Title: Runaway to Freedom
Author: Barbara Smucker
Major Themes: Slavery, Freedom, Underground Railroad
Synopsis: Julilly and Liza, two slave friends from Mississippi, escape from their plantation and try to get to freedom in Canada.
When I was a child, stories of slavery and escaping slaves fascinated me. I read as many books as I could find about Harriet Tubman, along with whatever else came to hand. One book that Mom introduced to me was Runaway to Freedom, and I remember enjoying that one so much that I ended up re-reading it myself a year or two later. It’s always stuck with me as a great read, an example of courage and endurance you don’t always find in people. I realized in the last few months that my next-younger sister, who just turned seven, hadn’t heard this story before—so one evening, we started reading it together as a bedtime story. I’m not sure it’s all that appropriate for that purpose, exactly, but we enjoyed reading it together and I’m glad I got to share that time with her.
The only home Julilly has ever known is the small slave shack she shares with her mother on their master’s plantation in Virginia. But one day, a slave trader comes from the Deep South and buys her and a number of the other children from the plantation. When she reaches Mississippi, Julilly figures out that she’s traded one kind of slavery for something much, much worse. In Virginia, they had a little time off, but in Mississippi, they’re worked like animals from sunup to sundown. The overseer hates slaves, and Julilly is scared of what he might do to her—and her new friend, Liza. When the chance comes for them to make their escape, to try to get to Canada, they take it, along with two men who desire freedom. But more dangers than Julilly counted on face the two of them as she and Liza make their way northward. Liza is a cripple…will she even have the strength to walk half the way?
I think part of the reason why I loved Runaway to Freedom back when I was young—and, yes, even now—is the kind of love Julilly and Liza shared. Though they aren’t related like blood, they acted like sisters, encouraging and supporting each other when the going got tough. I always longed to have a sister, so I think that could have been part of my attraction to the book. Another reason I loved this book would probably be because of the horrors of slavery that people experienced—and the hope they continued to hold that things wouldn’t always be that way.
Unlike some books, Runaway to Freedom doesn’t dive into the ugly side of slavery too much—it’s there, but not presented graphically, which makes it a good read-aloud. And while it does show slave-catchers going after the slaves, it also shows the beauty of people working together to love on, serve, and protect those who are being hunted. I loved “meeting” some of the conductors of the Underground Railroad in this story—they’re men and women I deeply admire, and their methods and concern for the slaves was beautiful to watch.
Runaway to Freedom is an encouraging story to read, and with strong characters and a gripping plot, even younger children can enjoy the story. Of all the slave-to-freedom stories I’ve read, I think this one is my favorite. My sister and I loved reading it together, and I can’t wait to pull out more of my old favorites to share with her!
WARNING: A young child is taken from his mother and sold into slavery in ch. 2. Men’s legs are rubbed raw from chains in ch. 3. Someone tells of seeing her father being whipped to death in ch. 11, and “the devil with you” is used. Someone tells of people’s arms that were rubbed raw from chains in ch. 14. There’s a mention of a man who died from blood poisoning in ch. 17, and “land, child” is used in ch. 19.
Listening Level—Ages 5 – 8, 8 – 12, 10 – 12, Family Friendly
Reading Independently—Ages 8 – 12, 10 – 12