Written by Krista Russell
The year is 1739, the location northern Florida near the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. Thirteen- year-old fugitive slave Jem has just arrived from Charles Town in the Carolinas with Phaedra, a feisty black runaway woman, who has been “paid” by Jem’s caregiver, conjure woman Aunt Winnie, to escort Jem to Florida and look after him.
Why would Jem and Phaedra want to go to Florida? Florida was controlled by the Spanish government. Spain had offered freedom to English colonial slaves if they fled the British colonies, swore to assist the Spanish in defeating the British, and converted to Catholicism. A group of fugitives lived at Fort Mose, just outside the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. About the same time, a slave uprising occurred along the Stono River near the Florida-Georgia border. The British colonists slaughtered or sold many rebels.
Krista Russell, according to her website, writes “stories of adventure that bring history to life.” She has succeeded in this case. Once Jem and Phaedra arrive at Fort Mose, the adventures begin: rescuing an owl, meeting the trader Reynard, learning to fish and hunt the Indian way from Domingo, arrival of other fugitives, encounters in the forest, threats from the British, scarce supplies, preparing for battle, and the battle.
The story line drags a bit at the beginning, but reaches a flashpoint and firepower speed when Jem spies several British soldiers, and British ships blockade the St. Augustine harbor. All the fugitives gather in the Castillo for safety, but supplies are low. Jem learns about what the British have done to Fort Mose. Consequently, the Spanish authorities develop a plan to defeat the British soldiers at Fort Mose based on Jem’s reports.
The characters are many and diverse, each having his own story to enrich the general narrative. Jem is an immature and naïve thirteen, resentful of strong willed Phaedra and missing Aunt Winnie. Jem’s and Phaedra’s strong stubborn wills clash. Phaedra’s history remains a mystery until the final chapters. Reynard, the trader, adds the historical details about the importance of trading with the Indians and the British and American colonists, not only providing goods but also news. Big Sunday is the leader of the slaves and connection to the Native Americans via his son Domingo and connection to the Spanish governor and general who live in St. Augustine. General Rooster is what the slaves have nicknamed General Rojas who trains the fugitives to help fight off the British. Shadrack is the old conjure man who is the fort charcoal maker.
Interspersed throughout is the owl, Omen, that Jem rescues from his nest when he observes crows attacking the owlet. Phaedra dislikes and resents the owlet and the time Jem spends feeding it, mending it, teaching it how to fly, and, finally, hunting for itself. However, Omen teaches Jem about the forest and the ways of the forest that help Jem provide information during the siege
Several strands of the narrative seem extraneous. While Jem thinks about his Aunt Winnie, he remembers her stories, the stories of trickster Brer Rabbit and tells them to Omen. General Rojas propositions Phaedra, who rebuffs him. Why is that short episode needed in a story for middle grade readers? Could other descriptions, examples, information have been used to establish the personalities of Rojas and Phaedra? Neither does the element of conjuring, while providing additional richness to the African-American culture, seem to be necessary to the forward movement of the general thesis.
Few books have been written for upper elementary/middle school readers about this period and location in America history. Most emphasis has been on the British colonies and the use of slaves on the southern plantations. Historians now consider the Fort Mose site and the flight of the slaves from the Carolinas and Georgia as the precursor of the Underground Railroad that took many slaves to safety in the north or to Canada. Russell’s previous book Chasing the Nightbird was a NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People in 2012; Other Side of Free will probably also be included in that honor listing.
Extras: Author website kristarussell.com
Fort Mose Historic State Park: www.floridastateparks.org/fortmose
Castillo De San Marcos: www.nps.gov/casa/index.htm;
Stono River Slave Rebellion Site: www.discoversouthcarolina.com/products/3566.aspx