Number Eight in the monthly Uppity Women Wednesday Series, started in April, 2014.
Rarely do page-turners written for middle-school kids also ignite excitement in adults. (A notable exception is the series of Harry Potter books.) Fewer still explore the secret sorrows of children's lives in the mid-1800s, whether enslaved or free. Running Out of Night, a debut novel from Californian Sharon Lovejoy, a veteran author-illustrator known nationally for her prizewinning nonfiction books on gardening and nature, gives you both. Like Rowling's Potter, her book follows the desperate quest of youngsters who've seen the darker sides of human nature. Instead of Harry, Hermione and Ron, it's preteen girls Lark and Zenobia who flee their grim lives in search of a sunnier, freer world.
An uppity woman of modern times, Lovejoy comes from a long line of outspoken Quaker ancestors who pioneered Virginia and Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Later generations of the family went west to join Quaker communities in Pasadena, California. Thanks to her history-loving female relatives, notably her grandmother Abigail Harlan Baker Lovejoy and elder cousin Margaret Macdonald, Lovejoy has inherited a passionate love of the past.
She also inherited primary source treasures any writer would kill for. In 1969, her cousin gave her an old leather suitcase, filled with handwritten documents and other memorabilia, some of it over a century old. In 1974, her grandmother did the same, handing over trunks jammed with artifacts and a rich array of history on paper.
Sharon recalls her excitement at this windfall. "History came alive for me when I read these amazing letters, filled with life and with the deaths of friends and family who fought in the Civil War." Some of the letters were sent from Civil War battlefields and army encampments. One came from the battle of Gettysburg, where her great-grandfather Edwin Baker and great-uncle Aaron fought. "I sobbed as I read how Aaron, with only a few days left to serve, was shot and carried off the battlefield by his brother Edwin and three friends, who buried him in a nearby field."
While meticulously documenting this amazing motherlode, Sharon made periodic trips to her Virginia roots, spending time on Catoctin Creek, wandering through the communities and Quaker meetinghouses, and exploring Loudoun County. The region was deeply divided over secession and suffered greatly in the Civil War.
"I attended a Friends meeting in Goose Creek--an amazing experience. I felt I was part of a river of time," recalls Lovejoy. "I also worked with the Quakers in several towns, spending many hours studying historic records and objects--for example, the slave bills of sale and manumission papers. Still other documents, I got to examine at the Smithsonian Institution. There were so many things that touched my heart."
Inspired by the materials she handled and read, as well as by her Quaker upbringing, Lovejoy decided to write a novel in the voice of an abused 12-year-old white girl who joins forces with a runaway slave, a black girl her own age. "When quite young, I'd heard grownups talking about blacks, using the "N" word. It upset me deeply because my grandmother Abigail had taught me to be respectful of the differences between people. Later, in Los Angeles, I encountered racism again. I simply did not understand it, except that I knew I was a heck of a lot luckier, just because of my skin color. In writing this book, I wanted to show a kid's eye view of the differences. I wanted to open children's minds and hearts to the fabric of our history. To learn how hatred can be transmitted like a virus but 'cured' with knowledge and love."
To convey the flavor of long-ago Virginia, author Lovejoy allowed her characters to speak in the everyday language and cadence of their time and place. The narrator, an unschooled girl whose knowledge of the natural world is profound, the runaway slaves she joins, and the white country folk they interact with or avoid, speak the 19th-century English of the rural south. The Quaker activists who operate the Underground Railroad network use the Friends' gentle "thee and thou" speech patterns. This plainspoken musicality makes each sentence in Running Out of Night glow with the authenticity of a newly-minted copper penny.
As a child, the author absorbed the Quaker speech spoken around her; the letters she later transcribed helped her master its patterns. While visiting family members in Virginia, Lovejoy also substitute-taught for a period and soaked up the local patois. As she admits, "Listening is one of my passions. I spent time with locals, quizzing the postmaster, talking with the doctor, making notes on colorful phrases and local superstitions."
The locale and era of this book are critical to the story. It takes place in 1858 in the homeland of Lovejoy's Quaker forebears who settled the rich Loudoun valley in northern Virginia, bordered by the Potomac River and barely 45 miles from Washington, D.C.
By 1832, the loose network of abolitionists who'd helped runaway slaves escape to the north grew into a more highly organized "Underground Railroad." The abolitionists also created a political entity called the "Free Soil Party," which barred slavery in new states. But southern slaveowners and segregationists fought back; and in 1850, they got the Fugitive Slave Act passed. This heinous law allowed slave owners to pursue and claim runaway slaves in any state, north or south, and slapped stiff fines, even imprisonment on those who helped slaves flee.
Thus escape to Canada (which lies nearly 700 miles from Virginia, northernmost of the southern states) became the primary goal. Fleeing slaves now had a much longer, rougher, riskier challenge, as did the compassionate "conductors" who guided them from one safe house to another along the "railroad."
In 1852, enraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, a melodramatic novel that shook the already polarized nation to the core. It became one of the most influential books ever written in America. In 1859, near the Virginia-West Virginia border, white abolitionist John Brown led 21 men to seize an arsenal at Harpers Ferry, the first step in an armed slave revolt. It failed utterly but divided North and South even further over the slavery question.
This tumultuous decade, the prologue to America's bloody Civil War, is where author Lovejoy brings the actions of her characters to life. Below, prefaced with brief introductions, are three excerpts from her book, Running Out of Night.