Juneteenth is an official holiday in a number of U.S. states, commemorating the June 19, 1865, announcement in Texas that slavery had been abolished. White Texans had managed to keep the Emancipation Proclamation secret from 1863 until that day, when forced by the occupying Yankee soldiers to reveal the truth.
Come Juneteenth depicts events on one Texas plantation in 1865. Luli Holcomb is 14, youngest child in the family, and the story’s narrator. She shared her childhood with Sis Goose, three years older, a “high yellow” daughter of a riverboat captain and a slave, who could pass for white. Technically Sis Goose belongs to Luli’s Aunt Sophie, but the Holcombs raised her as if she were their own daughter. When Yankee troops take over the Holcomb house, Luli’s father is forced to announce to the slaves that they are free. Sis Goose feels betrayed by the family when she realizes they kept the secret from her also. Matters become complicated when the Yankee commander deserts, taking Sis Goose with him. Luli’s brother Gabe is in love with Sis Goose and the father of her unborn child. He asks the remaining soldiers to be allowed to take Luli along to search for the pair, with tragic consequences.
I didn’t know a great deal about Juneteenth before I read the book, so I appreciated the author’s note, discussing the historical background and the problems she had devising the story, and the 14-item bibliography. I question Rinaldi’s choice of making Luli the central character. The story would have had more emotional power if Sis Goose had been the protagonist. I had some trouble in the beginning trying to keep the characters’ relationships and the plot sequence straight, so this may be more appropriate for advanced readers in the ages 10-and-up set.