For our US History studies, we’re currently doing a short unit on slavery and the Underground Railroad before moving on to the Civil War. I had a little bit harder time selecting a longer read aloud to go along with this unit. I checked my usual sources, and I found plenty of picture books…and many chapter books that seemed a bit too mature for Miss M, my third grader. I was somewhat interested in Brady by Jean Fritz (since we have enjoyed many of her other books), but I wasn’t sure when that book would arrive since I was on a waiting list for one of two copies our library system owns of that title.
I decided to go with a recommendation I got on a forum for Trouble Don’t Last by Shelley Pearsall. Set in 1859, Trouble Don’t Last tells the story of two slaves running away from a master in Kentucky.
Samuel is an 11-year-old boy who never planned on running away. He is awakened in the middle of the night by Harrison, a much older slave, and dragged along a bit unwillingly as the two sneak away from their master’s farm. The entire book is the story of their journey — hiding in trees and bushes, being helped across the river to Ohio by a former slave, being hidden in a cellar, a church and a peddler’s wagon on the underground railroad, stumbling into a settlement of free black people (some people here are helpful while others are downright unfriendly), and even hiding on a real railroad car to move more quickly toward freedom in Canada.
Trouble Don’t Last definitely kept us intrigued and wondering what would happen next on Samuel and Harrison’s journey. Pearsall also reveals more about each of the main characters as they continue on their journey — their “back-story” and their connection to one another. I thought this book was a nice mix of describing some of the horror that happened to slaves (such as being beaten or whipped), while not going overboard with descriptions that would not be appropriate for an elementary school audience. These are brought in as stories of what happened to Harrison and others in the past — not emotionally-charged incidents happening during the time frame of the story (something I was concerned about with other books on this topic I passed over).
Before this unit in our history studies, I have to admit I did not know very much about this topic. With just a cursory understanding of the Underground Railroad, it was easy for me to have the impression this was something super-well organized that everyone who needed to know about it somehow just knew how the operation worked. Of course, that was not the case! The Underground Railroad was a broad network of individuals who mostly didn’t know each other and maybe were just barely willing to do their part. Slaves had just heard vague stories and knew maybe a certain direction to head — they may not have even known if they would get help or not on the way.
Trouble Don’t Last portrays that quite well — Samuel and Harrison know to head north (and, as it turns out, do have a particular destination in Canada in mind), and aren’t quite sure how they will make it all the way to freedom. They are as surprised as anyone to end up in the basement of a “fancy white people’s church” or to be hiding on a railroad car — they’ve never even seen a real train before! Some of the people helping them seem to have their reservations about their part in helping slaves to freedom — the widow just across the border in Ohio helps because she thinks it what her dead husband would want her to do. A peddler helping the escaping slaves seems to have his own angle as well and at any sign of trouble is eager to be done with them.
Overall, I was quite pleased with this choice for a read-aloud on the topic of the Underground Railroad. We started a second book to correlate with this unit that we were less pleased with and did not finish — but that’s maybe a topic for another post. After an intense couple of weeks of reading Trouble Don’t Last, as well as a large stack of picture books on slavery and the Underground Railroad, Miss M was ready to move on and asked we not start another read-aloud on this topic. Brady by Jean Fritz finally did arrive at our library — I guess I may take a look at it myself and make note of whether we will read it at a future time.
I’m linking up with read-aloud Thursday @ Hope is the Word!