by Amina Luqman-Dawson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
I can see why this book won the Newbery Award this year. Luqman-Dawson does an excellent job of weaving back and forth between two narratives, one on a slave plantation and one in the “maroon” community of Freewater that two children escape to from that plantation. Each narrative is told through multiple perspectives; although one is in the first person and all the rest are in the third person, it’s never awkward. 12-year-old Homer and his little sister, Ada, run away with their mother, Rose. But Homer’s best friend, Anna, is left behind and Homer begs Rose to go back for her; when she does, she is caught and beaten within an inch of her life. Rose raised one of the master’s daughters, Nora, who is coming into her own understanding of the inhumanity of slavery. The rest of the plantation – family and slaves – are busy preparing for Nora’s sister Viola’s upcoming wedding and all Nora wants is to escape that life as well.
Meanwhile, over in the swamp, Homer and Ada are taken in and guided through secret passageways to a well-protected and -patrolled area of dry land called Freewater, home to a few dozen escaped slaves and about a dozen free-born children. Among the children are sisters Juna (the golden child) and Sanzi (the problem child), who have never stepped foot outside Freewater and don’t really know the dangers that await them because of the color of their skin. There’s also new arrival Ferdinand, and old hand Billy, whose traumas have deeply affected them in different ways. When Homer decides to go back for his mother and Anna, he unwittingly brings a whole crew with him and it all comes to a head in quite a spectacular way.
I was fascinated to learn a new aspect to the freedom/slavery story. Maroon communities were a real occurrence and Luqman-Dawson even thanks Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, who “studies America’s maroon communities in the swamps and forests of the American South” – it blows my mind that there are people who dedicate their lives to researching things some of us have never even heard of! I hope that books like Freewater can help change the way we teach history.
The Last Mapmaker
by Christina Soontornvat
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
12-year-old Sai has grown up in abject poverty in the swamp of fictional Mangkon with only her low-life father to keep her out of the girls’ home – sometimes. When he’s not in jail for stealing to help them survive. Sai has developed an ability to copy anyone’s handwriting identically, and for this she is awarded a job as mapmaker Paiyoon’s assistant. He is getting older and needs someone to do the writing for him, though his mind is still sharp. In a society where your worth is based on your ancestry, Sai’s future is bleak until she gets this job and can somehow find a way out of Mangkon to start fresh.
Then the Queen announces a contest to find the as-yet unproven Great Southern Continent and map it, though it involves crossing the dangerous Harbinger Sea, and quickly Paiyoon and Sai are on one of the ships, captained by Sangra. Sai befriends Captain Sangra’s secret half-sister, Rian, manages to help a troubled stowaway named Bo who tried to pick Sai’s pocket before boarding, and tries to convince Master Paiyoon to chart a course to the Sunderlands and win the prize money. But there is treason aboard the Prosperity and the twists and turns kept me guessing the whole time, wrapping up neatly in the end. Sai even grows to understand her father and Captain Sangra, who it turns out is in the royal family, is helping to change their society (a move which struck me as a commentary on the recent changes within the British royal family, if you should choose to read it that way).
I read these two books at the same time and, as often happens when I do that, saw parallels that I would likely not have seen otherwise. From the Southerland / Sunderland names, to the swampy descriptions, to the troubled newcomer (Ferdinand / Bo), to the pacing and tension and tidy wrap-up, there were little details that caught my attention. In the end, these are both stellar stories.