As Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s Swing Low, Sweet Harriet opens, it’s been three years since thirteen-year-old Ben last saw his mother. That’s when she was sold to another plantation on the Combahee River in South Carolina. His sister, Milly, and his brother, Thomas, barely remember her. But Ben will never forget her anguished last words to him: “Promise to remember me to the little ones!”
It’s 1863 in this historical novel for young readers, and Ben and his family are slaves on a rice plantation during the Civil War. Ben works in the fields, Milly works in the plantation house, and Thomas carries water to the workers. They all live in the cabin of “Big Mama,” who cares for a number of motherless children. On Sundays they gather for church meetings in the slave quarter with Brother James, Big Joe, Uncle Minus, and the others. They sing spirituals and pray, but they also share news about troop movements, runaway slaves, and rumors of emancipation.
At one of these gatherings they meet the famous Harriet Tubman, who is known as “Moses” because of the number of slaves she has helped to escape via the Underground Railroad. Tubman is in South Carolina as a spy for the Union Army and seeks the locations of torpedoes placed in the river by Confederate troops to discourage Union gunboats. Ben and his friend Will know the river well and have a healthy respect for its hazards, especially alligators and cottonmouths. They have the information Moses wants, but they aren’t sure it’s safe to tell. The decision they make could be a matter of life and death—and it could change all their lives forever.
Rucker’s enthralling and suspenseful storytelling skills bring to vivid life this important period in American history. Rucker includes an epilogue describing the historical facts of the inspiration for Ben’s story—the dramatic June 1863 rescue of more than 700 slaves from Combahee River plantations by Union troops, including African-American soldiers from the Second South Carolina Colored Volunteers out of Beaufort, South Carolina. She also lists resources for students interested in exploring Civil War history.
Swing Low, Sweet Harriet captures the tremendous courage required to defy the plantation system and the inspiring struggle for freedom waged by African Americans—both those whose names we know, like Harriet Tubman, and the many more unsung heroes represented by young Ben. Middle-school readers will find much to identify with in Ben’s longing to escape the brutality of slavery, his loyalty to his family, and his desire to do something important in the fight for freedom.
Tagged: Children & YA