Thursday, January 22, 2009

Finding Freedom: The Story of Jonas by Maurine F.Dahlberg

"Son, your Master William may not put shackles on your feet, but as long as he keeps you ignorant, he's got shackles on your mind, and they're every bit as binding."

It's 1859, and thirteen-year-old Jonas has spent his young life as a house servant on a hemp farm in Missouri. As slave masters go, William Hooper is better than most, but all the slaves on the farm fear falling under the control of his ne'er-do-well only son Percy, who covers his ineptness and cowardice with bluster and as much brutality as his father will tolerate in his interactions with the farm's servants.

When the Hoopers agree to fund Percy's expedition to the Kansas Territory gold fields, it is Jonas' misfortune to be sent along as his personal servant and cook. But as Jonas and Percy Hooper join a wagon train to head west, Jonas meets up with wagonmaster Jeremiah Quincy and Dr. Henry Yoder and his young daughter Sky, who do not share his master's views on slavery. As Jonas displays his skills as camp cook and oxen driver, he earns the respect of Quincy, whose encouragement helps him to value his own intelligence and abilities. As they work together, Sky secretly begins to teach Jonas to read in violation of the Hoopers' rules, and in his own mind Jonas begins to think of escaping among the abolitionists in the Kansas Territory.

When Percy's foolish behavior leads him to be expelled from the wagon train, though, Jonas fears that he may die on the trail from the careless brutality or incompetence of his master. At last Jonas realizes that his only hope is to flee at night and try to hook up with a sympathetic wagon master ahead on the Santa Fe trail. Traveling at night through Indian territory and among gold seekers who are more than willing to give him over to slave bounty hunters, hunger, fear, and despair are Jonas' only companions until he finds surprising allies among the native Americans along the trail.

The Story of Jonas is a skillfully written historical novel which, coupling a gripping adventure story with a realistic portrayal of slave life in the early West, provides middle readers with a deeper understanding of this pivotal period of our history.

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