HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Railroad to Freedom: A Story of the Civil War
Author: Hildegard Hoyt Swift
Illustrator: James Daugherty
Publisher: Harcourt, republished 1960
Language level: 3
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 12 and up
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Swift, Hildegard Hoyt. The Railroad to Freedom: A Story of the Civil War (published in 1932 by Harcourt Brace and Company, New York City, NY). As the story opens, it is the spring of 1831, and ten year old Araminta Harriet Ross, usually known as “Minty,” lives with her mother also named Harriet but called Old Rit, her father Old Ben, and her fourteen year old brother Benjie. They are slaves on the Broadacres plantation of Henry Carter in Maryland. Old Marse Henry is kind, and the slaves like him. But his son, young Marse George, is taking more responsibility, and he is cruel. A few years later he forces her to marry John Tubman, but she eventually runs away and escapes to freedom in the North. Wanting to assist her people, she becomes a conductor on the “Underground Railroad” and, known as “Moses,” leads many other slaves to freedom. She even returns to Broadacres and helps her brother, his wife Lily, and their baby to escape. For that, George Carter places a reward of up to $40,000 on her head.
Yet she braves the danger to go back and fetch her parents. Will they make it to safety? Or will they be caught and returned to slavery? And what will happen to them when war breaks out? Today, Harriet Tubman is a heroine, and her story is told in nearly every American history book. But back in 1932, her exploits were not well known, so Hildegard Swift wrote this book, which received a Newbery Honor Award in 1933, as a fictionalized account of Harriet Tubman’s life from her childhood through the beginning of Civil War. Swift said, “This is a story, not a biography, but it is based on authentic history.” One reviewer complained, “I was very disappointed to find that some of the major turning points in her early life were altered with no apparent reason, and other well-known parts of her life were omitted entirely.” Well, do you want a book that reads like a dry and dusty encyclopedia (and is about as long) or a story that kids will find interesting and want to read? Another reviewer noted, “One can’t, however, doubt Swift’s scholarship. Although the dialogue is invented and several incidents spruced up for dramatic purposes, Swift completed a remarkable amount of research for her time.”
I was a little amazed at the language for a children’s book. The “d” and “h” words are occasionally found in dialogue, and terms like “Lawd” and “Gawd” frequently appear as interjections. Also there are references to using “baccy” (tobacco) and drinking alcohol. Several reviewers noted that the readers might be slowed down due to the conversations in an “authentic” Negro slave dialect. And some “racial language” is used. Swift explained, “The words ‘pickaninny’—‘nigger’—‘kinky’—‘darky’ and all similar words are nowhere used in this book as expressive of the viewpoint of the author. They are simply used for the purposes of realism, where they would have been used by the different kinds of people whom this book concerns.” Yes, the book is fictionalized, but it emphasizes many important phases and events in Harriet Tubman’s life and does a decent job of depicting the dangers of life for slaves and those who dared to run from slavery in pre-Civil War America. I agree with the reviewer who wrote, “Swift communicates the bravery and hope expressed by the desperate blacks seeking freedom. What comes across even more clearly is the courage of the whites who risked their all to assist the blacks en route to freedom.” The book contains acknowledgements and a full bibliography.