“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ − one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” The spirit of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech made on 28 August, 1963, underpins this captivating and lyrical children’s book, deftly translated from the Italian by Siân Williams. The Oh Freedom! playlist at the end of the book is a natty touch.
Freedom of thought, religious freedom, freedom to live a fulfilled and happy and better life . . . People fleeing from the violations and abuses of tyrannical regimes all around the world dream of it. Oh Freedom! How precious you are! To what lengths will people go, in the hope of starting a better life?
“Captain Archer was in charge, everyone knew that. It was his plantation. Everything you could see all around belonged to Captain Archer: the land, the tobacco, the cotton, the blue sky, the houses, the stables, the animals, the slaves − right up to the edge of the horizon and to the ends of the earth. It was all Captain Archer’s.”
Ten year old Tommy, his Mamma and Papa and sisters, flee from the tyranny of plantation life in Alabama. “The Oaks and Captain Archer’s estate where Tommy and his family lived and worked were all he knew of the world.” Peg Leg Joe, himself a former slave, guides them along the network of secret routes and safe houses, known as the Underground Railroad, all the way to Canada. He uses songs as secret codes and the stars in the sky to help the fugitives find their way.
. . . Where the great big river
meets the little river
Follow the Drinking Gourd
for the Old Man is waiting for
to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd . . .
The journey takes them through fields, stubble and scrub; apple orchards and oak woods; tangled riverbanks and scary swampland. They are pursued by Jim Kniff, “the overseer, who was as hard as a piece of pecan wood” – whip in hand, vicious dogs baying for slave blood. “He would recapture them and give them a lesson to remember. He sent someone to inform Captain Archer, got four men together, gave orders to saddle the horses, hooked his spurs to his best boots, rolled the whip round the pommel of the saddle, and carefully loaded his shotgun.”
The fugitives travel by night and rest in the day. For the first time ever, they meet ‘good’ white people who give them food and shelter at safe houses. “‘The Kurtzes are Quakers. Their religion is against slavery . . . Where they are, lots of Stations are. We’ll find others on our way‘,” explains Peg Leg Joe.
Snippets of history are woven throughout the narrative – from the story of Harriet Tubman; to memories of Africa, the land of their forbears; and descriptions of posters advertising “the buying and selling of slaves of proven quality” in New Orleans.
Tommy and his family finally reach a big city from where they can get to Illinois. But they have to cross it, and the bridge spanning the river, to get to safety. Peg Leg Joe warns them: “It’s dangerous. The bridge is watched by an armed guard, night and day. They know runaway slaves pass there.”
Little Tommy is both terrified and excited by the hubbub of life as they walk down Main Street: “Smelly cowboys with wide leather trousers and beards that could prick you just by looking at them; dandies in waistcoats and silk neckties; barefoot farmhands who had come to town for the rodeo, glancing around almost as lost as Tommy; distinguished, well-dressed gentlemen who kept to the wooden sidewalks at the sides of the streets so as not to dirty their shoes, who looked at the rabble contemptuously: white men; black men; yellow men with narrowed oval eyes and a plait bouncing about their shoulders; an Indian in a bowler hat who clutched his pipe and silently cut through the crowd with an air of indifference. Men of every kind, dressed in the strangest fashions, shouted, swore, laughed, bumped and shoved one another in the middle of the dusty road where horses, wagons, and calèches went by . . .”
It is here that nasty Jim Kniff catches up with the fugitives. Will they succeed in making their Great Escape, or not? Read it and see!
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Oh, Freedom! by Francesco D’Adamo trs. Siân Williams | Darf Publishing | June 2016 £6.99 140 pp PB | ISBN: 1850772851 | Winner, Premio Asti D’Appello Junior.
On 4pm, Sunday, July 03, 2016 at the Italian Cultural Institute 39 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8NX, award-winning writer Francesco D’Adamo will give a talk (in Italian with English translation) and actor Samuel John will read extracts from Oh, Freedom! in English.
Francesco D’Adamo lives in Italy. His books have been widely translated. Two of his children’s novels, My Brother Johnny and Iqbal, published in the UK, have received much critical acclaim, winning him the New York Christopher Award for Adolescents and the cento Prize in Italy. In 2004 he also won the International Reading Association Teachers’ choices Booklist Prize.