The thrilling story of four slaves who try to escape to the northern area of the United States along the Underground Railroad in 1853.
Kelsa Colver leads her husband and two young sons on the dangerous trek after a fellow slave is murdered by a vindictive slave owner. Along the way, the Colvers are assisted by various abolitionists, including a neighboring farmer, a progressive priest, a sympathetic lawman, and notable figures Harriet Tubman and William Still. However, their efforts are impeded by a dark family secret, and the interventions of a corrupt clergyman, vicious outlaws and greedy slave hunters.
Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review.
The story Donahue has written about Kelsa and her family is a captivating tale and one that depicts the hardships people had to endure and the risks people like the Colvers took in order to have a better life. The life the Colver family on the plantation is hard and the tension is evident, each of them ever fearful of something happening to them. This fear is made worse by hearing stories from other slaves and knowing little mistakes can have major consequences.
While the Colvers personal experiences were not as horrific as those around them, the fear of their daily lives is enough to push Kelsa and her family into escaping and join up with the Underground Railroad in an effort to secure their freedom. There is a lot of danger surrounding the Colvers during their escape and Donahue makes it clear the ongoing jeopardy the family is in. The fact that they are being helped by a network of people doesn’t mean their journey is any less perilous and that their covers may be blown at any time.
Only knowing a small amount of information about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad it was really interesting to see how it worked and the secrecy of those involved. Operating by travelling through various means with the help of white people, as well as freed slaves, and reading about the effort they went through to ensure the survival and freedom of those in their care is pretty astounding.
The narrative manages to capture the tension and the immense pressure that is on the family as well as the abolitionists which adds wonderful drama to the story, never knowing what will happen. The fear Kelsa has about their journey is evident and Donahue expresses her worry in a realistic and very maternal manner. The harrowing journey from the south is filled with intolerance, vagabonds and thieves, as well as disasters that foil the best-laid plans. Quick thinking helps Kelsa navigate her family through the danger but the desire to survive is strong and sometimes self-defence is the only solution.
Kelsa is a wonderful character, she is strong willed and determined to give her family a better life, and she stands up for what is right, though ever wary of her circumstance. Everything she does is for the good of her family and she teaches her boys maths and how to read in order to give them a better chance at life. Her family is occasionally the reason they get in trouble but Kelsa handles it well, reprimanding them when needed and protecting them from others.
Donahue manages to express some of the reasons as well as the many risks slaves and abolitionists took in fighting against the law. The story demonstrates the dangers that faced those escaping and it shows that the journey to freedom was one fraught with danger and one that many took at risk to their own lives. Donahue never makes the lives of slaves or their escape seem simple, nor does he make it seem safe. The goal is always the north but the message is clear that crossing those borders is not always going to mean salvation or security and there may never be an end to the running.
One thing I liked about this story is while the story deals with slavery and living on a plantation, Donahue limits the graphic details about life for slaves without taking away its importance or the brutality. The experiences Kelsa and her family have are harsh but not explicitly shown, and many of the more gruesome and horror stories are told to them by people they meet or mentioned in passing, meaning the realities of their life and others are not ignored, but the details are kept brief and not too graphic.
Being based in a real part of history makes this story quite profound in a way. It demonstrates the hardships of life for slaves and Donahue approaches it with respect and understanding, never trying to make light of America’s past. The journey Kelsa takes with her family is a touching story that brings to life a fictionalised account of a journey that many real people took in hopes for a better life and is a reminder of the goodness of humanity but also the darkness.
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