It is such a great pleasure to have the chance to write about a book that I unequivocally loved--Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith (2008, Lee & Low Books, Inc., 40 pages). And I am not alone in my strong feelings for this book:
"Awesome!" said my five year old. "Is there another book about him?"
"Cool!" said my eight year old. "Read it to us again."
I shall. This copy, that I was lucky enough to get from the publisher, will stay in our home library. And lest the publisher have any uncertainties about sending free books to bloggers, let me say that they are guaranteed at least one more sale, because I am buying it for my local public library.
So. There is young Robert Smalls, growing up a slave in South Carolina, getting a job in Charlestown, but having to send the money back to his master. He falls in love with another slave, they marry, and have children. But always there is the threat that they might be sold hanging over their heads. When the Civil War begins, there is new hope, but Robert is now working for the Confederate Army, piloting a river boat between the forts of South Carolina's rivers.
But when the white captain and crew of the boat fall into the habit of spending their nights ashore, leaving Robert and other enslaved African Americans on board alone, Robert dreams up a daring plan of escape--to take the boat, pick up their families from the shore, and escape past the numerous forts to freedom, seven miles away down the river, where the Union navy waits at sea. Robert knows the signal codes for safe passage past each fort, but with the sun rising, will the lookouts realize he is black, and open fire? And will the Union ships recognize them as friend, or foe?
This is a masterpiece of suspense, told in simple yet powerful words. All three of us were at the edge of our seats. And although Halfmann makes clear the evils of slavery, she does not fall into the traps of cheap rhetoric or over-emotional pity for the slaves whose story she tells. This is a great book!
I was so gripped by the story that I didn't want to stop and look at the pictures (sorry, Mr. Smith). And in a way I think this is a good thing. The eyes of my children were studying the paintings--bold brush strokes with little detail--but they were not the busy sort of pictures that work well in some books, but which can be distracting. In particular (going back after the fact to study the illustrations more closely), I loved the picture of Robert Smalls holding his first born--a tender picture of a black American father with his baby that the world of picture books is richer for having. Duane Smith is black himself, and it ends the book perfectly, I think, that his face on the jacket flap is the last picture one sees.
Janet Halfmann provides a densely written page telling what happens next to Robert Smalls and his family (more adventure, sorrow, hope, hard work, and great disappointment). There is a real picture of him, driving the point home that he is a real live person, despite the fact that his adventures are told in a picture book. She closes the book with his own words:
"My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life." These words were spoken by Robert Small, former five-term United States Congressman, at the 1895 constitutional convention, at which South Caroline restricted the rights of African American to vote to such an extent as to virtually disenfranchise them.
So in the spirit of those words, don't wait till February, African American History Month, to read this book to your children, or put it in the hands of your teenagers, or place it, face out, in your library.
Here's another review from The Well Read Child who I was amused to see also didn't look at the pictures the first time through, and another from Fuse #8.
For more nonfiction, head over to Non-Fiction Monday, at Picture Book of the Day!