During the Civil War, many children were made orphans. For the most part, they had to learn to survive on their own, like the engaging threesome in this inspiring story for adults as well as children.
Luke is an eleven-year-old orphaned slave in North Carolina who steals his master’s gun and runs away to join the Union Army. Along the way, he finds another runaway slave, a nine-year-old girl named Daylily who hid while the rest of her family was killed. Nearby where Daylilly is sleeping, Luke also notices a seven-year old white boy, Caswell. His father is off fighting the Yankees, and his mother has just been killed. At first, Caswell tries to control Luke and Daylilly, because he is white and they are black. But Luke and even Daylilly are so much bigger, and Caswell is so obviously alone and scared, that Luke just laughs at him.
The three of them decide to join forces to get help, and set off for the North. Luke feels responsible for the young ones, and takes charge of their safety and feeding. The small ones are more easily scared, and think about their dead families a lot. When Daylily is afraid, she sings the song her Granny taught her:
“Mama, are there any angels Black like me?
I’ve been as good as any little girl can be.
If I hide my face, do you think they will see?
Mama, are there any angels Black like me?”
Caswell isn’t so sure. He has never seen any pictures of any angels in heaven who aren’t white. Luke reprimands him:
“‘I done already tole you. My mama is there,’ he said quietly, ‘and don’t you never say that again.”
As the days go by, they bond more closely. Luke tells stories at night to calm Caswell’s fears (even though the only stories he knows are the not-very-soothing stories of slave experiences). But Luke is trying to distract Caswell, and it works. Before Luke’s mama died (killed by her owner for insubordination), she told Luke, “Take care of your friends, Luke baby. A friend is a blessing from the Lord in this evil world.” And indeed, after days in the woods, hiding from the armies, enduring an encounter with a mountain lion, scrounging for food, combating fear and cold and illness, they were not only friends, but family. Even Caswell came to feel that way.
For a while, they were able to stay with Betty Strong Foot, a woman half-Indian and half-black, who feeds them and cares for them until it gets too dangerous. She then sends them off to Harpers Ferry, where they split up, with the promise to meet again in ten years in 1874 at Betty’s cabin. Luke gets a job, and keeps at it a long time, but wants to do more with his life. Daylily and Caswell live with a black family until Caswell’s father finds him after the war and takes him back to South Carolina. Caswell is appalled at his father’s racist rants, but doesn’t leave until, as a grown boy, his father insists Caswell join in Ku Klux Klan activities. Daylily begins school, and also takes up teaching.
Would the three really find each other again? Would they feel the same after all the changes they have been through? What effect will the persistence of racism have on them over the years?
Evaluation: This is a lovely book that holds your attention to the end. The characters of the children are written totally true to their ages, in my opinion, which lends the book an unexpected charm. And there’s plenty of suspense. I think readers will find it riveting. Highly recommended for middle grades and up.
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2009