Friday, January 04, 2013

Reader's Diary #929- Barbara Smucker: Underground to Canada


Taken away from her mother by a ruthless slave trader, all Julilly has left is the dream of freedom. Every day that she spends huddled in the slave trader’s wagon travelling south or working on the brutal new plantation, she thinks about the land where it is possible to be free, a land she and her friend Liza may reach someday. So when workers from the Underground Railroad offer to help the two girls escape, they are ready. But the slave catchers and their dogs will soon be after them…

From a historical perspective I quite enjoyed Barbara Smucker's Underground to Canada, a tale of two American slave girls escaping to Canada via the metaphorical "underground railroad," a system of kind-hearted, risk-taking individuals who opposed slavery. Of course, "kind-hearted" and "risk-taking" don't really do justice to the heroic feats of such people, just as referring to the escapees simply as "brave" wouldn't begin to capture the mindset of the slaves. Smucker does a good job in introducing the idea of depth to younger readers. Older readers, like myself, could use even more fleshing out, but at the very least Smucker gets the point across that the world is full of different kinds of people. Fortunately, as seems to be a major theme of the book, more people fall on the good side of the spectrum than evil. The story of slaves escaping to Canada is clearly important for both Canadians and Americans to know, but at first I was concerned that Canada was being made out to be the land of milk of honey, so that Canadian readers could sit back and pat themselves on their backs and brag about how much better than the Americans we are. Certainly in the beginning of the book, that is the way Canada is presented to Julilly and Liza. Near the end, thankfully, Smucker acknowledges that things would still not be easy for black people in Canada. Underground to Canada is often taught in Canadian schools and I would like to think that even more of Canada's history (the good and the bad) with minority groups is discussed for a more balanced picture. Of course, for Julilly and Liza, perhaps a more sugar-coated version of reality was necessary at the beginning of their travel, for it gave them hope. Finally, I liked Smucker's use of slave songs. While acknowledging that often times the songs were coded plans, she doesn't lose sight of the fact that they also provided comfort and a sense of connection with other slaves.

All of that could of course be presented in a nonfiction format, and may or may not be as interesting. Unfortunately, I wasn't crazy about the plot of Underground to Canada. I understand that luck played an important role in escape, but Smucker takes it to an unrealistic extreme that I found rather annoying, insulting to a reader's intelligence. Often Jullily and Liza are told to follow such and such a river and someone will meet them at point X. Miraculously the people always show up on time, as if the routes were so predictable that everyone took exactly the same time to travel them. They're given a compass to use and simply know how to do it. They're being pursued but it doesn't take a savvy reader to learn way too early on that given Smucker's convenient coincidences, Julilly and Liza will never be in any real danger and it strips the book of any real suspense.

I'd say it's a decent introduction to a part of our history that many young people might otherwise be unfamiliar with, at least until a better book comes along. But maybe that book already exists and I'm unaware of it. Any suggestions?

6 comments:

Kate said...

I read this book when I was young, and loved it! I re-read it multiple times, probably from age 10-15 but haven't re-read it since (I think that I loved it so much that I loaned it to someone else to read and never got it back...). I don't know how it would stand up as an adult reader.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I don't know of any YA books about the Underground Railroad, but the flaws in this one sound as though they are not a deal breaker.

John Mutford said...

Kate: It's never a guarantee is it, that something we enjoyed as a child will still pass muster as an adult. I was recently pleasantly surprised that a Betsy Byars book I loved as a child still held up. But if I was to try watching the Dukes of Hazzard again, I'd quickly see that isn't always the case.

Barbara: I still think there's a better book waiting to be written.

leavesandpages said...

I thought it was prety good for what it was - meaning, I guess, the audience it was intended for. It read like a "novel", and not like a lesson plan, so it got high points from me for that very reason. You nailed the same flaws I noticed, though!

I've not seen anything else similar, at least not by a Canadian author. (Doesn't mean there isn't anything out there, though.) But it says something that UtoC is still in print & so widely read so long after its original publication.

Probably Smucker's best book, if I recall the others by her which we read quite some years ago, when the children here were early grade school age.

Perogyo said...

I don't know anything similar either, although I would like to see one. One I did like for the issues of how black people were treated in Canada after they arrived (or their ancestors did) is Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged, which I reviewed last year. It's aimed at a younger audience so it isn't as in-depth as one might like, though.
http://www.perogiesandgyoza.com/2012/02/viola-desmond-wont-be-budged.html

Faith Hope Cherrytea said...

Read as written for its intended audience, I think it's a great book and intro to our part of black history .