My neighborhood book group chose Redfield Farm: A Novel of the Underground Railroad by Judith Redline Coopey for its February selection. The book turned out to be somewhat obscure, published by a small, independent press. There is not a single copy in our entire state library system, and most bookstores don’t carry it; many people had to read it in e-book form. The novel ended up being well worth the trouble finding it, though. It’s got an engaging plot set against a fascinating aspect of American history and was very well written.
Ann Redfield and her brother Jesse are Quakers in a small rural community in Pennsylvania. They encounter runaway slaves for the first time when they are still children, and Ann gradually comes to realize that her family is part of the Underground Railroad and that Jesse is especially devoted to the cause. As Quakers, their entire community believes in nonviolence and equality for all people, but only a select few are so devoted to the anti-slavery movement as to put their own lives at risk. The Fugitive Slave Law means that even their own constable is legally required to help send escaped slaves back to the South, so helping fugitives is a very dangerous business and one that is rarely spoken of aloud, even among close friends.
Jesse returns from one mission sick with a deadly fever, along with a fugitive who is also sick. Both of the men are barely alive when they arrive at the farm, so Ann must care for them both and nurse them back to health. Josiah, the escaped slave, is so weak that he has to stay at the farm through the winter. Ann becomes friends with Josiah and comes to know that he is an intelligent and caring man; she even teaches him to read and write during his long winter hidden in the farmhouse. Their close relationship has serious consequences, though, for the whole family.
I was totally absorbed by this fascinating story of compassion, family, friendship, and love. The passages that tell of the Redfield family’s efforts to help fugitives are fast-paced and suspenseful, with ruthless slave catchers and ever-present danger. But this is also a novel about everyday life – its endings and beginnings, sorrows and joys – told through Ann’s eyes with grace and intelligence. The story extends from 1837 through 1903, following Ann and Jesse and their family through their entire lives. Ann felt like a good friend by the end of the novel, and I could scarcely set it down.
If you are interested in more information on this topic, here is an excellent article on the topic of Quakers and the Underground Railroad.