This end-of-the-Civil War story begins with eleven year old Luke stealing a gun from Massa’s rifle case. In chapter three Daylily is left alone in the woods after the death of her Granny and her friend Buttercup. Finally in chapter four Caswell goes to find someone to help his Mamadear who is struggling in the labor of childbirth, and when he returns with no help his house is burned to the ground and Mamadear is nowhere to be found. The three children meet and begin to travel north together in search of the Yankee army or freedom or any safe place.
They finally find a friend and a safe place when they come to the home of a strange woman named Betty Strong Foot. But the war keeps encroaching on their hiding place, and they find that Betty has dangerous secrets of her own.
“Was Betty Strong Foot for colored or White? Luke wanted to ask her but he didn’t dare. She said she was free. She said her Daddy was colored, and she had White folks hair, but that didn’t mean nothin cause so did Pecola back home, and she sure was one of Massa Higsaw’s niggers same as he was. She said her mama was Indian. Betty’s skin was as dark as his almost.”
I like the way this book shakes up racial categories and expectations. Luke and Daylily are escaped slaves; Caswell is the white son of a slave-owner and Confederate soldier. The children are rescued and cared for by a mysterious woman who is part Indian, part African American. Later in the book, the children, including Caswell, live with a family of free blacks. And several times in the course of the story Luke thinks about how hard it is to tell who’s a Yankee and who’s a Confederate, who’s a slave and who’s free, even who’s black and who’s white.
Once Daylily asked, “Are the angels Black?”
“The Great Spirit don’t care if they Black, White, or Red, or they got no color. They still angels. Just like you can call him Great Spirit or God, and He don’t care about that,” Betty said. “Just like these trees and flowers, all of em be angels.”
Black angels. An American heritage of native American wisdom, African customs, and European culture all mixed together and yielding something strong and uniquely American. Some Christian readers may be annoyed by the native American spirituality and reverence for the spirits of animals that is a part of the story, but I thought it could be taken as an accurate picture of the characters and the times and given respect although I don’t adhere to those particular beliefs.
“God,” she said, “this here’s Daylily callin on You. We down here just little chirren,” she said, “cept Luke, who’s a little bigger than us. And we scared to death, Lord, and we callin on You in our time of need.”
“Amen,” said Luke.
“And we just want to ask you, Lord, to bless us and help us find our Betty Strong Foot, cause she sure did save our lives.”
“Amen,” said Luke.
“And she a good woman, Lord, who in trouble, and Lord, we don’ know if You hold with that spy work she doin, Lord, but please don’t take it to heart, and keep us safe. Amen.”
“And Lord,” Luke added, “if you don’t like what she doin, please don’t take it out on us. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.”
Daylily nudged Caswell, “Say amen.”
Caswell said, “Amen.”
Historical fiction at its finest.
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One or more of these books is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own.