The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad

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Greenwood, Barbara (1998). The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad. Scholastic: New York.

While there are many excellent resources for teaching children about the Underground Railroad and slavery,  the majority are geared toward upper elementary readers, and can be overwhelming in their intensity. Those geared toward younger students are often well written fiction, but leave out much of the historical knowledge we want our kids to learn. If I had to pick only one title for literature based instruction on this subject for an audience of second through fourth graders, it would be The Last Safe House. Barbara Greenwood’s story of a young girl whose family is hiding an escaped slave is beautifully interwoven between chapters with descriptions about the African-American experience in the mid-nineteenth century.

Suitable as a one to two-week unit study, nearly all curriculum areas can easily be incorporated with this one title. Students will learn several of the code words used in the Underground Railroad such as parcel, conductor, and stations. A map of North America in 1856 depicts the major escape routes and which states were slave or free. The origin of slavery in America, with the captivity of men and women on the west coast of Africa is explained. Historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Ross, Levi Coffin, and Mary Ann Shadd are introduced. Detailed illustrations of cotton plantations are provided as are what the roles of African-Americans on these were. The implications of the invention of the cotton gin and Lincoln’s  Emancipation Proclamation are discussed. Science can be incorporated through the finding of Polaris (The North Star). Projects include a recipe for gingerbread cookies and instructions on making a lantern out of a tin can. Additional reading skills which can be taught with this resource include using a glossary, an index, and a bibliography.

Canadian Barbara Greenwood also collaborated with illustrator Heather Collins on A Pioneer Sampler, A Pioneer Christmas, and Gold Rush Fever.

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The Journeyman

Yates, Elizabeth (1990). The Journeyman. Greenville: BJU Press.

Yates, Elizabeth (1943). Patterns on the Wall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.                      (Original title. All quote citations are taken from this.)

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One of the things I am looking forward to in Heaven is having tea and conversation with author Elizabeth Yates. While she is perhaps best known for her Newbery winner Amos Fortune, Free Man, my personal favorite of the more than forty books she has written, is The Journeyman. Originally titled Patterns on the Wall, it is the story of an itinerant stenciler in New Hampshire in 1816, a year so harsh in weather that desperate farmers give in to fear, and seek someone to blame for their struggles.

Jared Austin is apprenticed at twelve to a painter, freeing him from the hatred of his abusive father, but not his fear of him. Mr. Toppan takes him under his wing not only in teaching him to stencil, but in faith, and in becoming a man.

“What do you mean by keeping true?” Jared asked, laying down his brush to rest his arm.

Mr. Toppan looked at him until his eyes seemed not to see the boy Jared, but the man Jared might become, then he said quietly, “It’s letting God take your hand so that it does the work He wants you to do.” (p.46, Patterns on the Wall)

And this lesson takes deep root in Jared’s heart. God gives him a vision in the trees of the woods, buffeted by the wind, but remaining ever faithful. Here is just the tiniest excerpt from this passage:

“Ah,” the wind wailed, clutching at gold and scarlet and green, “how can you hold those banners high when evil still stalks the earth?”

The trees quivered and were silent. The wind raged around them and his fury brought down cascades of leaves which he sent hurling over the dry ground.

“We hold our banners high in faith, O wind,” (p.84, Patterns on the Wall)

The vision, coupled with the roots of faith established during his apprenticeship, serve Jared well, and he holds firm to the knowledge that he has placed his hand in God’s, and has no need to fear, even when everyone and everything around him indicates otherwise. Jared brings with him encouragement and truth wherever he goes.

I’ve read many books, both Christian and secular. Never have I seen faith woven into story with such subtlety, the two inseparable. Savoring this work at least half a dozen times I love every character as if they were personal friends. Suitable as a family read-aloud with children ten and up, it is also a treasure for adolescent readers, and moms as well.

 

Jefferson’s Sons

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2011). Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

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This book fascinated me. While it is far from the first children’s book I’ve read on slavery, the uniqueness of it’s plot: what would become of the “secret” children of one of our founding fathers, coupled with the question of how a man remembered for penning the phrase “all men are created equal” did not recognize the atrocities of slavery on his own plantation, had me spellbound.

Jefferson’s Sons takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century and it’s setting is almost exclusively at his farm in Monticello. Following the death of his wife, Jefferson fathers several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. (In this time period it would not have been legal for him to marry Sally, however their relationship is only portrayed positively). Four of their children survive, and the story is told in first-person narrative through the eyes of two of the sons, Beverly and Maddy, and later another young slave named Peter.

This is a serious subject, and not a light-hearted story. Bradley eases the brutality for young readers by reserving the worst atrocities it depicts for the more minor characters. Just the same the main characters are witnesses to cruelty, injustice, and pain, and express what it feels like to not be free.

As a homeschooling mom I would not recommend this book even as a read-aloud for children younger than fifth grade. Slavery is hard to understand- especially when it’s nature contradicts the rights we have to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But this contradiction is thought provoking, offers an excellent written response opportunity, and fits in beautifully to any pre-civil war American history curriculum. We even connected it to Mendelian genetics, if you can believe that!

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a wonderful writer and the author of one of my all time favorite books, The War That Saved My Life (soon to be featured on “The Homeschooling Mom’s Guide to the Best in Children’s Literature” as well). Other excellent titles by this author include Weaver’s Daughter, Ruthie’s Gift, and Halfway to the Sky.