Going into this story, I expected the typical Civil War story – a black slave runs away from her horribly oppressive masters and finds refuge with the angels of the North. However, this was not the case….
Ever since young master Jamie died in the war, the Mistress has been different. She’s in mourning now, but it’s more than that. She’s been distracted, irritable, skittish and most of all, she’s cried in front of the slaves. She’s bothered by more than just Master Jamie’s death. The Mistress is afraid that the Yankees will descend on their North Carolinian plantation and devastate the livelihood. And their lives.
Maddie doesn’t think that the Yankees coming is such a bad idea, and neither does her father, Titus. They yearn to be free and have their own land to till. But Maddie’s mother, Ella and sister, Angeline are content to stay on with the Mistress. At least they are guaranteed bread for the next day!
But as the Yankees get closer, the Mistress decides to remove herself to Nags Head – a small island off the coast of North Carolina – where she has a cottage. She will be bringing one family of slaves to take care of her. She picks Maddie’s.
As they ride the boat across to the island, Maddie and Titus can’t help but be disappointed. Here, there one chance to escape from slavery and join the Yankees is slipping away from them. But maybe freedom isn’t so far away as they had thought…….
Fighting breaks out between the Yankees and Confederate troops on the nearby Roanoke Island. Sergeant Jakes, a Confederate officer, demands that the Mistress evacuate her cottage and move to safer quarters. In the ensuing confusion, Maddie’s family slips away into the underbrush…..
Titus has heard that the Yankee soldiers are actually welcoming runaway slaves into their barracks. It’s at least worth a stab at freedom, isn’t it?
Will Maddie and her family escape to freedom, or will the Mistress discover their plot? And if they do escape, will the Yankees welcome them, or treat them harshly?
When Maddie’s sister, Angeline meets Royal, they instantly like each other. Royall expresses interest in Angeline, but instead of the two of them spending lots of time alone together, the family welcomes him into their home. He share meals with them and becomes a part of the family even before he and Angeline are married. I thought that this section of the story was actually handled well.
Later, Angeline flippantly suggests that Zebedee is Maddie’s beau. She repudiates the idea and continues to treat Zebedee as a brother.
While staying at Roanoke Island, Maddie starts a makeshift school where she teaches the children how to read. I didn’t mind this because none of their parents could accomplish that task and it is one of the best ways that Maddie could invest her time.
Maddie demonstrates great humility when a real teacher is sent to Roanoke Island. Instead of resenting her, she rejoices in the chance to further her own education and lends much needed help to the teacher.
Another point that I appreciated was Ms. Forrester’s honest account of the Union’s views. Although the Union position was portrayed as correct (a book about a slave could do no less), it was not glamorized. Union soldiers are not sketched as loving or perfect; many times they treat the freed slaves with meanness, and after fighting in the war Royall declares,
“The white soldiers hate us – North or South, don’t matter which side they’s fightin’ on, they’d just as soon see us die as not. Thinks we’s uppity, tryin’ to be as good as they is. The blueoats don’t want us in their army.” [pg. 156]
Sergeant Taylor correctly declares that The Emancipation Proclamation only frees slaves in the Confederate states.
Maddie’s parents have several disagreements early on in the story. While Titus is a passionate, freedom-loving man, Ella is peaceful and content with their situation. It worries Ella to see Titus taking so many risks just to achieve freedom, and they have several disagreements throughout the beginning part of the story.
Also, earlier on, Maddie chooses to do several things which she knows her mother would not like, but which her father approves of her doing. They are not evil things, (visiting young friends and the like) but it strains their relationship. As Maddie grows and matures, their relationship becomes much closer.
Maddie remembers a time when a runaway slave was whipped and branded.
“There was no way Bertie could escape those men and their tracking dogs. Next day they dragged her back. She was stripped and tied to a post so Master could give her fifty lashes with his bullwhip. Aunt Lucy said that girl screamed louder than any slave she’d ever heard, till the pain got too much and she passed out.
Maddie was five or six the next time Bertie tried to run. She was in the kitchen with Mama when the men brought Bertie back. Maddie remembered the sounds of the men shouting and the hounds yelping, all excited because they’d tracked down the runaway’s scent. But Mama wouldn’t let Maddie go outside to see. All the while Master was flogging Bertie, Mama just kept singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” r-eal loud to cover the shrieks and wails. But it didn’t help. Bertie’s screams carried to every corner of the plantation.
It wasn’t until days later, when Bertie was on her feet again but still a pitiful sight, that Maddie saw the Master had done more than just flog her. Bertie was passing the kitchen quarter on her way to the fields. Maddie would see the woman’s face was swollen and red as blood. But the worse sight was the horrible oozing sore on her cheek. Maddie thought she was going to be sick when she saw it. The Master had branded Bertie with a hot iron! For the rest of her life poor Bertie would carry the shameful mark on her once-pretty face. The R for runaway. Bertie never did try to leave the plantation after that.” [pgs. 19-20]
This is the only violent scene in the story.
One of the nurses on Roanoke Island, Sister Melba, is very superstitious.
“Sister Melba conversed with the spirits of the dead as easily as she spoke to the living. She believed in talismans and omens, premonitions and dreams. She never smiled. She never stopped by a neighbour’s tent to visit. She just worked at the hospital – twelve, fourteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day. People in the camp thought she was peculiar. Some were a little afraid of her. But still they found her strangely compelling. When she looked you straight in the face with her hypnotic black eyes, and said you would be all right, you believed her.” [pg. 93]
Sister Melba helps Angeline to give birth. She “stuffed rags into cracks under the doors to keep out evil spirits, and had placed an ax under Angeline’s bed to cut the pain, but a dull one so that the mother wouldn’t bleed too much.” [pg. 175]
Sister Melba says that it will give the baby bad luck if they speak her name before the ninth day.
Maddie receives a book of Walt Whitman’s poems for Christmas. She and her father both love the poetry and admire Mr. Whitman. This may give your children the impression that Whitman was a ‘good guy’.
Ella excuses thievery because it was done to save a life.
Maddie says when thinking of marriage that
“She didn’t long for the day when they could share a house together. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to share a home with any man. Because Maddie had other dreams.
She wanted to go to the North. She wanted to see the cities and the people that Miss James talked about. She wanted to learn everything about everything. And after the war was over – if it ever was over – she wanted to come back to North Carolina and teach, as Miss James was teaching her. What man – even a special man like Zebedee – would want his wife to do that? Now that she had tasted freedom, Maddie wasn’t sure she could accept another kind of bondage – even from somebody who loved her.” [pg. 153]
Maddie keeps a secret from her mother. Admittedly the secret is one which will hurt Ella immensely and is not something she ought to know. But Maddie says that keeping the secret makes her feel older.
‘Sweet Jesus’ and ‘Lord have mercy’ are used as exclamations, but only in intense and very serious situations.
Conclusion. Looking over my review it seems as though the book is a thorough mess of problems. However, this is not the case – any problematic events were incidents, not the main theme of the story. Sound the Jubilee was an interesting and honest look at slavery in the south. Slave owners are not portrayed as ogres, but the abuses of slavery are mildly shown.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret