October 12, 2017

unbound

Unbound

Ann E.Burg

Pub. 2016

347 pgs.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Novel-in-Verse

Summary / Review / TLDR / Recommended For / Issues / Themes / Grade


Summary

Nine-year-old Grace bubbles over with questions. She wants to know why the Master and Missus need someone to dress them when her baby brothers are capable of dressing themselves, and why they get to eat three or four big meals while she and her family might get two each day. She wants to know why the Missus is so mean and why the Master is so ornery. But Grace knows better than to ask these questions; she’s a slave working at the Big House, and she knows her mouth could mean trouble for herself and everyone she cares about. Even so, they can’t stop her from thinking her thoughts about “rightiness” and praying for freedom.

They can’t stop her from listening, either, and Grace is good at that. One night she overhears the Master and Missus making plans for her mother and siblings, and she knows she has to do something. It will take a ton of courage and risk all their lives, but there’s no other choice.

They have to run.

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Review

I genuinely love fictional books where I come away knowing something new. It can be some rules for a sport, something about the human condition, ways Fargo is like Philly—as long as the author drops some knowledge on me, I tend to have a good time.

In Unbound, Burg introduced me to the “maroons.”

So, back in the antebellum era, slavery was all over the South (thanks, 8-year-old me and Addy Walker). They worked on small farms and massive plantations, and things were capital-b Bad. Escape, though not unheard of, was definitely discouraged. Everyone knew what would happen to a slave who was caught. Obviously it would be harder to escape the farther south a slave lived, but even in the border states it could be dangerous.

Well, Grace and her family live on a tobacco farm near a huge swamp…that actually exists. Burg mentions in her author’s note at the end of the book that this swamp covers parts of North Carolina and Virginia, and in the narrative we’re told that it’s infested with mosquitos, snakes, bears, and alligators. But the maroons didn’t care—they made it their home. Instead of risking getting caught by going to the North, slaves would run to the swamp and live in one of the communities that popped up. Apparently Native Americans had been living there for years, so the slaves knew it was possible. They built houses on stilts out of wattle, grass, leaves, and logs, made gardens, and created an environment where everyone helped each other out. I’ve read a number of escaped- and freed-slave narratives, but I’d never actually come across this bit of history. For me, it was the best part of the book.

As for the rest of it, though, it took awhile for me to get hooked. It starts out with Grace being sent to the Big House to work, and that entire part, while in turns heart wrenching and rage inducing, was no more awful than any of the other stories I’ve read or heard about American slavery. I understand this book was written for middle-grade readers, so of course Burg wouldn’t want to put anything too terrible in, but I feel like Grace’s experience, especially given her age and quick tongue and what an awful woman the Missus was…I just feel like Burg held back. Like I said, I’ve read a wide range of non-fiction on this subject, and I don’t think a slap on the wrist and a scolding would have been the worst punishment Grace received for her behavior. I mean, I didn’t want Grace to be punished—frankly, slavery is a blight on our history and it still irritates me that we fought an entire war over the idea of “is it okay to own another living, breathing human being” and we still have people who think that they should’ve won. But it just felt inauthentic considering the other experiences of actual former slaves whose accounts I’ve read.

Once they begin their escape, though, the story picks up the pace. Burg’s poetry is spare, and the short lines and quick rhythm help build the tension. I like, too, how she gets into Grace’s head and uses language and descriptions that a child might choose, like saying sounds are “soft and ghosty” or that they’re too “stuffed with fear” to eat. Burg also writes in dialect, which can be tricky, but for me it added to the atmosphere of the novel.

Overall, it’d be a good choice for a middle grade shelf. It could lead to some good conversations about justice and equality (especially timely given the events of this past summer), and is a way of introducing a dismal aspect of American history to students.

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TLDR

Burg’s story of slavery and escape, Unbound, describes a little-known aspect of a well-known part of American history through the eyes of a smart, if uneducated, little girl. It’d be a good fit for a middle-grade shelf.

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Recommended for…

  • People who enjoy poetry
  • People who love history
  • People who want to read a book with relevance to today

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Issues

  • Deceit: characters trick one another
  • Lying: characters lie
  • Physical Abuse: adults hurt children
  • Prejudice: characters are prejudiced against people unlike them
  • Religion: many mentions throughout of characters praying and their religious beliefs
  • Supremacy: characters believe that they’re better than others
  • Violence: characters act violently towards others

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Themes

  • Change vs. Tradition
  • Determination
  • Education
  • Family
  • Friendships
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Growing Up
  • Honesty
  • Identity
  • Justice
  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Responsibility
  • Right vs. Wrong
  • Survival

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Grade

Main Character 2
Subcast 1
Setting Development 2
Exploration of Conflict 2
Satisfying Resolution 2
Consideration of Themes 2
Didactic Tone 1
Suspension of Disbelief 1
Imagery and Description 2
Compelling Storytelling 2
Author’s Style 2
Rhythm and Pace of Book 1
Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 2
Predictability 1
Reader Enjoyment 2
Total 25/30
83%

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