Book Review: North Star to Freedom

I picked up North Star to Freedom by Gena K. Gorrell in the library when I got Freedom Roads. Gorrell is Canadian and this book includes a lot of Canadian material about the Underground Railroad, an important perspective given the history whether you are Canadian or not.

I liked the book. The writing style is suitable for a wide range of children and could be read by kids from about Grade 4 or 5 level, I think. There are lots of pictures and illustrations. The organization of the material is sensible and the writing is interesting.

My one concern is that each chapter starts with what seems like a fictional paragraph, the status of which is never explained. This paragraph is intended, I assume, to give young readers a sense of what it must have been like. As such, it might be a useful tool for giving a sense of the historical context. It is printed in a different typeface, clearly setting it apart from the main text, but the lack of explanation of the status of this material bothers me.

The book does have source notes, though they only give the sources for direct quotations. There is also a suggested reading list, presumably of books suitable for children, and a selected bibliography, presumably of sources used in compiling the narrative. My academic mind would have liked more reference to specific sources for the information contained in each chapter in the source notes but that might be a minor quibble.

Certainly the information contained in this book seems solid. From my reading of Freedom Roads, I think that perhaps she overstates the case for a well organized Underground Railroad, but this might be a genuine historical disagreement. And it is not too overstated. Anyone who wants to have that kind of discussion could easily combine this with Freedom Roads.

For those in Southwestern Ontario, there is some good information about the founding of settlements by blacks and what happened to them. The selected bibliography also contains some interesting looking source and the Acknowledgments has a good list of museums and archives that contain relevant material. A high-school level research project might usefully explore some of those sources in more detail, especially if they were local.

Another good companion to this book would be the DVD Freedom’s Land produced by the CBC. We rented this from Zip.ca recently. It is very well done and includes commentary by historians.

The Afterword to North Star to Freedom raises issues about slavery in the present day. I’m not sure where to find resources on that, though I know I’ve seen something recently or heard it on the radio. There is some information available on the CBC website.

I also frequently thought that links could be made to other situations in which people took considerable risks to hide and transport people to freedom. The Dutch Resistance, as documented in the Dutch Resistance Museum, came immediately to mind. The story of the Danish treatment of Jews during WWII, as fictionalized by Lois Lowry, would also be apt. I am sure there are other good examples.

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