Children’s Fiction of 2007: The Story of Jonas by Maurine Dahlberg

I’m thinking that to start with this book needs a better title. It’s good solid historical fiction; teachers might very well enjoy reading the book aloud, especially during a unit on slavery and American history. Kids who were interested in the topic of slavery and the pre-Civil War period might pick it up. However, the title is not too catchy.

“Son, your Master William may not put shackles on your feet, but as long as he keeps you ignorant, he’s got shackles on your mind, and they’re every bit as binding.”

So, you could call the story Mind Shackles or Unshackled. As Jonas, a slave from Missouri, accompanies his master’s rotten son, Percy, to the gold fields of Colorado, the boy Jonas, who has never known anything but slavery, learns that the world is wide and that his mind is as good as anyone’s. Jonas meets Sky, the daughter of the wagon train’s doctor, who treats him like a person instead of like a piece of property. He also learns that he is a skilled cook and that the cruelty of the master/slave relationship is not an inevitable part of life.

“But now he realized that once you started thinking about setting yourself free and living your own life, you couldn’t rest. He’d heard folks at home call it ‘getting bit by the freedom bug.’ Now he was beginning to believe the freedom bug had bitten him hard, just like a big old horsefly.”

Another possible title: Freedom Bug. Jonas starts hearing about the possibilities of freedom since the wagon is in Kansas, a free state. He also recieves bad news from back home in Missouri that makes him want his freedom even more. This book has a nice change in setting from the usual historical fiction about slavery which are often set in the deep South. This book, instead, takes us to the Midwest and farther west and dramatizes the plight of slaves who travelled, along with their gold-hungry Southern masters, into the free states and territories where they saw freedom first-hand and developed a hunger for it. The date is antebellum, 1859, when the news of gold in Colorado near Pike’s Peak gave many in both the North and South gold fever. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Dahlberg quotes a contemporary newspaper report, “Southerners are on their way there (Colorado) with slaves, from every Southern state.” Dahlberg theorizes for the sake of the story that at least some of those slaves got the “freedom bug” as they served their gold-seeking masters.

I liked the story. Cover art: OK. Title: boring.

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