Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story
written by Janet Halfmann
illustrated by Duane Smith
Published by Lee and Low Books, 2008
Audience (reading level): 7 to 10 (8.5 Flesch Kincaid)
Almost two years ago, author Janet Halfmann contacted me to ask if the Reading Tub would be interested in reading her upcoming book Seven Miles to Freedom. She had seen our reviews of two of her other books (Little Skink’s Tail and Hermit Crab’s Home), and thought that this new picture book would also be a good fit for our audience.
When it arrived, I knew this was a book I wanted to read before I added it to one of our Use Your ABCs school collections. The cover image of Mr. Smalls grabbed me immediately. It is the image of a slave in a military uniform, but the look on his face is one that says “hello, it’s nice to meet you”; that Southern hospitality that says “let’s sit a spell and talk.” I found that interesting given what I knew about the book.
For the last year I have picked up the book and thumbed through it, shifting its place in my “short pile.” I was anxious to read it, but I wanted some “quiet time” to really enjoy it. Once I found the time to read it, the time to write the review eluded me for months. Now, finally, I have some time to put together my thoughts on this great book.
Robert Smalls was born and raised in the slave quarters on the McKee plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina. He proved himself to be an amiable and useful even as a boy, and Mr. McKee made him a house servant. Although there were privileges that came with working in the house, a slave is a slave, and Robert Smalls didn’t want to be a slave. When he was 12, Mr. Smalls was sent to live and work in Charleston at the Planter’s Hotel. This wasn’t freedom it was a change of venue; all of his earnings went to Mr. McKee.
Mr. Smalls spent his free time at the waterfront, and he eventually persuaded Mr. McKee to let him work there handling cargo. Once again, Mr. Smalls proved himself and by 15 he was the crew foreman. Before long, he was an apprentice wheelman, the title for colored boat pilots in the South. Ultimately, his skill as boat handler and knowledge of harbor practices offered the means of escape. Mr. Smalls, his family, the crew, and their families waited patiently for their opportunity. In May1862 that moment came and he did not hesitate. He captained the Planter and headed north.
This is a fascinating biography. The author does an exceptional job offering setting the context of the pre-Civil War South. Slavery is ever-present, but it is not the theme of the story. Only the details relevant to Mr. Small’s life are mentioned.
When it comes time to escape, I felt like a stowaway on the Planter as it pulled away from the dock just before dawn. Unlike the first part of the book, the pages divide the story to build the tension. My cheers were premature cheer when “No Confederate guns could reach the planter now.” Turning the page, I learned there was more danger ahead.
This is nonfiction for kids at its best. There are myriad historical details, but they are woven into a story that celebrates the achievements of a fascinating man of great accomplishment. In the Afterword, Halfmann adds even more details about Mr. Smalls’ accomplishments: he helped convince President Lincoln to let African Americans list in the Union Army; he was the first African American captain of a US vessel; he helped write a new democratic state constitution in South Carolina; and he was elected to the United States Congress in 1875.
Normally I don’t pull out this many details from a story, but I found the contrast of Mr. Smalls’ accomplishments and the lack of knowledge about him amazing. Did you know any of this (before you read the book)? While I’m certain students in South Carolina know who he is, I never heard this story when I studied US history. I wish I had. This is the kind of book that will hook kids on history.
Thankfully, Seven Miles to Freedom will broaden our understanding of the people who risked their lives to have things that should never have been taken away: freedom, respect, and opportunity.
Seven Miles to Freedom is an excellent, important story. It is a nonfiction picture book that can be shared at home or school, with young children or elementary students. It can serve as a window into biography and history. Last but not least, it is an excellent choice for reluctant or remedial readers.
Other Blog Links
Artist to Artist Interview with illustrator Duane Smith on The Brown Bookshelf
Bookdads Book Review
Breeni Books Review
Charlotte’s Library Book Review
Fuse #8 Book Review
The Well Read Child Book Review
A Wrung Sponge Book Review