Willow lives on Knotwild, a Maryland plantation just south of the Mason-Dixon line owned by a relatively broad-minded slave owner, “Rev Jeff.” Willow’s father is related to the Reverend, so he and Willow have somewhat more privileges than the other slaves, and the Rev has taught Willow to read and write. By the large willow tree on the river at Knotwild, Willow keeps a secret diary in which she addresses entries to her dead mother. Her life hasn’t been bad until now, but it is 1848, and she has just turned fifteen, a time when her father deems it essential she gets married. He has selected a husband for her from an adjacent planation, but Willow doesn’t love this boy; she doesn’t even like him. No one except Willow considers that to be important.
Meanwhile, a young free black named Cato, 17, has come to the Mason-Dixon line area to help rescue runaway slaves and take them across the line to the North. He and Willow see each other, and he starts leaving her messages in her diary. They fall for each other, and Cato tries to convince Willow to run away with him. She doesn’t consider it until Cato gets caught, and then her eyes open and her world changes.
Discussion: The story line is a good one, but the execution isn’t as smooth as it might be. The author wants to educate readers on too many things and I think perhaps she takes on too much. The dialogue comes across as didactic and awkward at times. Moreover, the characters aren’t entirely consistent. Some of them are well-drawn, and some are caricatures. The Rev and Papa seem to switch personas depending on the situation.
The romance between Willow and Cato is rather insipid; it seems mainly to serve as a vehicle for the author to air her views on gender equality.
I think the author does a good job, however, in showing the ways in which slavery corrupted the mind and spirit, not only of those who were inherently evil, but even among those who thought themselves enlightened.
Evaluation: For those who know little about slavery in the near-North, this book will prove most informative. There is a fair amount of suspense, and Willow is an admirable character. The young romance aspects of the story are not as compelling as the exploration of the feelings Willow has with her father; the Rev; and another slave who loved Willow’s mother, and tries to protect her as a father would.
Published by Candlewick Press, 2014