Freedom Stone, by Jeffrey Kluger (Philomel 2011, middle grade, 316 pages), for Timeslip Tuesday
"There were two kinds of slaves on the plantation Lillie and her family called home: those who could sleep on the night before the slave seller came and those who couldn't." (page 1)
Lillie has lived all her thirteen years as a slave on a plantation in South Carolina, in the shelter of her parents' love. But when the Confederate Army promised freedom for the family of any slave who joined up, her father went off to the war...and never came back. And the promise of freedom for his family was broken when he killed at Vicksburg, and found to have $500 in gold on him--he was assumed to have been a thief, and the offer no longer stood.
Now the master of the plantation where Lillie lives is planning to sell some of his slaves--Lillie's little brother among them. Some of her friends, boys about her own age, are in danger too. But one wise woman, too old to work for the master, keeps hidden in her small cottage on the edge of the forest magic that she brought with her straight from Africa. She has stones that slow time...and their power can send a girl, and her friend, back in time, and even across space.
If she can reach the battlefield before her papa gets killed, Lillie can find the truth about the mysterious gold...even if she can't bring him back.
Reading about slavery is hard. Kluger doesn't shy away from both the underlying horror of Lillie's life--the basic underpinnings of slavery she takes for granted that appal the modern reader--and he doesn't shy away from the overt horror of forced labor, physical punishment, and the forced separation of families. But yet he manages to tell a story in which these horrors aren't the main thing of importance--what is important is Lillie's determination, and her identity as a Girl, not as a slave.
Lillie comes through crystal clear, making the story something with more light than darkness. The magic brought from Africa requires considerable suspension of disbelief, but likewise makes the story one about people with a past and a place away from the plantation.
The true time travel part of the story (Lillie's visit to Vicksburg) takes only a few brief pages, and is rather an abrupt departure from the tightly woven life on the plantation that makes up the bulk of the book. Since it's an example of time travel in the service of the plot, rather than time travel as a chance to explore the past, it didn't need to be any longer than it was. And the abruptness of the transition to the carnage of the battlefield on which Lillie finds herself added, I thought, in Kluger's description of the horrors of war.
In summary, this story of magic and slavery and a brave girl risking her life to save her family is a good book--engaging and interesting. It's a book I highly recommend for its writing, for its detailed and evocative description of a sad part of the past, and for its central character. And yet I never felt entirely convinced by the story...
I think this is because I was never able to relate to Lillie in a deep and meaningful way, because I know more (intellectually) than she does about slavery. To her, it is the (admittedly very difficult and sometimes unhappy) way life is, and it is only as the book progresses that she seems to loose the protection of childhood and realize how desperately important freedom is. I think I might have held back from her a bit, because I lacked any of that protective naivete.
For that reason, I think this is probably a book that would work a lot better for a 5th or 6th grade reader, who would be growing up with Lillie, than it did for me. This is a book I can imagine being required reading for years to come in classrooms studying the Civil War, one that its readers might well find so engrossing that they might not realize how well they are being educated.