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Underground to Canada by B. Smucker

Smucker, Barbara. Underground to Canada. Toronto: Penguin, 2013. Print.

A reprint of a historical novel first published in 1977, Underground to Canada is the gripping story of two young girls who rely on the secret network of courageous and sympathetic people which helped thousands of fugitive slaves on their dangerous journey from the American south to Canada and freedom. This covert network came to be known as the “Underground Railroad.” In his introduction, award-winning author Lawrence Hill notes that after being in print for decades, “Underground to Canada still serves as a wonderful introduction to a vital and fascinating element of Canadian history.” In an excerpt from his 1967 Massey Lectures reprinted here, Martin Luther King Jr. says, “Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star. The Negro slave, denied education, de-humanized, imprisoned on cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave, if he survived the horrors of the journey, could find freedom.”

The subject matter of this novel is challenging, but, in a world which has yet to put an end to childhood slavery, its message is an important one. As Lawrence Hill notes, referring to the institution of slavery and the horrors of the Holocaust, “writers, teachers and parents do no one a favour by pretending that such things didn’t exist.” Written with young readers in mind, this novel avoids delving into the worst elements of the institution of slavery. It is, however, subtle enough to acknowledge the many difficulties faced by former slaves as they began new lives in Canada. 

In addition to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the introduction by Lawrence Hill, this edition includes thought-provoking questions and activities in the back of the book which may help children to think about the novel’s difficult topics, either individually or with classmates. This is a powerful, essential, novel for the education of young readers—it is recommended for readers over nine years of age—but this particular edition is shoddily produced. I could not help but notice obvious significant errors on pages 27, 84, 133, and 151, and I suspect that I could find many more if I tried. While I cannot give such a substandard edition four stars, I whole-heartedly recommend this title and urge readers to choose a different edition.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Linda Quirk

Linda taught courses in Multicultural Canadian Literature, Women's Writing, and Children's Literature at Queen's University (Kingston) and at Seneca College (Toronto) before moving to Edmonton to become the Assistant Special Collections Librarian at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta.  Her favourite children's book to teach is Hana's Suitcase, not only because Hana's story is so compelling, but because the format of this non-fiction book teaches students of all ages about historical investigation and reveals that it is possible to recover the stories of those who have been forgotten by history.