Freedom River


Freedom River.  Doreen Rappaport. Illus. Bryan Collier.

Author, Doreen Rappaport, and illustrator, Bryan Collier, have used devices reminiscent of traditional African and African-American story telling and belief to bring to readers an incident from the life of John Parker. A former slave, Parker led large numbers of African Americans from slavery, perhaps as many as 900 according to some historians, in the mid 19th century.  Rappaport punctuates her text with large bold lettered exclamations to the reader/listener or to the characters.  The text opens with the storytelling device to the readers, “Listen.  Listen.”  As John walks in the Kentucky dark, to the listeners and to John, “Wait.  Wait. / Listen.  Listen.”  Then, about the footsteps he hears, “Closer.  Louder.”  And as John and the family he is guiding to freedom escape, “Run, run.”  “Faster, faster.”  “Row. Row.”  In the non-verbal counterpart, Collier places figures at strategic places throughout the text who are not participating in the main action.  They usually appear to be deep in prayer or consternation.  Their faces have wavy lines across them.  Collier tells the reader in an “Illustrator’s Note” that these are the guardian spirits, the protectors, and that the wavy lines represent the river.  As Parker and the young family flee the rifle wielding plantation owner, a female guardian spirit points with animation while the text is saying “Run, run.”  On the final page, a male guardian spirit bends over and hugs a child guardian spirit.  Both visually and textually the elements of oral tradition and traditional belief are evoked and given homage.  Collier, in his “Note” says that the guardians are the people in one’s life who teach and sacrifice for the new generation.

The incident in book itself spans six months from November until April.  During a late fall trip Parker makes into Kentucky in November, he meets Isaac and offers to lead him to Ohio to freedom. Isaac refuses saying he can’t leave his wife and baby; he screams and runs off, putting Parker in danger.  Parker has to fight off a pursuer.  Through the winter months the frozen river prevents Parker’s trips across it until the April thaw when he returns to bring Isaac, his wife Sarah, and their baby to Ohio.  Isaac and Sarah tell Parker that his former visit has caused plantation owner, Shrofe, to keep their baby by his bed at night to prevent their escape.  Parker returns the next night and has to sneak into the house, grab the baby, and run, making a daring escape and bringing the young family across the river and to a safe house.

What is left unsaid in this book is nearly as cogent as what is said.  John Parker’s history outside this one incident is left for the “Historical Note” at the end of the book and not in the text itself.  Parker was born a slave and through his industry and indomitable spirit purchased his own freedom, moved to Ohio, and became a successful business man, a foundry owner.  He married and had eight children, but was not content to let others suffer in slavery.  He risked making repeated trips into neighboring slave state, Kentucky, to guide as many to freedom as he was able.  In the text, we merely learn on the first page that it is “John Parker’s foundry.”  In fact, the text does not mention that Parker is a former slave or even that he is African American.  The illustrations show his ethnic identity.  Parker’s antagonist, Jim Shrofe, is Parker’s employee, and Shrofe brags that if Parker tries to “steal” his father’s slaves, “my father will set the dogs on him and rip him to shreds.”  So, indirectly, we learn that Parker employs the son of a white slave owner.  This use of understatement and indirection carries through to the end where Jim Shrofe comes to Parker’s the day after the escape with Parker’s shoes, which had been accidentally left behind.  Parker says they aren’t his, and the last line of the text is merely, “He [Jim] never returned to work for John Parker again.”  This use of understatement and indirection contributes to the overall portrayal of quiet strength and courage of Parker.

This strength is reinforced by Collier’s powerful illustrations.  In a predominantly dark blue and brown color scheme, the illustrations are a combination of watercolor and collage.  His use of collage provides sharp edged, blocky shapes in the characters’ clothing and surroundings.  The relatively abstract portrayal of clothing and setting is contrasted by modeled, rounded, more realistic faces and arms.  All the pictures but one open into outside sky, sometimes only through a small window.  Only the first and last pictures, in Parker’s foundry, include daylight sky.  The closing picture includes a vast expanse of blue sky, perhaps suggesting the successful outcome and ensuing freedom of the young family.  Two places have photo-realistic shots (perhaps photos) both in the background and framed by a doorway.  In the first page of the story, a man is seen outside the foundry shoeing a horse, and in the escape scene, the enraged face of Shrofe is imposed over his much more vague and sketchy body.  This is also the only illustration that does not contain sky. The escaping characters are in the foreground and seem to be surrounded by dense foliage.  End sheets, both front and back, have a reproduction of an 1847 pilot’s map of the part of the Ohio River that includes Ripley, Ohio, where Parker lived and worked.  Superimposed over this map in the lower right page is one of the guardian spirits, a woman, hands folded and head bowed in prayer.  This book, winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, tells its important story well and with stunning, appropriate style.


Review by Mary Ruth Donnelly

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