Trouble Don’t Last by Shelley Pearsall
Eleven year-old Samuel has never left Master Hackler’s farm. He’s too timid to dream of running away until Harrison, an older slave, takes off on a warm night in 1859 with Samuel in tow. They journey north, from Kentucky to Ohio and the shores of Lake Erie, where Canada–and freedom–lies tantalizingly close. Although the plot is simple, even expected (I never doubted that Samuel would survive), Pearsall brings the Underground Railroad to life in a way I’ve never read before.
I’m used to tales of heroic, selfless abolitionists, but Pearsall’s characters are much more complex. Harrison and Samuel must often pay their way, because some of their guides are more motivated by money than the idea of freeing slaves. And not all white abolitionists see them as equals. One man treats them like research subjects; another warns them not to touch anything he owns. The runaways have no choice but to trust them or risk certain capture.
Pearsall balances their relentless physical journey with strong character arcs. We learn about Harrison’s past through his fevered ramblings, and though the trope gets overused (he falls sick several times), it explains what made him the way he is. Samuel matures from a terrified kid who sporadically considers returning to the “safety” of Hackler farm into a young man who understands what freedom means. In her author’s note, Pearsall says she wanted to highlight the “real heroes” of the Underground Railroad–the brave refugees who sometimes take a backseat to those who ran the network. She’s done exactly that, with unforgettable characters who set an extremely high bar for the next book in the O’Dell challenge (Elijah of Buxton), which, incidentally, is also about the Underground Railroad.