and sing so loud the stars would hear and hurry out to guide our way!"
"Watching" is the next part of the book. Hopkinson writes, "We run and hide, run and hide. My cuts sting, my bites itch. I'm hungry all the time. One day at dusk we make our way to the patch of woods at the edge of a town. There are more houses here, people, roads -- danger. The others rest, while I keep watch for a sign from the Underground Railroad -- the friends who will help us get free. . . . Then I see a woman walk through her yard wearing a plain dress. On her arm she carries a quilt to air. She hangs it over the fence, then looks to the woods, just once. I stare with all my might. I know what to look for: in most quilts, center squares are red for home and hearth. But these centers are a dark, deep blue. This house hides runaways!"
"I'm brave enough to go forward first. When at last the stars are up, I pull the darkness around me and run through long, wet grass. My foot trembles on the wooden step, and my knock is shivery and quick -- like the beating of my heart. 'Who's there?' comes a voice. I swallow hard before I give the password. What if I am wrong? But I trust the quilt, so I say, 'The friend of a friend.' "
|... A signal??|
But soon their sleep is disturbed. In the portion of the book called "Traveling" the girl is awoken abruptly. " 'Wake up! Hurry! Your master and his men are close behind!' Our friend whisks us through the last folds of night and hides us deep in his wagon. The cold boards make me shiver. Straw pricks my skin like needles. We go north across a bridge, under trees, a zigzag of here and there. We can't turn back -- we would be beaten, sold away, our chances gone for good. We must go on or die. I hang on tight. Fear is so real, it lies here beside me. The wagon rattles, horses clomp. Suddenly I tremble. Voices! We're caught."
|... "We're looking for runaways..."|
The final chapter of the book is called, "Singing." "Birds wake, a rooster calls. I listen to night softly falling away. We stop at a little church deep in a piney wood. I pick the straw from my hair and rub my stiff, cramped legs. Our friend takes a stick and draws a map in the dirt of the road we'll take to Canada. 'These good folks will carry you on,' he says. 'You're almost to freedom now.'
|... "You're almost to freedom now..."|
|... "Freedom! I take a deep breath and when I let go my voice flies up in song."|