Stealing Freedom

by Elisa Carbone,
ISBN: 0679893075

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Children`s Books
by Sherie Posesorski

Canada, Ann Maria Weems was told, was so horribly cold in winter than when folks opened their mouths, their spit froze solid. But twelve-year-old Ann paid little mind because Canada was the "freedom land"-a place of liberty, safety, and sanctuary for thousands of Southern black slaves stealing away to freedom along Underground Railroad routes. Once in Canada, the former slaves were finally free from capture and prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act which mandated the return of slaves to their owners, even from the "free" northern states. Aided by abolitionists, freed slaves like Harriet Tubman, and Quakers, it is estimated that from 40,000 to 100,000 slaves travelled on the Underground Railroad to the northern states and Canada in the mid-1880s.

Ann Maria Weems was one of them, and American writer and professor Elisa Carbone has based Stealing Freedom on this girl who became a celebrity of sorts in her time due to her daring escape to Canada. It is a compelling and moving account, all the more powerful and harrowing thanks to Carbone's strikingly vivid depiction of everyday life under slavery in the Maryland of the 1850s.

The high-spirited Ann and her four siblings were buffered by the love of their parents, John and Arabella. Her father was a free man, and was saving his earnings to buy the freedom of his family from Master Charles Price. However, whenever John would save enough money, the Master would raise the price as his debts mounted from his mismanagement of the farm and his chronic drunkenness. Still, John continued to save, refusing to steal away to freedom, like his relatives who had settled in Dresden, Ontario. And the Weems children regularly fed the Prices' hounds to keep on their good side in case the dogs should be sicced on them in the event of their flight.

With affection and understanding, Carbone paints a memorable picture of the Weems family who were bonded by a deep love and respect. Knowledgeably yet unobtrusively, she interweaves the biography of the family with the history of American slavery.

No matter how harsh life was under the Prices, the Weems took some comfort in their belief that the family would never be split up and sold. So the family was all the more devastated when Price sold the three boys to cover his debts. Stricken with rage and grief, John contacted the Vigilance Committee (comprised of abolitionists and free blacks) in New York who promised to help. Just as Price sold his farm and would have proceeded to sell the rest of the family, abolitionist Jacob Bigelow arrived, offering to buy them (John Weems would be given "ownership" of them and manumission papers could then be drawn up to set them free). Price assented, but refused to sell Ann, taking her to his new home in Rockville as a housemaid for his wife.

Separated from her family, initially Ann was numb with despair and apathy. Gradually her inherent optimism returned as she made new friends and acquired a beau. Despite Bigelow's repeated offers to buy Ann, Price refused. When Ann agreed to escape to Canada, Bigelow and a series of "conductors" assisted her in the flight.

This tale is told with appealing directness, clarity, and subtlety. Younger readers will be enlightened by Carbone's skillful storytelling, and taken with the lively and touching portrait of Ann. The bittersweet poignancy of her escape is expressed in a letter she wrote to her parents prior to crossing into Canada: "They will taken my dagerotype befor I leve and sent it to you. I do hope it will not be the last time you see my face befor we meet in Heven." 

Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto writer and editor.


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