Martha and the Slave Catchers

Written by Elizabeth Zunon (illus.) Harriet Hyman Alonso
Review by Meg Wiviott

Martha has kept secrets her whole life. Her parents are abolitionist, conductors on the Underground Railroad. Though Connecticut is a Free State, slave catchers often hunt fugitive slaves. When the Fugitive Slave Law is passed, the danger becomes even greater for those once enslaved, those trying to help them, and for Martha’s younger brother. Jake’s mother was an escaped slave who died in childbirth in Martha’s home. Now seven, Jake can be difficult—acting out, unable to sit still, fearful. Today, he would be on the autism spectrum. Martha’s family, and Martha in particular, do all they can to keep Jake safe. But one day the worst happens. Jake is kidnapped by slave catchers and returned to the Maryland plantation from where his mother escaped. With the help of other abolitionists, thirteen-year-old Martha makes the journey south to find her brother and rescue him.

Adult writer Alonso presents a suspenseful story of a loyal, spunky young girl for whom readers aged 8-12 will cheer. Unfortunately, the dialogue is often stiff. The basic premise of the story is interesting but stretches belief when so much responsibly falls on young Martha due to her mother’s depression/anxiety, and when she is allowed to take part in the rescue mission. Likewise, given that she has grown up in a world of secrets, her inability to follow the rules seems a convenient way to increase tension. Simple black and white illustrations appear throughout the story. The maps of Martha’s journey—southbound and northbound—appear in the endpages.