January/February 2007 issue
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Underground Man by Milton Meltzer; Harcourt Children’s Books: New York, 2006; $17.00
Milton Meltzer’s Underground Man is a fictional but historically accurate account of life during the Civil War. Josh, a teenager, leaves his farm home to start a life of his own away from his parents. During his travels, he meets a runaway slave. Josh hears of the horrible conditions and the brutal treatment of slaves by their owners. After learning about this, Josh is inspired to become an abolitionist working to rescue blacks from slavery. It is surprising that the hero in this book, Josh, is Caucasian. I learned many things about the brutal treatment of slaves and how horrible life was for them. I also learned many things about how abolitionists were detested and unpopular by the people of the southern states.
Some specific things that Josh does to free slaves is buying them at auctions and then letting them free. He even puts himself in danger by helping slaves run away from their plantations and owners in the night. I had many reactions during the story. One reaction was that I appreciated Josh’s will and determination to try and help prove that all humans should be treated equally.
Josh experiences many things that I could relate to and you will probably too. Josh is confused about what he wants to do with his life. He begins to have disputes with his father over decisions that he makes for Josh. For example, Josh’s father secretly signs Josh up for a hat-making apprenticeship when he does not want to do this. One similar experience that I encountered just like Josh is when I have had my parents make me do things against my will. For example, when I wanted to quit an instrument but they made me keep on playing it.
One interesting thing that I never knew was that abolitionists used signs. Josh uses many secret signs and simple objects to signal the people he will help. For example, he uses a blue handkerchief and a bent spoon to signify that help is on the way. I can relate to this because even today in the army ordinary-looking things can signify operations and actions.
Josh encounters important choices and decisions in this story. I thought it was exciting to experience the many life-endangering adventures and quests that Josh encounters until he is captured by guards when he is helping a runaway slave to safety. Thrown into jail with a long sentence hovering over his head a difficult choice must be made by him to continue his beliefs or quit them. As he thinks over his rights and wrongs surprisingly he has his jail sentence shortened. With the choice of a lifetime Josh must decide to accept his fate as an abolitionist or to stop believing in what is right. I was astonished to find out that this story is based on the true life of Calvin Fairbanks. He spent twelve years in jail for what he believed was right. I appreciate and am in awe of the determination and righteousness of this amazing man.