Race for Freedom by Lois Walfrid Johnsonhas been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the second book in the “Freedom Seekers” series.
The year is 1857. Thirteen-year-old Libby has spent the last four years with her wealthy aunt. She’s recently moved to live with her father on the side wheeler (a boat) he captains. The boat is called the Christina after Libby’s deceased mother. She’s discovered that her father and his 14-year-old cabin boy, Caleb, are helping carry escaped slaves to freedom.
Caleb has challenged her naïve thinking about slavery, and she’s now anxious to be a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Caleb and Libby have helped a young slave named Jordan flee his cruel master, Riggs. Jordan is working for Father on the Christina until he can safely reach his family and get them to freedom. But Riggs has people watching Jordan’s family, and Riggs himself is looking up and down the Mississippi river for Jordan.
As Race for Freedom begins, Father cries as he reads about the Dred Scott decision. He suggests that this recent Supreme Court ruling might even lead the country to war. Riggs and his men search the Christina but can’t find Jordan. Knowing Riggs is still suspicious, Caleb and Libby carefully watch the new passengers boarding the boat for St. Paul. They see a man with a fake moustache who may be Riggs.
Libby also meets a family of German immigrants with a young daughter about her age named Elsa. She is thin and sickly, so Libby sometimes takes food and blankets to the family as they sleep on the crowded deck. She gets in trouble after trying to sneak Elsa onto the first-class deck where there is a warm fire. She convinces Pa to let Elsa join her, Caleb and Jordan for daily lessons in his cabin so Elsa will be warm for part of each day. At one point, Libby sees Caleb watching Elsa. She almost lets her jealousy keep her from giving her new friend the help she needs.
Against Caleb’s warnings, Jordan gets off the boat in Keokuk, Iowa, in search of information about his mother’s whereabouts. Slave catchers see him and give chase. Jordan narrowly escapes. Back on the boat, he tells Caleb and Libby more about his family and how he initially escaped Riggs.
Each year, steamboats on the Mississippi race through the dangerous, ice-filled waters of Lake Pepin. The first boat to arrive in St. Paul wins a sizeable reward: use of the wharf free of charge all year. Pa and the other captains try the waters each day to see if they can get through. Spring is coming late, and the captains become frustrated.
When Elsa’s condition worsens, Libby and Elsa’s mother take the girl to Libby’s cabin. Caleb determines Elsa has cholera, which means no one can be near her. Pa and Caleb secretly worry Libby has already come in contact with the disease. Pa sends Caleb and Jordan to find a doctor in a nearby port, and he makes them take Libby along. The journey is treacherous, but Pa wants to get Libby off the ship and away from the disease.
Caleb, Jordan and Libby hike through perilous terrain. Libby falls into a rushing stream, and Jordan saves her, despite his inability to swim. They also encounter a hungry bear and realize they’re being tracked by some of Riggs’ men. As Libby witnesses Jordan’s and Caleb’s faith and thinks back on her father’s words about courage, she begins to recognize her need for Jesus. She prays for forgiveness.
When Libby and her friends find the doctor, he rushes to the boat. He also helps them find a safe way back to the Christina. He seems somewhat hopeful that Elsa will recover and takes her off the boat for treatment. Pa and the other captains are finally able to start the race. But the slave catchers are back on the Christina looking for Jordan. Jordan escapes to a nearby boat and then falls overboard. Libby’s Newfoundland, Samson, saves the boy’s life.
Pa loses the race but is happy Jordan has survived. Jordan and Caleb leave the boat again in search of answers about Jordan’s mother, knowing the slave traders aren’t far behind.
Elsa Meyer and her family pray, sing hymns on deck and credit God for bringing them this far. Jordan is a faithful believer who often hears God telling him which direction he should take. He wants to learn to read so he can read the Bible. Jordan and Mrs. Meyer pray for Elsa’s health. Libby tells Jordan she doesn’t really know how to pray and wonders if God listens to her. Jordan tells her praying isn’t hard; it’s just talking to Jesus like you’d talk to anyone. Jordan sings spiritual songs as they hide from the slave catchers. He tells Libby he’s been free for a long time in his heart because he let Jesus get to him.
Throughout the book, Libby grapples with the idea of God and His guidance and protection. She believes she’s hearing God speaking to her when she’s afraid. Her father later tells her that the words she heard were Scripture verses her mother used to say over and over.
Pa tells her about her mother’s courage, which he says was given to her by God. Libby decides that maybe she can trust God during desperate times, but not for everyday things. During the difficult trek to find the doctor, she asks Jordan how she can let Jesus get to her. He tells her she just needs to tell Him she’s sorry and ask Him to forgive her sins and be her Savior. Libby cries and prays, then feels peaceful inside.
Pa is a kind, godly man who puts himself at great risk by helping runaway slaves. He cares for Caleb like a son and insures that he and Libby receive a solid, moral education. Riggs is a notoriously cruel slave trader who relentlessly hunts for Jordan.
No violent scenes appear in the book, though Libby remembers seeing the torn flesh on Jordan’s back from the beating Riggs gave him.
Slavery: The story takes place in a time when slavery was common. Laws still allowed slave owners to travel to free states and reclaim their “property” if a slave escaped. The Dred Scott decision furthered the idea that blacks were commodities rather than people with inalienable rights.
This book includes a discussion guide and detailed historical information about Dred Scott, The Declaration of Independence, the Mississippi River, and additional historical topics.
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