Author: Jennifer Armstrong
Grade Level Equivalent:
Guided Reading Level:
Slavery, Underground Railroad, Abolition, Prejudice and Tolerance Experiences, Running Away, Courage, Bravery, Heroism, Friends and Friendship, Civil War Period and Reconstruction
In this subtle, powerful novel, Susannah — a teenage orphan reluctantly transplanted from Vermont to Virginia — and Bethlehem — the slave assigned to her — decide to escape together. The two young women, who alternate as narrators, have very different points of view: to Susannah, teaching her slave to read is merely a project; in leaving her stern uncle's farm, she runs only the risk of being brought back. For Bethlehem, both learning to read and running away are deadly dangerous — but the potential rewards are beyond price.
Despite the gulf between them, the two girls work together and forge a bond that lasts even after they go their separate ways, one to a comfortable life in Vermont, the other to a teaching career in Toronto. Decades later, the two women are reunited in Bethlehem's slum apartment, where she is on her deathbed. There, they tell their story to Susannah's naive granddaughter and an angry student of Bethlehem's.
The author's greatest strength lies in her ability to examine emotions without flinching. Her strong cast reacts and interacts in complex ways, each forced to consider new ideas and reexamine memories and preconceptions: Bethlehem deals with her hatred of slavery, her resentment of Susannah, and her need to go on to Canada rather than stay with the white girl who has become her friend. Susannah must come to terms with her feelings about the black race. And Susannah's granddaughter finds her eyes opened and her prejudices exposed.
Armstrong has created a distinctive tale of courage and sacrifice, with no simple resolutions. Students, forced to identify with each character's inner struggle, will find much to consider, discuss, and write about in this outstanding historical selection.