Friday, June 21, 2013

Freedom Song

I continue to write posts about some of the books I loved during the Cybils process.  I keep trying to bring as much attention as possible to the Cybils - it is so much fun for me.  The books, the discussion, the exposure to books I hadn't seen before, the discussion... I want everyone to know about these panels!  I can't believe it's summer, almost time to apply for a panel again, and I still have a few more books to write about.  There are so many books that are nominated, and so many of those books strike me, and just don't win the support of the whole panel, but are still worthy of additional discussion.  Two of the things that struck me about Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown were the twin themes of family and music.

One of the ways an author can bring the realities of anyone's life and story to readers is to use those things that are universal.  Even as I sit here, more than 150 years later, in completely different circumstances, some of Henry Brown's feelings about his family are painfully real to me.

This story begins with Henry Brown's birth.  He is born a slave, but far more importantly, he was born into a family full of love.  "Mama blew kisses on his soft, brown body.  Papa named him Henry, held him high to the sky.  Sisters and brothers tickled his toes."  On the next page, Walker notes "The whole family's love grew Henry strong", even as the shadow of Master waiting outside their door threatens the family circle.  Once Henry begins working for Master, his songs begin. Henry has a song for every situation - a workday song, a hidey-hole song, and his favorite, most heartfelt, secret song, his freedom song.  "Henry's freedom song promised a place where families stayed together."

And that freedom songs stays in his heart and mind as he is sent away to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory when he is almost grown. Just as he leaves his family, he meets and falls in love with another slave, Nancy.  When their masters allow them to marry, "Henry and Nancy sang with joy."  Henry and Nancy have their own children, and as their life grows and changes, "Family songs hushed Henry's freedom song."  Then the most heart-wrenching thing happens: their master sells Nancy and their children away.  Henry grieves for his lost family.  He is silent, without the music that accompanied him previously.  Except for that one song that he has always held secret in a corner of his heart - his freedom song.  That freedom song leads him to do something daring - escape slavery to try and save his family.

Henry builds a box to ship himself to freedom, to the address of William Johnson, a freedom-loving man in Pennsylvania.  This is a dangerous escape plan for many reasons - if he is caught, he may be killed as a runaway slave.  But it is also physically dangerous.  Henry plans carefully, and includes water in his padded box. But there are other unpredictable dangers - at one point, the box tips over and slams Henry onto his head.  While he makes it to freedom, the book ends before we know what happens with Henry and his family.

As you can see from the recap of Henry's life story, one of the most beautiful things about this book to me is the circle of family.  Henry begins his life with the tight circle of family.  Their life isn't easy - there are lines of exhaustion and worry on Henry's mother's face as she serves the family dinner.  But there is love in how they sit, facing each other and spending time together.  Walker writes that Henry isn't sent away until he "was almost grown", which is unusual.  He spends a lot of his life with his family.  Then when he moves to Richmond and falls in love with Nancy, he continues that strong family connection that his parents modeled for him. "He named his son, held him high to the sky", just as Henry's father had done with him.  The illustrations show Henry's family gathered around each other, singing while Henry plays the banjo.  All connected, loving, despite their slavery, despite the harsh realities of their lives.

Then there are those heartbreaking moments when first his children and then his wife are sold away from him.  When Henry hears his older son calling, he runs to the wagon.  "Henry fought to reach his son, to clutch him in this arms."  But he is restrained.  Then when he finds Nancy, "Henry clasped her hands.  He held on tight and walked for miles, until men tore him away."  Walker tells Henry's story with stark, raw, painful details.  It puts me right in the middle of his grief, his despair and desperation.

Walker's writing is amazing - the way that she incorporates the musical words is so natural and yet all-pervasive.  When he is told that his family is gone, Walker says that "Henry's song died in his throat."  Those songs have sustained him his entire life, been the songs that celebrate love and family.  And then they are silent as Henry huddles under a worn blanket, staring out the window in misery.  But the freedom song revives Henry's heart and speeds him on his way to freedom.  His music keeps him determined and keeps him moving towards freedom.  The combination of the song and and the family in his heart drive him to risk getting away.

Qualls' illustrations are incredibly striking.  They are historically accurate and yet feel modern too.  Qualls does an amazing job of bringing Henry and his family to life.  The expressions, hard work, and hard life are etched on their faces.  As Henry's family is taken away, you can recognize his despair from his upraised arms, his fall to his knees.  The colors are blues, browns and blacks which give some peace to the family scenes, and some starkness to the emotional pages.  And there is a circle motif throughout the pages, reminding me of the movement and travel depicted there - both the movement Henry chooses and the movement he cannot control.

While there is an author's note and an excerpt from a letter from the man Brown shipped himself to, I do wish there was more back matter.  Walker refers to the fact that Henry gave lectures about his escape, and I wish she could have cited those, or included a bibliography of sources for his story.  But I love the construction of this story and how Walker creates such an emotional gripping story.  Its strengths don't disappear just because I would have liked stronger back matter.  It is one of those nonfiction picture books that would work well at a number of age levels and levels of comprehension.  Because we all have a family.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown.  By Sally J. Walker; illustrated by Sean Qualls.  Harper, 2012.

sent by the publisher for Cybils consideration

Note: I was on the Cybils nonfiction picture book panel, but this blog post only reflects my personal ideas and  thoughts on this book.

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