A Desperate Road To Freedom

I always enjoy a good crossover book! I mean, this isn’t truly a crossover because no such thing exists, but if it did, this would be it. Also, this is just a good book, which helps.

A Desperate Road To Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson, Virginia to Canada West, 1863-1864¸Karleen Bradford, 2009.

julia may jackson.jpg

For starters, Lawrence Hill, who wrote The Book of Negroes, is one of the consulting authors listed in here, which is a pretty good sign that it’s going to be good. I’ve found that Karleen Bradford’s books have been a little bit hit-or-miss, but overall pretty solid, and if I had to rank them, I’d put this one at the top, even with its issues. Almost a quarter of this book takes place in the States, to start with, which is why I want to classify it as a crossover, if only such a thing existed. I mean, if I had my way the shelves would be jammed with quality historical fiction for kids and we wouldn’t need a crossover, but this is a book I’d like to see available on both sides of the border. So often in the States the story about the Underground Railroad goes “and then they went to Canada, the end,” which is not a particularly satisfying ending! And in Canada the story is usually “they came to Canada, and things were great, the end,” which is also not a particularly true ending. And that’s where this book comes into play.

Julia is one of six children as a slave in Virginia, but only three of them are left—her three older siblings, two brothers and a sister, having been sold off. So it’s just her older brother Thomas, younger brother Joseph, and her, in the middle—with her parents. Julia has learned to read and write, but kept it a secret, and now writing in her journal is her only solace since everyone is acting “so strange!” The war has come close to their plantation in Virginia, and Julia’s parents have decided that in the confusion this is the time, so they decide to run.

It’s the middle of January, so they’re freezing traveling only at night, and “carried” north by Underground Railroad conductors, staying in hen houses and barns during the day. They manage to make it to a Union fortress after a couple of weeks (a couple of WEEKS, which sounds horrifying), but they can’t stay there too long. Instead they keep going north—crossing rivers, falling down ravines, and it takes them MONTHs—they don’t reach Rochester until April, which sounds even more horrifying. When they finally reach Toronto, across the lake, Julia is amazed that she can go to school and they can live normally—her parents can work for wages, she can go to school, they can go to church whenever they please. Julia’s mother works as a laundress at a hotel, and it seems like things are very comfortable for them there until a boy about Thomas’s age turns up, having come all the way from Alabama. The next thing they know, Thomas announces to the family that he and Jeremiah are going back to the States to enlist in the army, which just about wrecks their poor parents.

Anyway, things continue to get worse when Joseph and then Julia herself come down with scarlet fever, and once they’re recovered, who shows up but their former owners??? At the hotel Julia’s mother works at!!! But that’s the last straw, and her parents opt to leave again with the Longs, a family they’ve befriended, who have family north of the city. So off they go again, traveling during the day instead of hiding, and I have to say I greatly enjoyed all the name-dropping of what today are suburbs of Toronto—Richmond Hill, Bolton, Mono Mills, and so on. Anyway, things don’t work out at the Longs’ family place, either, where there’s no more land left for blacks, so they keep on going north to Owen Sound.

Turns out in Owen Sound there’s a landowner who’s friendly to escaped slaves, and gives them a place to stay while they get their feet under them. It’s July by this point, so there’s no school, but Julia makes herself busy by helping out Mrs. Long and her mother. She even befriends a white girl, Amelia, and collects a dog—the first pet she’s ever had. Her father gets a job in a stable, and her mother as a laundress, and all the while Joseph is constantly creating trouble for all of them. Noah Long, who’s just about Julia’s age and not-quite-a-friend, finds himself getting into trouble as soon as school starts as well, getting into a fight with a white boy. As it turns out, the boys are calling him “a word I haven’t heard since we left Virginia and I’m not going to repeat it here,” Julia writes. But as much as it sucks and she feels like Noah has been hard done by, she can’t say anything to her white teacher, who pretty much told Noah just to come back when he’s ready to behave properly.

Another blow comes when Julia says she wants to be a teacher, and her teacher says “Oh, Julia May, you couldn’t possibly…” and then trails off—meaning, of course, she can’t be a teacher, because she’s black. When she complains to Amelia about this, she asks why she’d want to be a teacher anyway—and Julia realizes that sometimes even your friends can have giant blind spots.

As it happens, Julia has a beautiful singing voice, and the people at the white church hear about it and ask her to come and sing for them on Sunday. It goes splendidly—she sounds wonderful, everyone tells her how beautiful she sounds, and they ask her to come back the next week to sing again. But next week Julia brings her mother to hear her, and that goes over like a lead balloon—everyone is just shy of out-and-out rude to them, no one says jack to her about her singing, and Amelia’s mother says “Imagine. Bringing her mother here! Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” Julia is unbelievably upset and refuses to talk to Amelia, either at home or at school, and doesn’t understand why her friend’s mother is so awful.

It begins to snow, though, and Amelia goes missing and Julia manages to find her and bring her back home. But when Amelia says she wants to be friends again, Julia says even if they are she’s never going to go back to her house, and then Amelia throws a fit about how if she was a true Christian she’d be able to forgive, and Julia points out that Amelia’s mother never actually apologized for anything she did. This part is just so horribly realistic, and awful, but good—it’s awful that it’s so true to life, but really good and well-written all at the same time. Julia can’t perfectly articulate why it is that it makes her so insane with rage, and why she’s so upset with Amelia, and Amelia has no idea why Julia is so upset. It’s just so upsetting and good. And sometimes the people that you like, and that you want to trust, end up just being garbage in some ways. It doesn’t mean they’re totally garbage. Just that good people can have garbage aspects to them.

In December, though, Amelia turns up at the coloured church to see Julia, which surprises poor Julia—and she thinks that maybe Amelia really is a good friend with crappy parents. Just in time for Christmas, as it happens. As happy as Julia’s family is to be celebrating their first Christmas in freedom, they’re desperately sad—missing the four kids who aren’t in freedom with them. But just shortly after that they hear from Sarah herself! She’s been found, with her husband and infant, in Toronto after fleeing there, so Julia’s father heads off to go and fetch them. It takes a month, which sounds outrageous, but it’s winter and they have to go by sled. When they finally come back, Julia is beyond ecstatic to see them—her sister Sarah, her husband Miles, their baby Liza.

Then just before the end, Julia’s mother has another baby, and it seems like their family is on its way to being reunited once again.

In the epilogue, Thomas returns home after the war—badly wounded, but alive, and moves to Toronto to work as a waiter. Julia marries Noah, and while she never manages to become a teacher herself, one of her granddaughters does, and taught at a country school for black children. Amelia married a doctor and remained good friends with Julia, Joseph worked as a stablehand and married a woman equally as nutty about horses, and Julia’s mother became one of the most well-known seamstresses in Owen Sound. But they never managed to find Julia’s two eldest brothers, Caleb and Daniel, who had been sold off so long ago.

Rating: B+. I liked it so much, but it didn’t grab me enough to cross over into “A” territory. Why? I couldn’t tell you. It’s a blend of a travelogue-style diary and a slice-of-life style diary, without ever quite crossing into either territory head-on, but that’s not why it suffers. All of the characters are interesting and complex and nuanced, there’s no preachiness, there’s plenty of internal conflict and strife. And external. I really enjoyed how the racism isn’t treated like an afterthought or “oh and it also happens here” sometimes—it’s front and centre everywhere they go in Canada, even in places where things might be less intense. So why can’t it cross over into the A rating? As much as I like Karleen Bradford’s writing, it seems to me that it lacks a certain spark that really carries some other novels. It’s good! But it needs just a little bit of extra zest.

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3 thoughts on “A Desperate Road To Freedom

    • That’s such a hard one for me but ultimately I think the Dear Canada books are overall better-written and more interesting to me. Dear America definitely has the edge on variety, since there’s more of them and a lot more popular topics, and they get to cover more niche subjects, but ultimately I’d give the edge to Dear Canada. Once I’ve finished all the Dear Canadas, Dear Americas, and Royal Diaries, I’ll rank them all from best to worst. (And eventually, one fine day, if I ever get around to I Am Canada/My Name is America, I’ll do those too. One day.)

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