We’ve probably each read several dozen books addressing slavery in America at the time of the War Between the States. There are just gobs of them – many skewed in perspective, some accurate – but they’re very common. I started Jump Ship to Freedom thinking it would be the same formula – abused slave escaping from oppressive master, escapades with savage bounty hunters, labeling of the South as Johnny Rebs, etc. But Jump Ship to Freedom is unique – it addresses slavery in America during the 1780s. And it’s really, really interesting.
Young Daniel Arabus is proud of his father. A former slave, Jack Arabus won his freedom by fighting in the War for American Independence under General George Washington and rendering him exceptional service. By fighting in the war, Mr. Arabus had earned his freedom and he planned on using his soldier’s pay to purchase the freedom of his wife and son. But while waiting for these Continental notes to become of value, Mr. Arabus died and Captain Ivers (Daniel’s master) stole the notes in the hopes of keeping Daniel and his mother enslaved.
Our story begins as Daniel and his mother recover these notes. Although Captain Ivers suspects Daniel of the ‘theft’ he is unable to prove it and Daniel adamantly denies any involvement in the business. Unable to punish him, Captain Ivers puts Daniel to work on the Junius Brutus, a cargo ship. Halfway through their voyage, Daniel discovers that Captain Ivers plans to sell him once they reach the West Indies.
When circumstances conspire to his advantage, Daniel manages to escape to New York where he must seek out Sam Fraunces, his father’s friend and the man who helped his Aunt Willy escape from slavery. Will Daniel be able to find Black Sam? Will the Continental notes be valuable or worthless? Will Daniel and his mother ever be free?
As is natural for a book whose protagonist is a young slave seeking to be free, the question of slavery/inherent quality is addressed. Daniel himself was taught by his master to deprecate his own intelligence as compared to that of white people and he often refers to himself as a ‘darky’. But as the story progresses, Daniel is forced to use his own intelligence to navigate through tricky situations and he comes into contact with men who believe that the color of a man’s skin does not determine his intelligence or worth.
One of the more interesting parts of the book for me came in the last few chapters when Daniel meets Mr. Fatherscreft and other delegates to the Constitutional Convention. It is as he listens to these men discuss the issue that he finally comes to understand slavery and freedom. I appreciated this statement from Mr. Fatherscreft:
“There have been new nations. But always in the past they’ve come out of war or conquest. Never before have nations come together to settle for themselves what manner of government they shall have. For really, Daniel, each of the united states has been acting like an independent little country in most ways. But if we can compromise our differences between farmers and merchants, and especially between states dependent on slaves and those with few of them, Daniel, we will have done what has never been done before. We will have peaceably combined twelve or thirteen little republics into one great one.” [pg. 157]
Although Daniel is separated from his mother, he often thinks of her and dreams of the day when they will be free. He also looks to his dead father as a role model and wonders what he would do in various situations.
Daniel tells several lies in Chapters 2 and 3 and in Chapter 7. They are not necessary to preserve his life (though admittedly they save him from harsh, unjust punishments).
Daniel steals a boat in Chapter 13.
The word ‘nigger’ is used several times in reference to black people, but its use is never condoned. Often it identified those who were using it as proud/conceited/the bad guys.
In one scene Daniel is strip-searched.
Mr. Fatherscreft, a devout Quaker, declares that Mr. Arabus was ‘lucky’ to have survived the war.
Conclusion. A solid piece of historical fiction, this book contained lots of interesting incidents – storms at sea, chases through the back alleys of New York, meetings with General George Washington – and covered meaningful issues. It had enough twisty-turnies to keep me interested, so I’m sure it would do well for its intended age group.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret