This isn’t a book that will help one regurgitate facts about dates, times, and places. This is an unforgettable story about a real family, surviving a real time, in our American history. Let me introduce you to January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco.
This is a historical account of the hardships a slave family endured during their struggle for freedom. It all began in Carroll County, Kentucky on the Giltner Plantation. Sarah and Adam Crosswhite were owned by Master Francis Giltner. They had “adopted” a young slave, January, when he was taken from his family as a young boy. January wanted freedom. January whittled a wooden sparrow and gave it to the youngest Crosswhite child, Sadie. He said to her, “It’s fix’n to fly. And so is I.”
January does attempt to flee but he is caught. Master Giltner ordered all of the slaves to stand on the porch and watch the merciless whipping of January. “I want you all to see what happens to any brown-skinned devil that runs from me.”
Later that night, eight year old Sadie is awoken in the middle of the night. Her dad said, “We is gonna cross the water tonight.” Her mom told her, “They was comin’ to fetch the boys in the mornin’.” So, the journey begins for the Crosswhite family on the Underground Railroad. I could feel the terror Sadie was experiencing because she just witnessed January being beat to death. Why on earth would her parents try to flee as well? Sadie knew the consequences. I was afraid the family was going to get caught as Sadie realized she left January’s sparrow and began to cry out.
As the family crossed the Ohio River in the rowboat, I was terrified. The illustrations portrayed the rough water and the fear on all of their faces because none of them knew how to swim. I felt like I was right there with them watching this unfold before my very eyes. Fear. Suspense. Are they going to make it?
Then, when I turned the page, it was a peaceful scene. The water was calm, the moon shone brightly on them as the rowed across the river. There was a distance between us and I knew they were going to be safe. They finally made it to Marshall, Michigan where they were “free.” Although, they lived in constant fear of being caught by slave catchers.
Patricia Polacco is a remarkable writer and illustrator. This oversized picture book illustrates the courageous journey the Crosswhite’s embarked upon. I couldn’t help but notice the vivid details of the characters with the exception of the slave catchers. Their faces are vague and hidden by their hats. The emphasis is clearly on the Crosswhite family and the people who tried to help slaves be free. From the beginning, the title page evoked an emotional response from me as the wrists of a slave are bleeding from a rope. The positions and angles tell about the fight and resistance, or the joy and love this family experienced. Most of the illustrations fill two-thirds of the double page spread. Polacco uses pencil and marker illustrations that evoke many emotions from the reader. As the story begins, the colors were dark and I was worried that they might not make it. As they began to live their lives as free people, the colors are bright and represent the happiness and joy in their lives. There is a touching illustration of Sadie looking out the window with her friend, Polly. She has her hands on the window and she is watching the snow fall for the first time. I could feel the chill on the window pane through her hands and the warmth in her heart as she is experiencing life as a free child.
The dialect for this book is a modified dialect derived from entries in Unchanted Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives. Mary McCafferty Douglas is a researcher who is credited with providing the historical information for this book.
After reading this book I was moved by the strength and courage of this family. I began to ask myself;
What would I have done?
Would I be able to risk the lives of my family members to stay together?
Would I be willing to care for my slave owner’s son, knowing he would sell or kill my child without a second thought?
This is an unforgettable story about sorrow and joy, about courage and hope, about risk and reward. This is the Crosswhite’s journey to freedom.