Three Books about American Slavery: All Different Kinds of Free, To Be a Slave, and Chains

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Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

Three books I ended up reading during the 48-hour Book Challenge were about slavery, plus I’m still in the middle of Gone with the Wind, which provides a quite different perspective on the institution. I really enjoyed the topical reading, because it’s giving me a more holistic view of slavery in different eras through different eyes.

Of the three 48-hour Book Challenge books, one was a fictionalized true story, another a nonfiction Newbery honor book collecting true stories from former slaves, and the last was another award-winning book for children/young adults about slavery during the Revolutionary War. All three were excellent, and I am glad I’ve read them all, especially close together.

The title of the fictionalized true story, All Different Kinds of Free, accurately captures my afterthoughts on this topic, for slavery (and its counterpart, freedom) comes in all different forms. The three books all differ in style, setting, story, and passion.

All Different Kinds of Free by Jessica McCann

All Different Kinds of Free1, a novel written for adults, tells the story of a true historical figure, Margaret Morgan.

Margaret was born in Maryland to a freed slave on the Ashmore plantation. However, years after she and her free husband relocate to Pennsylvania, the Ashmores send slave catchers to kidnap Margaret and her children back into slavery, selling them in order to pay off some debts. The State of Pennsylvania took Margaret’s case to the Supreme Court, arguing for the state’s rights to protect their citizens; in 1842, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the slave catchers in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, thus contributing to the North-South conflict in the years before the Civil War.

I am very interested in history, and this story sounded fascinating. It was a fascinating story. I struggled along with Margaret in grasping what it meant to go from being a free woman to being a slave. And as a mother, it was painful to consider the consequences.

It should be noted that most of the story in this novel appears to be fiction: we don’t know where Margaret went after she was sold into slavery, and we don’t know what became of her husband, who was not kidnapped into slavery.2 Nevertheless, the unknowns do not take away from the enjoyment factor of the novel. Ms. McCann created a gripping story of what may have happened; she gave life to a woman whose case provided fodder for a significant Supreme Court case. Since I love wondering about my own family history, I loved considering what may have happened in this woman’s life.

Margaret’s story is told from two different points of view: Margaret’s first person, present tense account, and an omniscient narrator’s account of the other key characters (Margaret Ashmore, Margaret Morgan’s husband, and so forth). I struggled with the style of Margaret Morgan’s account. I don’t do well with the present tense in novels, and it took a while to adjust to it. Then, the novel would switch to the omniscient narrator (which was in past tense) and I had to shift again. Although the odd style didn’t ruin the story for me, it was a bit off-putting. I should also note that there is graphic sexuality, including rape, in the novel, as well as violence. In general, though, the portrayal of slavery seems quite accurate, and not as violent as slavery was in actual fact.

To Be a Slave by Julius Lester

On the other end of the spectrum of historical accounts is To Be a Slave3, which contains true accounts from former slaves as recorded in the early twentieth century, decades after slavery ended. Mr. Lester quotes essential documents, inserting his own summaries of the issues that slaves dealt with. It’s obvious from his contributions that he’s a historical scholar of slavery. Although this book is geared toward young readers, it’s full of information (the best quotes out there), and it provides a realistic, painful, and serious account of what it meant to be a slave, to be owned by someone else.

There are lots of great quotes about what freedom meant to them.

You can take anything. No matter how good you treat it — it wants to be free. You can treat it good and feed it good and give it everything it seems to want — but if you open the cage — it’s happy. (Tom Robinson, quoted in To Be a Slave, page 138)

I was most fascinated to read former slaves’ accounts of emancipation. The majority shared their delight at being free. But a few spoke wistfully of the masters they once worked for. Some did not seem happy with their life at that point.

Two snakes full of poison. One lying with his head pointing north, the other with his head pointing south. Their names was slavery and freedom. The snake called slavery lay with his head pointed south and the snake called freedom lay with his head pointed north. Both bit the nigger and they was both bad.  (Patsy Michener, quoted in To Be a Slave, page 151-152)

And some freed blacks were kept in ignorance, a different type of slavery.

Guess I was about fifteen years old when massa come back from the fighting, mean as ever. Never did say nothing about the war and I didn’t even know if it’s over or not. But one day Massa Bob, his son, was switchin’ me in the woods playful-like and he say, “Why don’t you strick me back, Mici? You’s free. That’s what the war was for, to free the niggers.” … I been free more than a year.  (Armacie Adams, quoted in To Be a Slave, page 141)

I really liked reading true accounts, and I think Lester’s 1968 Newbery Honor book remains an essential and useful one for kids and adults alike.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Chains4 has badges of approval on its cover: Chains was a National Book Award Finalist and a Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award winner. It’s a gripping adventure story, and I was disappointed to find that it’s the first in a trilogy5 because now I still don’t know how Isabella’s story ends.

As in All Different Kinds of Free, although young Isabella knew she and her sister had been freed from slavery, circumstances worked against her, this time in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. She became enslaved by Tories in New York City. As she seeks to escape her unfair slavery, she also tries to reconcile the politics of the revolutionary Patriots who argue that they fight for freedom and the Tory “loyalists” who also claim the right to govern. Freedom is elusive to black slaves in those years.

I was chained between two nations. (page 182)

And yet, as Isabella comes to find, she is free to her own spirit.

She cannot chain my soul. (page 246)

This message of freedom was the strongest of the three novels. Yes, Margaret Morgan fought for her freedom: she too knew that her soul could not be chained. But she had her children to worry about, and in the novel, she seemed constantly worried and plotting. The slaves in Julius Lester’s book were trying to get true freedom: they were joyous when they escaped the horrors of slavery. But their freedom was elusive to them. I didn’t get the impression that any of the accounts Lester shared declared the freedom of their souls.

Of the three books, it took a young Isabella, in a book geared for young adults, to say it like it is: No one can chain our souls. We are free when we recognize our souls and fight for those souls.

Nonetheless, although Margaret Morgan was free, blacks in the early twentieth century were free, and Isabella had been freed, none of them could be free beyond their souls. They were discriminated against because of their race, and society didn’t let them be free.

Those who had always been free seemed blinded to the implications involved with slavery. Margaret Ashmore claimed to be a friend of Margaret Morgan. “Massa Bob” found it funny that the slave didn’t run away. Even Isabella’s friend Lady Seymour was blinded to the fact that saying she wanted to “own” Isabella wasn’t what Isabella wanted to hear.

Reading these three very different books back to back gave me an interesting perspective on slavery and the concepts of free. Truly, there are very different kinds of “free.”

What books about slavery and civil rights have you read and enjoyed?

  1. Published by Bell Bridge Books, April 2, 2011; I read a review copy via Netgalley
  2. Also, supposedly, Margaret Morgan and her husband and children showed up as “freed blacks” in the 1830s census. Being a family history buff, I did a search on Ancestry, where I have a subscription, and I couldn’t find it. Not to say it isn’t there; I am just not familiar with US census records.
  3. Published by Scholastic with arrangement with Dial Books for Young Readers, originally 1968; I read a copy I own.
  4. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008; I read a copy that I own.
  5. Forge came out in 2010, and Ashes is due out at the end of this year. I do not like trilogies because I like my stories to be together in one book. Plus I never know when I’ll get to the next one.
Reviewed on June 14, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I loved To Be a Slave, and I’ve been meaning to read Chains for a while. I need to remember to see if the library has it next time. Although like you I’m a bit letdown to know it’s part of a series. I also tend to prefer stand-alones.

    • Nymeth » I prefer stand-alones too! I just get so tired of series. Did you post on To Be a Slave? I wonder if that’s why it got pushed up my to-read list. I did enjoy Chains, and someone else mentions Forge is even better, so I may need to read the series afterall.

  • You must read Forge, the follow-up to Chains told from her friend Curzon’s point of view. I think it might be even better than Chains. Anderson is one of the best YA writers today, and she does a great job of illustrating the paradox of a country fighting for its freedom while enslaving a whole group of people. I can’t wait for Ashes to come out, so I can find out how Isabella and Curzon’s story ends.

    Other slavery/civil rights stories that I would recommend: Beloved and A Mercy by Toni Morrison, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (a kids book), Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. That’s all I can think of for now.

    • Kim » I’m glad to hear it’s even better. I am not a fan of series, just never get around to the sequels. I LOVE BEloved, but haven’t gotten to A Mercy Yet. I have The Ralph Ellison on my shelf, and I have read Frederick Douglas and Raisin in the Sun, but the others are new to me. Thanks for the suggestions.

  • These look good, thanks! You might like The Hemmingses of Monticello, I learned a lot about how slavery differed in the 18th century from the more 19th century version I had in my head.

  • Thank you for taking the time to read my novel and to write up such an engaring, in-depth analysis of these three books. Well done!

    A few books with slavery themes that I’ve read and you might enjoy are The Known World by Edward Jones; My Bondage, My Freedom by Fredrick Douglass; and Douglass’ Women by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

    • Jessica McCann » Thank you for visiting, and thank you for your great novel!

      I have The Known World on my Shelf, and I’ve read the other Frederick Douglass nonfiction account, but the last is unfamiliar to me. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • I’m reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin right now. Also, I have a book of interviews by slaves written in the 1930s. I sent you the link on Goodreads. 🙂

  • That’s a great list of blogs and bloggers; I didn’t get to BEA/BBC this year but met lots of these folks last year. Thanks for sharing it!

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