Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Children's Historical Fiction: Who Comes With Cannons? by Patricia Beatty

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: 1992
Format: paperback
Source: book sale
Read: because it's set in my home state
Pages: 186
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: When Truth Hopkins's father dies, she goes to live with her uncle and his family on their North Carolina farm. Like Truth, the Bardwells are Quakers. They oppose slavery but refuse to take up arms in the civil war that is now being waged to end this inhuman institution. Then one day, a runaway slave takes refuge on the Bardwell farm and, to Truth's amazement, her uncle hides him from the slave catchers. Even more puzzling, he asks her to accompany him when he delivers a wagonload of hay to a neighbor late that night. This ride, and the wagon's real cargo, involve Truth in a mysterious and dangerous underground movement -- and reveal how she can help further the cause of freedom without the use of a rifle.

My review: It took me a while to readjust to the simplicity of children's literature, and I am still not sure exactly how I feel about how oversimplified things could be at times. At the beginning, especially, the dialogue seemed stilted, and not just because of the typical Quaker "thee's" and "thy's." There is not a particularly large cast of characters, with the result that the Southern characters, with the exception of Truth's schoolteacher, are either Quakers or rather stereotypically-drawn, die-hard Confederates (and all men, at that). Also, the fact that this ~175 page book covers all years of the Civil War means that there are major time gaps, sometimes at points where I wished daily life and other events could have been more fleshed out.

But otherwise, this is a sweet story about a young girl finding courage and her own voice during a pretty bad time in American history. I particularly appreciated the novel's emphasis on Quaker experiences during the war as well as its portrayal of North Carolina's Battle of Bentonville, both of which are uncommon in the other Civil War fiction I've run across. And while slavery and the Underground Railroad are common themes in children's historical fiction, I think it's rare for a novel to include abolitionists also traveling along the Railroad. There are still more aspects of this book that are unusual, like visits to a Union prison for Confederate POWs and mentions of former slaves going to Liberia. And while I am not a huge fan of token appearances by such famous personages as Frederick Douglass and the Lincolns, as well as the simplified nature in which Sherman's March in particular is portrayed, this is a pretty cool novel that moves past the most famous battles and aspects of the war to describe the experiences of someone who, rather than taking sides in the conflict, is caught completely in its crossfire.

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