Slow Ride to Freedom

UnderFreedomTreeUnder the Freedom Tree
By Susan VanHecke
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Charlesbridge, 2014, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

One night in May 1861, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory rowed across Hampton Roads Harbor in Virginia. All were enslaved men toiling for the Confederate Army for Fort Monroe, the Union-controlled northern portion of the harbor, where they hoped they would find freedom. Although the Fugitive Slave Act required him to return the men to the Confederate forces, General Benjamin Butler demurred. Instead, he declared the men enemy property and allowed them to live at the Fort. There, they –  and about ten thousand other men, women, and children who followed them – set up small communities and performed manual labor for the Union Army. All the time, they awaited their fate: would real freedom ever be theirs?

In Under the Freedom Tree, Susan VanHecke and illustrator London Ladd tell the story of the people who flocked to Fort Monroe to be contraband. VanHecke’s verse narrative avoids both cloying rhyme and bloated free verse, using a mixture of rhymed and unrhymed stanzas of varying lengths, often with the repeated refrain of “the old oak tree.” In this way, VanHecke evokes the form of earlier eras while bringing a modern sensibility to the subject. Ladd’s acrylic paintings capture both the drama of the men’s escape and the promise that awaited them. In fact, all the illustrations that depict the Confederate camp are night scenes while those at Fort Monroe are light.  In one especially luminous spread, a missionary teaches a group of children beneath the oak tree itself. Sunlight beams down on her and her open book and on the children who sit at her feet, suggesting the hope that education will bring them.

Under the Freedom Tree is a moving book about a little-known aspect of the Civil War. Readers of all ages will contemplate the desperation that drove ten thousand people to seek “enemy property” status and celebrate with them as they move, slowly, toward true freedom.

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