Friday, 20 November 2009

Review: Alison Hart - Racing to Freedom Trilogy

Alison Hart: Gabriel's Horses
Peach Tree Publishing, Atlanta £8.21

Alison Hart: Gabriel's Journey
Peach Tree Publishing, Atlanta £8.21
Age 10+






My New Year's Resolution was to get through the to-be-reviewed pile more quickly, but nearly at the end of the year, I can tell you I have failed miserably. Gabriel's Horses I have had for well over a year; Gabriel's Journey much less long, thanks to the author, who kindly sent me a copy, but still quite long enough for it to be embarrassing.

The second book I haven't read, but if it's up to the standard of the two I have, it's well worth finding. The Race to Freedom trilogy is set in Kentucky, during the American Civil War. Kentucky, as I learned, was not a centre of operations during the war. Only a few battles were fought, and racing and breeding carried on. So unaffected was Kentucky that some Southern owners brought their horses to Kentucky to remove them from the ravages of the war in the South. The state was not completely unaffected however: Guerilla raiders (the ones in the book are Confederate but I assume there were Union counterparts) raided farms for horses to use in the war: a horse's illustrious pedigree and racing career were no proof against being taken.

The book's hero, Gabriel Alexander, is an African American boy born into slavery. His father was free, but because his mother was a slave, the children were slaves too. Gabriel is, to some extent, lucky: Master Giles, the owner of Woodville Farm, where the family live, is mostly considerate and kindly. Gabriel loves horses, and manages to follow his dream of working with them. Racism though is never far from the surface, and Alison Hart paints a disturbing picture of some of its manifestations during the Civil War: Confederate guerillas hunt down and kill any blacks who survived the Saltville action described in the third book, and racism is casually present in the attitudes of many.

Being British, the American Civil War isn't something that swam into my history syllabuses, so I found the historical detail fascinating. I had no idea that there was a colored cavalry regiment. Gabriel goes to join his father in the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry, though he does not fight, but is used as a horse boy. Tellingly, the Cavalry are not issued with the most recent, and effective weapons. The Saltville attack described in the book was a Confederate victory, but Gabriel survives, having learned that war is, as his mother says, not about glory but death.

This book is a fascinating picture of the decency that can exist in human beings, as well as the unthinking prejudice and cruelty. Gabriel is an attractive character: he's brave but not unbelievably so, and the telling of the story in the present tense gives the book's events an immediacy historical novels don't always have.

This book also, gasp, is produced as a hardback, with a dustjacket: something British publishers now alas don't do for most children's books.

3 comments:

Susan in Boston said...

Jane,

These sound brilliant....will have to add them to the tbr list!

Re the history: there were several African American companies in the Civil War, the first being the 54th regiment of volunteers of Massachusetts. Here's a link to the National Park Service site with a bit of the history, and a pic the Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorial to the 54th that stands across the street from the State House in Boston:

http://www.nps.gov/boaf/historyculture/shaw.htm

I hate linking to wiki, but the info here does seem accurate, and goes into more detail on African American calvary units:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Soldier

yukrh said...
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Jane Badger said...

Thanks Susan, and thanks particularly for the link! Fascinating.