Late one night in 1856, a mysterious "package" arrives at Johanna Reid's family home in St. Catharines, Ontario. It is 11-year-old Eliza Jackson, a runaway slave from a southern plantation. The Last Safe House
, Barbara Greenwood's fascinating history of the Underground Railroad, tells the story of two young girls, one black and one white, who become friends through the legendary network for escaped slaves. For Eliza, who has recently become separated from her mother and brother, the Reids' home in Canada is "the last safe house" at the end of a long road to freedom. Twelve-year-old Johanna, however, sees Eliza merely as an unwanted guest--that is, until she listens to the girl's account of her family's terrifying flight north to Canada.
The Last Safe House draws on slave narratives and meticulous research to vividly suggest what life was like for runaway slaves and the families who sheltered them. Handsomely illustrated by Heather Collins, this first book in Greenwood's popular history series for middle readers blends fact with fiction with great skill. At the end of each instalment in the tale of Eliza and Johanna, there are explanatory notes on topics like the Fugitive Slave Law, as well as maps, diagrams, and profiles of abolitionists. Greenwood even includes activities, such as how to make a cornhusk doll like the one Eliza leaves Johanna before rejoining her real family. Amazingly, Greenwood is able to include all this enriching supplementary material without missing a single beat in her compelling narrative. --Lisa Alward
From School Library Journal
Grade 3-6-A book that is part novel, part history lesson, and part activity guide. Surprisingly, Greenwood succeeds on all counts. The story revolves around a Canadian family's participation in the Underground Railroad in 1856. Johanna Reid, 12, must live with Eliza, an escaped slave, as Eliza waits to be reunited with her mother and brother, who did not make it to the safety of the Reids' home. Johanna learns to cope with her own prejudices as she comes to see Eliza as a friend. Interspersed with the girls' story of friendship are brief descriptions of life on a plantation and the Underground Railroad: how it worked, who risked their lives to escape or help others flee, and who profited from catching a fugitive slave. The information is often specific to Canada, but readers in the U.S. will not find the book unbalanced. The activities include songs and storytelling as well as directions for making a cornhusk doll, a lantern for a window (a signal on the Underground Railroad), and gingerbread cookies. Sepia drawings appear on almost every page, giving the book an open look. There is a rather paltry index considering the amount of information relayed. Teachers looking for ideas for a unit on the Underground Railroad and children who are looking for a briefer alternative to novels such as Kathryn Lasky's True North (Scholastic, 1996) will find what they want here.Carol Fazioli, The Brearley School, New York City, NY
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