Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Across the Wide River

American history is full of exciting and inspiring stories - none more so than tales of the Underground Railroad, where ordinary citizens risked their lives to secretly transport slaves to the North or to Canada so they could live free and safe. Stephanie Reed tackles this intriguing subject in Across the Wide River, a novel based on the life of a real Underground Railroad operator, Lowry Rankin.

Lowry's father is a minister and an open abolitionist, so Lowry grows up never understanding how Christians can defend slavery. His best childhood friend is a young slave, and when Lowry witnesses the boy beaten nearly to death, he begins to feel helpless and useless. These feelings persist throughout Lowry's teenage years, where he is taunted by bullies and feels like a failure because he never does well in school. What most people don't realize, however, is that Lowry, from quite a young age, is sleep deprived because he's up most nights helping slaves escape to freedom.

Lowry becomes angry at how the Underground Railroad has affected his life. It seems to steal all his time and energy, making it so he's even afraid to court his childhood sweetheart. He rebels and decides to become a carptenter - not the abolitionist minister his father always hoped he'd become. But when Lowry witnesses the evil humiliation of a female slave, his life changes forever. He decides he really should become a minister in order to fight slavery.

His plans run amok, however, when he becomes seriously ill after aiding a slave in cold and wet weather. Lowry returns home feeling defeated. He thinks he's a failure. Yet, as his childhood sweetheart tells him when he finally plucks up the courage to ask her to marry him, he is no failure at all. He's doing the Lord's work.

What I Like: It was great to read about a member of the Underground Railroad who isn't well known. Reed's accounts of Lowry's troubles are also compelling. What teenager wouldn't feel resentful when all his friends live normal lives - going to music conventions and such - while he spends his days exhausted after putting himself in jeopardy to save others?

What I Dislike:
Although a novel about the Underground Railroad ought to be exciting, much of this book isn't. I would have liked to have read much more about Lowry's actual work with the Railroad (even if much of it was fictional but based on the experiences of others working with the Underground) than about the more mundane parts of Lowry's life. Some of the details are interesting and will appeal to many kids - for example, Reed's explanation of why the streets of town were so filthy and stinky and how the weather made it worse or better. Other details are not as interesting, such as the author's long description of how Lowry and his father built their home.

Also, an author's note at the end of the book would have given the story a more satisfactory ending. We assume Lowry finally married his sweetheart, but what profession did he choose? And did he continue with the Underground Railroad?

Overall Rating: Good.

Age Appeal: The publisher calls this a "young adult" novel, and I'd say it's appropriate for kids 9 and up.

Publishing Info: Kregel, 2004; ISBN: 978-0825435768; paperback, $9.99

Buy now at Amazon for $9.99

OR buy at ChristianBook.com for $7.99

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