The sub-title of this book is ‘A story from the Underground Railroad’.
In the United States, ‘Underground Railroad’ was the name given to a network of brave people who helped escaping slaves as they made their perilous way from the Southern states to the emancipated North. It operated from the late 18th century to the middle of the Civil War, around 1863, the time this book is set.
It is appropriate that the book is wordless, as it focuses on a silent, unspoken plea from a runaway slave, hiding in a barn, to a young girl living and working on the farm.
As she goes about her daily chores she glimpses an eye peeking through a stack of stored corn. Only one eye can be seen but it radiates both fear and hope.
When the girl returns home for dinner she finds herself still thinking of the hidden stranger and sneaks some food from the table to bring out. Carrying a lantern before her, she takes the food across to the barn. The lantern becomes a symbol of hope, as it literally lights the way for survival.
Eventually two men arrive with a ‘Wanted’ poster that offers a reward to those with information on the runaway’s whereabouts. There is a tense scene while the men explain their mission. As they wait for a reply, the girl hides in a cupboard under the stairs. Will she reveal what she knows? And will the person she is shielding ever be able to thank her for her kindness?
This is basically a story of human compassion, with a courageous young heroine who has the moral strength to make the decision to do the right thing. In an Author’s Note, Cole relates how he grew up in Loudoun County, Virginia, which bordered on the edge of the Confederacy, and how he heard stories of the Civil War from elderly relatives who had heard them directly from people who had lived during that time.
The illustrations were drawn on charcoal paper with soft 4B pencils, giving them a traditional, timeless feel, and the endpapers have a deliciously coppery sheen.
See also Henry Cole’s Spot, the Cat