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To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker Hardcover – January 9, 2012

4.7 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

A remarkable story by a master storyteller, To Free a Family takes us inside the exhilarating and heartbreaking world of those fugitives whose escape from slavery required a separation from family and friends. Nathans brilliantly narrates a neglected area of the black experience. (Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America)

To Free a Family puts names and faces on the historic black struggle to reunite families broken by slavery. Well written and beautifully researched, it is a triumph. (Jean Fagan Yellin, author of Harriet Jacobs: A Life)

In this brilliant biography, Nathans offers an incomparable view into the stresses that escaped slaves had to endure, and he provides a wonderful prism through which to view the dilemmas of race and self-fulfillment that accompanied the long march to freedom. (William H. Chafe, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Century)

A refreshingly unique portrait not only of a fugitive slave, but also of her complex relations with both her enslavers and with Northern abolitionists who befriended her. Nathans has discovered a remarkable woman, and he has made her as memorable as she was to those who knew and loved her in life. (Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America)

To Free a Family is a brilliant book, a poignant and elegantly told story of an ordinary fugitive, Mary Walker, whom Nathans has beautifully, vividly brought to life. A true pleasure to read. (John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men and Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln)

In this rigorously scholarly but totally absorbing narrative, Nathans unfolds a history as spellbinding as a novel, chockfull of fascinating people engaged in a venture both risky and affecting. When the fugitive slave Mary Walker finds refuge with the Lesleys in Pennsylvania, their lives, their families, and their circle of friends become deeply involved in the general cause and the specific mission--to secure the freedom of Walker's mother and her children. Nathans's account is full of twists and turns, as efforts to free the family are thwarted and Mary's son makes his own escape. The intimacy achieved through the use of letters between friends and family is remarkable; here is history lived in an ordinary household. The center, however, is held by Mary Walker's crusade, accompanied as it is by the Lesleys' own evolution; Susan finds "her work in the world," and Peter moves from antislavery to abolition. Nathans has transformed the paraphernalia of academia (ploughing through archives, thorough documentation, guarded speculation) into a book that will entrance the general reader, inform the scholar, and engage both. (Publishers Weekly (starred review) 2011-10-24)

Prior to the Civil War, thousands of African Americans escaped from slavery, but because few recorded their experiences little is known about their efforts to forge new lives in freedom. Mary Walker, the focus of this study, was a light-skinned fugitive who escaped from a North Carolina planter couple when she accompanied them to Philadelphia in 1848. Her history, though unique in many ways, is illustrative of the hardships and challenges such migrants faced and the support they sometimes received from abolitionist networks. Her efforts to preserve her freedom, gain economic independence, and locate and purchase the freedom of her children still held as slaves is pieced together here by Nathans from the papers of Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders. The result is an engrossing and readable study, thoroughly researched and well documented, that fills a significant gap in the history of the period. It is recommended for all readers seriously interested in the experience of fugitive slaves in Antebellum America. (Theresa McDevitt Library Journal (starred review) 2012-01-15)

A page-turning history. (Pam Kelley Charlotte Observer 2012-02-11)

[A] penetrating narrative...[A] captivating book. (Charles Shea LeMone Roanoke Times 2012-02-14)

With few exceptions, we know little about the day-to-day lives of female runaways, their families and their relationships with Northern whites. Sydney Nathans's To Free a Family is a minor masterpiece that goes a long way toward filling this gap. [It is] deeply researched and elegantly written...Nathans is brilliant at reconstructing Mary Walker's life and her relationship with Peter and Susan Lesley...Nathans creates a vibrant and subtle portrait of the Lesleys, enabling readers to decide for themselves how trusting Mary Walker's relationship with them became. The result is a remarkable story of an extended biracial family that embarked on a 15-year effort to reunite Walker with her surviving children. (John Stauffer Wall Street Journal 2012-02-24)

Like so many other slave stories, Walker's is mostly shrouded in mystery, but Sydney Nathans has found enough reliable documentation to render it plausible and pertinent...Nathans is a careful researcher and lucid writer. (Jonathan Yardley Washington Post 2012-03-09)

In piecing together Walker's story, historian Sydney Nathans has accomplished a remarkable feat. With a penetrating eye, he researched letters, diaries, public records and more to uncover the wrenching details of Walker's efforts to reunite her family. Where sources did not reveal the entire story, Nathans is careful to explore multiple possibilities and weigh them. The historian's craft is readily apparent throughout each chapter. To Free a Family will enthrall the casual reader as well as the scholar. Detailed maps and historic photographs immerse the reader in Walker's world. The tumultuous events of the Civil War era do not just serve as a contextual backdrop; one can see direct effects on ordinary people. Almost two decades after escaping, Walker brought her family back together. Her compelling journey reinforces that slavery, in all its brutality, did not destroy the African-American family. (Nathan P. Johnson Post and Courier 2012-03-04)

Nathans provides a compelling account of one mixed-race slave woman and her quest for freedom, as well as her long struggle to reunite her family in the North...Nathan's effort to reconstruct long-overlooked historical events through the close readings of correspondence and public records is commendable and comprises an educational, informative contribution to the U.S. narrative. (C. Warren Choice 2012-08-01)

About the Author

Sydney Nathans is Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (February 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674062124
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674062122
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,288,933 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
To Free a Family is the best of the historical facts books and storytelling. Sydney Nathans tells the story of Mary Walker's journey from slave in North Carolina to free woman in Pennsylvania and Boston/Cambridge. The book made me laugh and made me cry. Though from the south, I learned things about slavery and about events leading to the Civil War that I'd never heard before. It's hard for us to imagine the life that Mary led as a slave and it's hard to imagine the anguish of her escape to the north, having had to leave her children and her mother behind. Using quotes from letters and journals, Mr. Nathans leads the reader through the life of Mary Walker and her family, her North Carolina "owners" and her northern friends and supporters. I couldn't put the book down and recommend it completely!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
To Free a Family is one of the most compelling stories I have read. Strong research! Reads like a detective story. Syd Nathans is to be congratulated for the strength of his writing.
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Format: Paperback
Fascinating story. Wonderfully researched and written. Get a book. I read it on my Kindle and there were so many footnotes that I would have loved to read as I was going along.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Beautifully told, deeply researched, and good for either a historian or just an interested reader. I've given some as gifts. Nathans is a master story teller.
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