Under the Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke, illustrated by London Ladd
Told in free verse, this picture book is the story of how the first contraband camp formed during the Civil War. It all started with three runaway slaves who escaped across a river to a Union-held fort. Though the Confederate Army tried to demand their return, the general at the fort declared them “contraband of war” and offered them protection and a place to live. The three were quickly joined by a flood of people crossing the line into Union territory and they began to build a home for themselves near the fort. The freedom tree is the Emancipation Oak which stood witness to the events that unfolded, including the Emancipation Proclamation, which set all of the residents of the camp free.
VanHecke’s verse is loose and beautiful. She captures the danger the slaves faced in crossing the Confederate line, the risks they took asking for shelter, and the clever solution found by the general. She offers an author’s note in prose to give more historical context to the camp and the Emancipation Oak.
Ladd’s illustrations are lush and detailed. His paintings capture the hope of emancipation, the darkness of escape by water and night, and the beauty of the oak. The illustrations clearly honor the first three men who escaped to the fort, showing them as they wait for the judgment of whether they must return to slavery or not.
A little-known part of the history of the Civil War, this book in verse pays homage to the courage of the men who created the contraband camp. Appropriate for ages 6-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.