By Michael Thomason/contributing writer
Frye Gaillard’s latest book “Go South to Freedom,” written for middle schoolers, is based on an oral history kept alive by members of the Croshon family since antebellum days. Members of the African-American family have passed the story down from generation to generation. Robert Croshon, an old friend of the Gaillard family, shared the story with the author, who in turn added information from relevant written histories. He tells the tale as a story right out of our past.
It begins when the African father of a slave family on a South Georgia plantation decides to lead them to freedom by going north using the Underground Railroad. The leader of the family, Gilbert Fields, is from Gambia on Africa’s west coast. He remembers freedom and determines to find it for his family in a hostile new world. However, their first night on the run, the family loses its bearings in a torrential rain and in the morning find they are heading south toward Florida.
They are helped by another escaped slave, who tells them they can go south to find refuge with the Seminoles, or along the coast west to Mobile, where there are free people of color and slaves living apart from their owners. The family heads south to the Seminoles, but eventually gets to Mobile to escape the Trail of Tears and probable re-enslavement.
Their journey and the peoples they encounter — black, American Indian and white — are vividly described, as one would expect in an oral history. The African oral history tradition was clearly honored.
While no one is ever called a griot, family members, both male and female, have served in that role and kept this story alive, with little changing from the 1830s until Gaillard hears it late in the 20th century. That is what oral historians, or griots, have done for centuries in West Africa. Gaillard helps put the story into words young people can follow and understand. It is an incredible adventure story, with all the surprises, action and difficulties such a tale provides.
Today there are not enough histories written for middle school-age children, and the textbooks are too often dull and teachers uninspired. This book is a clear challenge to that sort of history, one that reads so well it is hard to put down. Gaillard’s wonderful writing skills are complemented by illustrations drawn by Anne Kent Rush. They are quite good and in keeping with the book’s style. I can imagine young readers being drawn into the story by Rush’s artwork.
Of course, the question is how to handle the brutality slaves endured, the racist attitudes of most Southern whites and the ruthlessness of Andrew Jackson and the Indian Wars. Then there is the Trail of Tears, and the terrors of the forests and swamps through which the escaped slaves traveled. So often all that has been sanitized in the past. There is no purpose to be served by terrifying a young reader, but a real sense of truth is necessary. Gaillard’s command of the language is such that one certainly feels he is telling the truth.
The overriding character of the story shows the intelligence, humanity and determination of Gilbert Fields and his family. The reader, lost in the adventure of the story, realizes these are real people, not symbols. You root for them, share their fears and rejoice in their good fortune. This book does have a believable happy ending, which I won’t spoil. Its picture of Mobile in the 1830s is right on target, as well as its description of the Negro Fort in the Florida Panhandle near the Chattahoochee River, where runaway slaves and Seminole Indians lived and worked together. Again, Gaillard’s knowledge of both subjects allows him to see that we understand such places and people. We also appreciate the world in which they lived, though it is very different from our own.
All of this is very hard to achieve, especially writing for young people, but it is an excellent introduction to history. The volume is short enough that a family can take turns reading it and then discuss what they have read. Perhaps a middle school class could read the book and talk about what it has to say. There are many ways kids can get involved with the story, which ends in Mobile where the family eventually makes their home. It is a short hardcover book, but beautifully printed and one the young reader may well want to keep for years to come.
Frye Gaillard, “Go South to Freedom” (NewSouth Books, Montgomery), 70 pp., $17.95.