Thursday, March 2, 2017

Unbound: A Novel in Verse by Ann E. Burg

Grace has been living in a slave cabin on a tobacco plantation all her life, but as soon as she turns 9, she is told she will be sent to live in the big house and serve the Master and Missus instead of remaining with her family and helping out in the garden and taking care of her two younger brothers. It also means not seeing her mother, her mother's husband, Uncle Jim, or her elderly Aunt Sara anymore. And all because her eyes are blue and her skin color is so light she could pass for white.

And even though she is told all the time to keep her eyes down and her mouth shut, Grace can't help but feel the injustice of the treatment of slaves by these cruel, selfish owners. Now working in the kitchen with another slave named Aunt Tempie, she begins to resent seeing her so compliant and intimated by the Master and Missus.  But it is also Aunt Tempie who eventually lets Grace sneak away to see her family on Saturday nights, at great risk to both of them.

When their other light-skinned slave, Jordon, runs away, it falls to Grace to now work in the kitchen and to serve the family at meals. Seeing more of the Missus only makes Grace's resentment of her increase, until finally she mutters something that is overheard. The Missus decides to teach Grace a lesson. Grace overhears her telling her husband that putting her mother and younger brothers on the auction block might finally teach Grace who she is and where she belongs.

Afraid that this is a real threat, Grace warns her family that it is time to run - immediately. It doesn't take long to get ready and leave in the dead of night. Nor does it take long before they hear the sound of a galloping horse, ridden by a paddyroller. After narrowly escaping this slave patroller, thanks to a trap made by the elusive OleGeorgeCooper, a severally scarred (from burns, beatings, and brandings by his master) runaway slave. OleGeorgeCooper has been living in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia for years now and knows it well. He quickly leads Grace and her family to the cave that he has been living in, a safe place for them to rest, and plan their next move.

Throughout their stay with OleGeorgeCooper, Grace discovers that there is much going on among slaves that she has no idea about, and has never even noticed, and that people aren't necessarily who they seem to be, including Aunt Tempie, even though she watches everything so carefully.

Unbound is written entirely in Grace's voice, in lyrical verse that sounds very much like dialect and really captures the dichotomy slaves lived with everyday. On the one hand, Ann Burg shows how slaves were subject to the cruel whimsey of their owners as a way of keeping them under control and subservient, on the other hand, there is their "home' life away from the house and fields, where family members were the most important, most cherished part of their lives in the antebellum south. There is no question then that it is time to run, when it is decided to sell Grace's mother and brothers to teach her a lesson - Burg makes very clear this is not an empty threat.

Grace is a headstrong girl who is absolutely aware of the unfairness of slavery, and sometimes has a hard time keeping things to herself. And though she is afraid of the gators and snakes in the Big Swamp they must walk through to find freedom, she is more afraid of the power the master and missus have over their lives.

Although Grace's story is fiction, Burg write in her Author's Note that it is based on experiences of real people. I had expected Unbound to be a story about the Underground Railway, so I was surprised when the family found themselves in the Great Dismal Swamp. It turns out that this was a place where many fugitive slaves found refuge. These fugitives were called maroons, from the Spanish word cimarrón meaning wild or untamed. I was curious about the Great Dismal Swamp and found this map that gives one an idea of just how big it really is:

Unbound is historical fiction that tells an unusual story about slavery and escape and is a wonderful addition to this body of literature. I highly recommend it for all young readers.

Please Note - this is not for young readers, but I am including it for teachers and librarians: If you would like to know more about the slave narratives the Burg read in preparation for writing Unbound, the Library of Congress has a digital collection called Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

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