In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams
In late 1840s Missouri, 14-year-old Joshua’s mother tells him to follow her into the swamp to a religious service for slaves. There he is surprised to meet the father he didn’t know he had and to learn that the group’s real purpose is to run away via the Underground Railroad.
They endure many tribulations: constant fear of being caught, extreme hunger, and having to rely on abolitionists for their food and passage when their previous experience has caused them to distrust all whites.
They make their way with abolitionists’ help to Washington Island in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and settle on the uninhabited part of the island, with plans to establish a fishing colony. They struggle to prepare for the harsh winters and learn that while many other settlers on the island are anti-slavery, there are some in sympathy with slavers. When news comes that the Fugitive Slave Act will allow slave catchers from Missouri to pursue them across state lines, they must decide whether to abandon their hard-won settlement or stay and hope to remain free.
The Underground Railroad section gives a vivid picture of what it would be like to be a slave on the run. The book is also Joshua’s coming-of-age story, as he grows from a teenager to a responsible married man. Davis is very good at making the reader feel Joshua’s conflict—he becomes almost friendly to Jesse, a white boy who lends him books, yet past experience prompts him to distrust whites. Each chapter begins with a sonnet, and the endnotes give additional information not found in the text. Davis’s story, partially based on fact, is a fascinating portrait of what happened to slaves who made it north via the Underground Railroad. Not all of their troubles were over.