The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson

cover of A Desperate Road to Freedom by Karleen Bradford
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Summary ~ Reviews

  • The Canadian Children’s Centre’s Best Books 2010

  • Shortlisted for the 2011-2012 Red Cedar Award


Friday, January 16th, 1863

We huddled there, all holding onto each other. The bushes prickled something awful, but we none of us paid them any mind at all. We heard the dogs coming closer and closer, baying and howling just the way they were the night Uncle Bo got caught. Men were shouting, too. The noise was fierce and it was coming straight at us. I held my breath and prayed as hard as I could. I knew real well those dogs could smell us easy as could be in those bushes. All I could think of was Uncle Bo shot and hanging dead in that tree.

Scholastic Canada Ltd., Dear Canada Series, 2009
ISBN 13 978-0-545-99619-8
ISBN 10 0-545-99619-8

Published in French as
Du désespoir à la liberté,
Julia May Jackson, sur le chemin de fer clandestin.

Éditions Scholastic


Canadian Children’s Book News Vol. 33 No2

“...The advantage of the diary format is Bradford’s ability to connect her character with the excited naiveté that I find in my own diary from that age. ‘A terrible thing happened today!’ Julia scratches with her pencil. And elsewhere she spits, ‘I am so angry! I can hardly write!’ Ten- to thirteen-year old readers of today will relate to these feelings as they read Julia’s important story and learn more about the complex issues Blacks in Canada faced in the 1860s.”

Reviewed by Liam Goodall

Northern Terminus: The African Canadian History Journal/Vol.7/2010 Grey Roots: Museum & Archives

“In A Desperate Road to Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson, author Karleen Bradford has created an absorbing fictional account of a young girl’s journey from slavery to freedom...Set in 1863 during the American Civil War and told from the perspective of a precocious eleven-year old, A Desperate Road to Freedom is largely a story about family.

“As other slaves begin fleeing to Union lines in response to the Emancipation Proclamation, Julia May’s family is compelled to escape their forced labour on a Virginia tobacco plantation. A quick pace is established from the earliest pages, when she is awakened by her mother to begin their perilous flight. Her parents are desperate to keep the remaining family intact, after three of their children are sold by the plantation master. They run, knowing the consequences of being caught are severe, and follow the Underground Railroad to Canada, eventually settling in Owen Sound.

“Bradford is able to evoke a sense of place and time in few words, complementing the brevity of the diary format. Family members and other characters are well developed and relationships are central to the unfolding of the story. Strong themes emerge through the compelling narrative, of freedom, loss, education as a liberating force, the pioneering struggle to adapt in a new land, and how social conditions can impact the bonds of family and friendship. Historical people are included as characters in the book, an interweaving of fact and fiction that familiarizes the story and should inspire readers to learn more about this integral part of local history.

“Although the target audience for A Desperate Road to Freedom is adolescent girls, readers of both genders and all ages can appreciate the story and it is appropriate for classroom study (Scholastic has published teaching resource guides for earlier books in the Dear Canada series). It is evident that Bradford has carefully researched the conditions, locations and historic events experienced by her characters. While she does not shy away from depicting the hardships of slavery, war, migration, poverty and racism, this is done in a manner sensitive to young readers. A Notes section includes historical information, copies of relevant documents, and resources such as a recipe and song lyrics that invite readers to participate in activities referred to in the story. Julia May’s first-person account personalizes and provides insight about struggles, attitudes and practices that children and young adults today may find difficult to imagine. They will have no difficulty identifying with her spirit, though. July May is an inquisitive, engaging character whose diary entries reveal a maturing awareness of the world and her own strengths and personal challenges.

“... A Desperate Road to Freedom brings to life, from Julia May’s perspective, an important period in North American history and, as the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad, Owen Sound is a significant setting for this story. Readers will gain a greater understanding of how a network of compassionate people and abolitionists helped escaped slaves from the southern states elude capture, and of the great risks facing all involved. Bradford has written an intriguing, informative historical novel that captures the imagination and encourages thought about the importance of family and freedom, and subjects such as human rights, multiculturalism, and war that are just as relevant and crucial today.”

Review by Cindy Newton

CM, Volume XVI Number 3, September 18, 2009

**** /4

“Fans of the ‘Dear Canada’ series will be thrilled that a new title is available. A Desperate Road to Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson makes an impressive addition to these popular fictional historical diaries for nine- to thirteen-year-olds. Not only does Karleen Bradford’s story provide a long needed supplement - or even replacement - for Barbara Smucker’s now-classic Underground to Canada, it also provides a gripping read, period. Any reader, of any age or background, reading for any purpose at all, will surely be unable to put this book down. It is a work of outstanding excellence.

“Bradford wields the notoriously difficult diary form effortlessly, overcoming such potential stumbling blocks as plausibility in relation to historical accuracy, reiteration of dialogue, and even issues of spelling, with ingenuity and grace. Her protagonist, Julia May, a gifted, determined learner and spirited girl who is also charmingly tenderhearted towards her family and friends, provides a hook that draws in readers from the first page right through to the last. Julia May is such an interesting character that her domestic interactions alone would provide a compelling narrative; in combination with a pitch perfect plot that follows her harrowing escape from slavery in Virginia, her adjustment to a new life in Toronto, and finally her challenging relocation to Owen Sound, Julia May’s story becomes a page-turner. But this is not the stuff of romance and fancy: Bradford’s meticulous research, as well as the inspiration of her own ancestors’ real experiences, is abundantly evident throughout. Although Julia May was not a real person, she very well could have been. This, in conjunction with her irresistible, endearing nature, provide an effective way to build readers’ understanding of and empathy for African American slaves of this period, driving home a still-current message about universal human rights.

“In weaving together all of these elements, Bradford delivers on the ‘Dear Canada’ promise, providing a book that is rewarding to read in and of itself, but one that can also be used as the basis for a multitude of school projects. In addition to providing a useful tie-in to the topic of the Underground Railroad, this book also celebrates the early roots of multiculturalism in Canada which are worth remembering today, when a multitude of challenges threaten it; children deserve to be reminded of our egalitarian Canadian values, and this book provides an excellent way to do so.

“There is no doubt that A Desperate Road to Freedom should have a place in every library and classroom in Canadian schools. This book will become a new classic.”

Highly Recommended.

Review by Michelle Superle

(Michelle Superle teaches children’s literature, composition, and creative writing at the University of the Fraser Valley.)

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association.

Owen Sound Sun Times

“A fine contribution to the literature of the Underground Railroad, this is one to share with your children.”

Review by Andrew Armitage