This book, subtitled “The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer” has an intriguing beginning that pulls the reader in right away:
“The year is 1840, give or take. The color of my skin is black. The name I’m called is Guide. My home is in Kentucky, fifteenth state of the Union, though I am known beyond this place. I am famous far and wide – across the great ocean itself. Why, even the Queen of England knows who I am, they say.
But being known is not the same as being free, no sir. Famous or not, you will not find my story written down exactly as it happened. Because in 1840 in most states of this young nation, it is against the law to teach me to read and write.”
Don’t you feel drawn in and want to know what his story is?
The author explains in a Note at the end of the book that Stephen Bishop was brought by his master to work as a guide in Mammoth Cave, located in southwestern Kentucky. This cave system, comprised of a complex limestone labyrinth, was actually discovered some 4,000 years ago beneath the Green River Valley of Edmonson County, Kentucky. It is the longest in the world, with more than four hundred miles of mapped underground passageways. It was a busy tourist attraction as early as 1825.
Stephen was the best known of the slave guides between the period of 1838 to 1857. Visitors mentioned his intelligence and knowledge of the caves. He not only mapped the caves, but made important discoveries inside them.
He died at the age of thirty-seven, but there is no record of how or why. There isn’t much known about him at all, except as relayed by tourists at the time. Thus the author has tried to imagine his life and what he would say to readers if he could.
Most poignantly, the author has Stephen declare about the caves:
“Down here, I am Guide – a man able to walk before other men, not behind; a man able to school even the brightest scholar . . . A man, down here, that’s what I am – a man, not just a slave.”
The story is illustrated by watercolors and collage by award-winning artist Bryan Collier. He mentions that he went to the Mammoth Caves to see them for himself, both as an aid to depicting them, and for inspiration in helping to bring Stephen Bishop’s story to light.
Evaluation: The author did as much as she could based on scant information to make Stephen Bishop’s role in history known. Part of the lesson she imparts is that there were many people with worthwhile stories whose histories we will never know, because they were silenced by the slave system.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2016