Thursday, 4 August 2011

BOOK REVIEWS ~ "Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt" ~ By: Deborah Hopkinson

What can I saw about "Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt?"  This is a SWEET picture book about what it was like to be a slave and to decide to runaway, via the Underground Railroad, to freedom.  Deborah Hopkinson's text is accompanied by bright paintings done by the artist, James Ransome.  Ransome dedicates his contribution to the book to "Emma Ransom, the first slave of Pattie and General Matt W. Ransom, and all other Ransom slaves on Verona Plantation."  It's obviously a family connection...

This fictional story begins before Clara "was even twelve years old" and is told from her perspective.  Although we don't know if an actual Clara ever existed, the touching story is based on facts taken from the lives of those who were slaves and managed to escape through the Underground Railroad.

Clara was "sent from North Farm to Home Plantation 'cause they needed another field hand.  When I got there, I cried so much they thought I was never gon' eat or drink again.  I didn't want to leave my Momma."  Clara works with another slave, known as "Young Jack" and eventually begins to adjust to her new way of life, though she is still secretly determined to find her Mother.

The dialogue is written in an Afro-American southern dialect and outlines how her Aunt Rachel (who "was raising me now" although "she wasn't my for-real blood aunt") taught Clara to be a seamstress so that she could avoid the harsh conditions out in the fields.  While working in the house she overheard many things and was able to create a "map" to freedom sewn out of scraps of cloth, leftover from her sewing projects.

"I worked on the quilt for a long time.  Sometimes months would go by and I wouldn't get any pieces sewn in it.  Sometimes I had to wait to get the right kind of cloth -- I had blue calico and flowered blue silk for creeks and rivers, and greens and blue-greens for the fields, and white sheeting for roads.  Missus liked to wear pink a lot, so Big House, the Quarters, and finally, the Big House at the North Farm, they was all pink."

"The quilt got bigger and bigger, and if folks knew what I was doin' no one said.  But they came by the sewin' room to pass the time of day whenever they could. 'By the way, Clara,' a driver might tell me.  'I heard the master sayin' yesterday he didn't want to travel to Mr. Morse's place 'cause it's over twenty miles north o' here.' "

"Or someone would sit eatin' Cook's food and say, so as I could hear, 'Word is they gon' plant corn in the three west fields on the Verona plantation this year.' "

"When the master went out huntin', Cook's husband was the guide.  He come back and say, 'That swamp next to Home Plantation is a nasty place.  But listen up, Clara, and I'll tell you how I thread my way in and out of there as smooth as yo' needle in that cloth.' "

"Then one night the quilt was done.  I looked at it spread out in the dim light of the cabin.  Aunt Rachel studied it for the longest time.  She touched the stitches lightly, her fingers moving slowly over the last piece I'd added -- a hidden boat that would carry us across the Ohio River.  Finally, they came to rest on the bright star at the top."

"She tried to make her voice cheery.  'You always did like to make patterns and pictures, Clara.  You get yourself married to Young Jack one of these days, and you two will have a real nice quilt to sleep under.' "

" 'Aunt Rachel, I couldn't sleep under this quilt,' I answered softly, putting my hand over hers.  'Wouldn't be restful, somehow.  Anyway, I think it should stay here.  Maybe others can use it.' "

" 'Aunt Rachel sighed.  'But aine you gon' need the quilt where you goin'?' "

"I kissed her.  'Don't worry, Aunt Rachel.  I got the memory of it in my head.'  It rained hard for three days the next week.  Me and Jack left Home Plantation in a dark thunderstorm.  The day after, it was too stormy to work in the fields, so Jack wasn't missed.  And Aunt Rachel told them I was sick.  We went north, following the trail of the freedom quilt.  All the things people told me about, all the tiny stitches I took, now I could see real things.  There was the old tree struck down by lightning, the winding road near the creek, the hunting path through the swamp.  It was like being in a dream you already dreamed.  Mostly we hid during the day and walked at night.  When we got to North Farm, Jack slipped in through the darkness to find what cabin my momma at.  Then we went in to get her and found a little sister I didn't even know I had.  Momma was so surprised."

" 'Sweet Clara!  You growed so big!'  Her eyes just like I remembered, her arms strong around me."

" 'Momma, I'm here for you.  We goin' North.  We know the way.  I was afraid they wouldn't come.  But then Momma say yes.  Young Jack carried my sister Anna, and I held on to Momma's hand.  We kept on as fast as we could, skirting farms and towns and making our way through the woods.  At last, one clear dark night, we come to the Ohio River.  The river was high, but I remembered the place on the quilt where I'd marked the crossing.  We searched the brush along the banks until at last we found the little boat.  'This was hid here by folks in the Underground Railroad,' I said.  The boat carried us across the dark, deep water to the other side.  Shivering and hungry and scared, we stood looking ahead.  'Which way now?' Jack asked me."

"I pointed.  The North Star was shining clear above us.  'Up there through the woods.  North.  To Canada.' "

"Sometimes I think back to the night we left when Young Jack came to wake me.  I can still see Aunt Rachel sitting up in her bed.  She just shook her head before I could say a word."

" 'Before you go, just cover me with your quilt, Sweet Clara,' she say.  'I'm too old to walk, but not too old to dream.  And maybe I can help others follow the quilt to freedom."

"Aunt Rachel kept her word.  The quilt is there still, at Home Plantation.  People go look at it, even folks from neighbouring farms.  I know because some of them come and tell me how they used it to get free.  But not all are as lucky as we were and most never can come.  Sometimes I wish I could sew a quilt that would spread over the whole land, and the people just follow the stitches to freedom, as easy as taking a Sunday walk."

"Let My People Go"
A painting by James Ransome

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