on February 10, 2007
In 1848 some residents of Washington DC owned slaves though many others opposed the "curious institution". In April, conductors on the Underground Railroad try a bold freedom run using the Pearl to take seventy-seven runaway "fugitives" to freedom in the north. However, a terrible storm on the Chesapeake doomed the mission. The sheriff arrested the freedom fighters and took the recaptured slaves back to their owner who sent them to New Orleans for sale. Another twist returns the slaves to DC where Preacher and staunch abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher made efforts to get them freed and his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe used their plight as part of her reference notes published as the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, two years after the classic was released.
This is a complex at times convoluted look back at a major incident of its time that has somewhat lost its significance over the subsequent century and a half. The book gets inside the heads of the slaves, slave sellers, slave owners, the Stowes and the Underground Railroad conductors. However, most fascinating besides the link to Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic is the way the citizens in the metropolitan DC area looked at slavery. Historical readers need to set aside some time because though difficult to follow because of how complex the events leading to, the event itself, and the subsequent aftereffect and outcome are, this is a discerning insightful look at the abomination of slavery.
on February 11, 2007
The author's knowledge of her subject is remarkable, her writing is graceful, and her judgments are consistently sound. This book is a great read, an exciting tale framed by a sharp, balanced and sensible portrayal of an era of shame, ferment and change in our history. Ricks's literal knowledge of the streets of which she writes makes this book vibrate with authenticity. I enjoyed it consistently--and learned enormously from reading Escape On The Pearl. Since I write fictional accounts of the period myself under the pen-name Owen Parry, I realize how complex a subject this author has taken on--and I can only say that it's humbling to see another writer do a far-better job than one can ever hope to do. This book deserves wide attention and, as readers, let us hope that Ricks will return to the period for additional books in the future.
on January 30, 2007
"Escape on the Pearl" shows once again how there are so many fascinating and important stories from our history that are just waiting for a good storyteller to tell. Thankfully, Ricks has done so with the Pearl. The story she tells weaves together slavery, abolition and the politics of Washington with the personal struggles and triumphs of some very courageous people. Combining meticulous research with a passion for the subject matter, Ricks vividly recreates the events and locales in a way that brings to life these people, their hardships, and the times in which they lived. Such a moving, captivating story; so important to tell.
on February 7, 2007
Ricks has uncovered rich detail about an almost forgotten incident that illuminates the American character and the American experience in ways that will astonish most readers. Many famous names play a part in the drama she relays--Horace Mann, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Scott Key--but the key players are ordinary men and women desperately trying to establish lives of dignity against tremendous odds. Ricks is to be thanked for her beautifully written account.
on January 30, 2007
This is a wonderful book that combines history with a riveting story. Like Ken Burns' "Civil War" series it illuminates great themes--slavery and the battle against it--with rich detail, lovely writing and memorable, previously unknown characters. It is amazing this story hasn't been told before. It reads like a thriller as we follow the slaves on board the Pearl and their escape, wondering if they will make it. The historical sections deepen your knowledge of the characters on board the Pearl, and help you understand better the drama that follows.
What is best about this book is that it is really a story about heroes--black and white. At a time when many people feel bad about America, this book reminds us how good this country can be when ordinary people make courageous choices. From a historical point of view I found Ricks' discussion about the "internal slave trade"--the selling of slaves from one part of the south to another and the way that broke up families--revelatory and heart breaking. I have read a great deal about the Civil War and slavery but I hadn't realized before how big this "internal slave trade" was.
I can't wait to share this book with my friends, and with our teenaged children. It's a gem.
on February 15, 2007
This is a great book. But don't take my word for it - Edward Ball, author of the bestseller Slaves in the Family, says "My kind of Southern history looks at slavery through people, and Mary Kay Ricks puts you on a first-name basis with the remarkable Edmonson family, who went through a mass escape, the near prostitution of two daughters, and a great homecoming. And she's found their descendants, who will tell you all about it." (quoted on the back of Escape on the Pearl).
on February 6, 2007
Slavery is America's original sin, the darkness at the heart of every claim of American exceptionalism and national virtue. It is our national psychosis, and has continued to mark our national character and daily life long after we thought ourselves purged and cured of it. From that fateful day when slavers appeared unexpectedly at Jamestown, and we were tempted, and we fell, it has shadowed our attempts to live up to our creed of liberty and human freedom.
As central as slavery is to America's history, our understanding of it is often partial and distant. Academic accounts of slavery's inevitability and explanations for why only a civil war could bring about the constitutional revolution that ended it tend to focus on the political history of slavery. They tell us of the Missouri Compromise that the slave power imposed but not the daily moral compromise. Too often, those accounts obscure the human reality of those who were born into and lived within the slave system, and who had to live out their hopes and aspirations without awaiting its end and without any assurance that it ever would end. Whether slave or master, abolitionist or apologist, they recede into dim stereotypes.
It is Mary Kay Ricks' great achievement to recover for us in our time the persons who lived in slavery days and the world they inhabited. Her story of the escape on the Pearl has at its center the dramatic story of the six Edmonson children who were among the more than seventy fugitive slaves fleeing on that sailing vessel. As the story of the Edmonsons vividly illustrates, the dividing line between slavery and freedom ran not just between sections of the nation but between husband and wife, parent and child, and brother and sister. The Edmondsons' father was free, but their mother was not. Her children were born into slavery, but some of the older ones managed to purchase their freedom while their younger siblings remained enslaved, and grasped at the freedom promised by the Pearl.
But from the story of that tenacious family's struggle to be free and to remain together spirals outward a larger tale of slavery in America. Ricks skillfully tells the story not only of the Underground Railroad that organized the Pearl's voyage but also the story of its grotesque mirror image, the much less well-known but very well-organized network of slave pens, traveling coffles (caravans) of slaves shackled together, regularly scheduled slave transportation, and slave auctions that made possible the vast internal slave trade that arose between the Upper South and the Deep South in the first half of the nineteenth century after the importation of slaves from Africa was outlawed and King Cotton's voracious demand for slaves to populate his empire grew and grew. These two networks--one hidden and tenuous but leading to freedom and life, the other open and proud and unassailable and leading to loss of family, degradation, suffering, and death--sprawled across all of mid-century America and entwined themselves in other, larger worlds. The Underground Railroad was connected to the larger abolitionist movement, to other religious and political organizations, and to the developing literary and cultural life of the North. The slave-trading network was deeply embedded in the commercial world of an industrializing America and its global trading partners; it took advantage of all the arts and sciences of nineteenth-century commerce, demonstrating the brutal compatibility of slaves in shackled bondage with the telegraph, the locomotive, the steamboat, and all the other instruments of a modern economy.
The Edmonsons, setting off on the Pearl to journey North on the Underground Railroad's freedom network, ended up transported South to New Orleans on the slave-trading network once the Pearl was captured and their owner sold them on to slave traders. Put up for sale in the showrooms of New Orleans, sisters Mary and Emily Edmonson were rescued by an incredible series of interventions, coincidences, and reversals worthy of a plot-twisted nineteenth-century novel that not only set them free but turned them into celebrated personages. But not all of their siblings were so fortunate; for them, and for the rest of Washington's slaves toiling among the monuments of liberty, freedom and family reunion had to await the conclusion of the Civil War.
Escape on the Pearl is an important book, with a fast-paced but deeply researched narrative that tells a compelling tale of family love and loyalty played out against a national struggle for freedom and equality that continues to this day.
on January 30, 2007
Mary Kay Ricks' Escape on the Pearl is a fascinating look at an amazing time in history, at an astonishing time of change. If you are interested in American History, or political action against all odds, or the strength of the human spirit against soul-crushing injustice, you'll enjoy this outstanding book! This is a book about the way political events and slavery affected every facet of everyday people's lives, and how some people (whites and blacks) had admirable courage and strength to fight for what they knew was right despite the law of the land. . The book is populated by the citizens and slaves of Washington: educated and cultivated slaves and farmworker slaves, Abolitionists, slaveowners, Quakers, Freemen, famous statesmen and political hacks, the ignorant, the greedy, the noble and the ignomious, the powerful and the powerless: all in the maelstrom of Washington DC in the decade before the Civil War. Mary Kay Ricks, through meticulous documentation, gives them faces, names, hopes, dreams, loves, and losses: they become real people, and brave, admirable people. (Just an example: the many attempts at escapes from slavery are inventive and inspiring but fraught with danger-- passing as a Jamaican businessman, dressing as a boy, kidnapping, bribery, doublecrossing, and more). With letters, photos, descriptions of torments of daily life as a slave, the battle in the courts and in the Congress, and the enormous obstacles to freedom, Mary Kay Ricks brings this era to life. A wonderful read! Highly recommended!
on January 31, 2007
We all know movies and books that are thrillers. "Escape on the Pearl" is a great thriller that really happened! The effect on us is much more moving, knowing that these were real lives in the balance. Throughout, the narrative is woven with fascinating historical details of the pre civil war times in Washington D.C.. Just one small example that truly moved this fiddle player: Slaves were moved from place to place in chained together in groups called coffles, often with a fiddle player playing to push it forward. The clear vision that the author gives of this saddest use of the fiddle brought tears to me. Escape on the Pearl" is a page-turning, emotional roller coaster that you will find hard to put down until you are finished. Clifford Wagner
on March 8, 2007
This is a gripping tale.
While the book's title highlights the 1848 escape attempt on the Pearl, the contents of the book encompass much, much more. There's the story of a slave family - the Edmonsons - which Ricks follows from before the courageous but unsuccessful flight to freedom all the way into present-day Washington, DC. There's an engrossing overview of abolitionism and its firey, impatient and ultimately triumphant adherents. Ricks presents her readers with a compelling description of the underground railway. Washington is presented as the small southern town that it was then, with illuminating detail. She brings to life the mid-nineteenth century context with its wrangling and maneuvering and unforgettable characters. It was a hell of a time and she gets it.
The small hard kernel of yearning and determination that impelled this particular journey by these particular people inspires us. Here, too, is a great and continuing irony of history: Some human beings are capable of enslaving others; at the same time different human beings strive passionately to free others; still others fight to free themselves.
'Escape on the Pearl' is a terrific read.