________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 8 . . . . October 23, 2015


Speak a Word for Freedom: Women Against Slavery.

Janet Willen and Marjorie Gann.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2015.
205 pp., hardcover & ebook, $24.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-770-49651-4 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-770-49653-8 (ebook).

Subject Headings:
Women abolitionists-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Slavery-Juvenile literature.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Adam Hunt.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



It took a bad law to inspire Stowe to perform this "great good" [writing Uncle Tom's Cabin]. In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Slave owners had always been able to bring back runaways from the free states, but this new law made that task easier. The captive had no right to a trial, so anyone could turn in any black person, even a free black, to claim a reward. Federal marshals could even force a citizen of a free state to assist in capturing a runaway slave. And anyone who offered a runaway help, like food or shelter, could be punished with a fine or jail time.....She didn't write anything immediately. But a few months later, in February 1851, Stowe was in church when she suddenly had a vision of the death of her main character, Uncle Tom. As soon as she returned home, she put pen to paper to record what she had seen. When she read the scene aloud, her children broke into tears, and one of the boys said, "Oh, Mamma! Slavery is the most cruel thing in the world."

A few months later, she wrote to the editor of the
National Era, Gamaliel Bailey, proposing a series of installments for a story about a slave, "Up to this year I have always felt that I had no call to meddle with this subject, and I dreaded to expose even my mind to the full force of its exciting power," she revealed. "But I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak."

If I may speak a word for this book, this attractive book on a distinctly unattractive topic (slavery), I would recommend it for both elementary (intermediate grades) or high school libraries. Written without citations, but with a "Selected Sources" section at the back of the book, this co-authored volume is composed of 14 chapters and an "Afterword". These chapters are centred on specific women, some prominent - Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example - and some less so - Hadijatou Mani, Fredericka Martin, and Timea Nagy. Although Nagy's story takes place largely in Canada, the majority of the women chronicled in this book are American or British.

      Each chapter begins with a photograph of the subject and a quotation from her, many of which are memorable. However, some quotations are prosaic and ill-picked. For example, Chapter 9 is devoted to the fairly obscure reformer Fredericka Martin who performed her work on St Paul Island, "a remote island in the Bering Sea, about 300 miles... west of the Alaska mainland." The chapter's opening quotation, "We have a lot of social problems here," is obviously not as evocative as the others. Compare that to the previous chapter, devoted to Kathleen Simon, a British reformer, which opens with the memorable phrase "to wipe the dark stain of slavery from the face of the world."

      The format of the book is chronological: it starts in the eighteenth century with Elizabeth Freeman, an actual slave, and ends with Nina Smith, the head of GoodWeave International, a firm that wants to end child slavery in South Asia. As such, the book depicts struggles with slavery of all sorts. For example, in Chapter 11, the reader learns about Micheline Slattery, a Haitian restavec, who went to live with her aunt. "The idea of children staying with relatives sounds innocent, but there was nothing innocent about it for Micheline. A restavec is a slave in everything but name. A restavec works but does not get paid, cannot quit and can be sold."

      Within the whole book, readers are encouraged to broaden their notions of slavery and challenge what is considered common practise. Indeed, one could argue that the chief audience for the book is future activists, young people who will heed the call of the "Afterword", to stand up and speak to the injustices of the world, slavery and other matters. The compelling narrative of all the chapters, coupled with the academic but not stuffy tone of the book, will allow it to be the book on female abolitionists for many years to come.


Adam Hunt, a teacher of English for almost twenty years, is now a teacher-librarian at Centennial Secondary School in Belleville, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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