Monday, October 27, 2008

Review: Seven Miles to Freedom

The Robert Smalls Story by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith. Lee & Low books, 2008. Review copy. Sometimes I get tired of reading about slavery from the perspective of Blacks/Africans as helpless victims. You don't often get exciting stories of heroism and resistance by smart, brave, persistent African Americans who spent their lifetime working for justice and freedom. Robert Smalls is such a man and Seven Miles to Freedom is a thrilling biography for elementary age children.

Halfmann, whose book Little Skink's Tail I reviewed last year, has written an engaging, exciting book about Small's early life in slavery and his passion for freedom. He grew up on a plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina where his owner had him employed for profit from a young age. He began working on the docks at the age of 15 and learned the trades of navigation and piloting the ships in and out of the harbor. When he and his wife began to have children his desire for freedom deepened. During the Civil War he was working on a Confederate steamer carrying soldiers and equipment in and out of Charleston Harbor. By ingenuity and courage he was able to commandeer the ship while the crew was on shore. He impersonated the captain and stole the boat across lines into Northern territory in the dead of night, escaping with the African American slave crew and all of their families. Halfmann tells the story full of suspense and significance, giving young readers a clear picture of the danger and the imperative hunger for justice and freedom.

At first I was not overly attracted to the illustration style, as it is an impressionistic rendering full of broad strokes in bold colors. The faces are not drawn with detail and the nuances require careful study. After I had read it a couple times I began to understand the power of this presentation. Because the figures are indistinct it becomes apparent that these are everyday people just like us. Smalls is not some out of the ordinary superhero - he was a man determined to do as much as he could with what he had in the time he had. The portraits of Smalls with his wife and baby, and the outline of him standing tall and proud on the ship in his uniform meeting the Union army are evocative of any citizen. That he fought slavery for his people and his country is inspiring.

Halfmann gives us a full page of text at the end of the story, telling us what happened later in Small's life. He was praised as a national hero, worked as pilot for the Union navy, and went on to serve on the state legislature of South Carolina where he assisted in writing a new democratic state constitution as well as a proposal for the creation of the state's first free system of public education for all children. He spent the rest of his life fighting for equal voting rights for African Americans and women. Robert died at the age of 75 in 1915. In 2004 the Major General Robert Smalls was christened by the US Army as the first vessel ever named after an African American. Robert Smalls is an American hero and this picture book is a wonderful edition to any library.

In writer's workshop you could use this book as an example of how to create a narrative arc, building suspense and leading readers on through carefully planned pacing and page breaks. Halfmann's cleverly build back-story and thoughtful use of details along with a balanced portrayal of the institution of slavery gives a lot of discussion material for middle grade students.

Other reviews:

The Well Read Child
School Library Journal
Charlotte's Library
Janet Halfmann at Chicken Spaghetti
Duane Smith at The Brown Bookshelf

The nonfiction roundup is at Picture Book of the Day. Enjoy!

4 comments:

Charlotte said...

Interesting point about the "why" of the illustration style--I hadn't gotten that far in my thinking, just to the point of saying "oh well, at least they don't fight with the text for my attention..."

Here's another thought, now I'm thinking of it--maybe the people in the book, especially the slaves, aren't drawn in realistic detail because they are not everyday people like us--they are slaves, and us privileged folks in the present cannot actually say that we understand their experience.

The lack of detail could also be seen as adding a sort of a mythic dimension to the whole story--folk hero-fying Smalls beyond the realm of ordinary men.

Cloudscome said...

Yes, Charlotte maybe you are right. I find it kind of nice though to imagine the people in the story, both white and Black, slave and free, are real people that I have to bring my own awareness into play to see. Because they are not drawn in detail I can imagine their faces as people I know. Kind of like the difference between reading a story and seeing the movie.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

This is such a great reminder for me to read my copy already. I have one, but I've been so swamped. I pulled it out the other day; the art work is very intriguing. Your post is a great nudge for me to put it at the top of my stack.

Cloudscome said...

Jules, make sure you read that interview at the Brown Bookshelf if you missed it. Very good!