To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker

Sydney Nathans, Author
Sydney Nathans. Harvard Univ, $29.95 (346p) ISBN 978-0-674-06212-2
Reviewed on: 10/24/2011
Release date: 02/01/2012
Paperback - 330 pages - 978-0-674-72594-2
Hardcover - 361 pages - 978-0-674-06329-7
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“My feelings have been greatly moved by Peter’s having a Fugitive Slave woman sent to his care, & one of the most interesting people I ever saw,” Susan Lesley confided to a friend in 1850. In this rigorously scholarly but totally absorbing narrative, Nathans unfolds a history as spellbinding as a novel, chockfull of fascinating people engaged in a venture both risky and affecting. When the fugitive slave Mary Walker finds refuge with the Lesleys in Pennsylvania, their lives, their families, and their circle of friends become deeply involved in the general cause and the specific mission—to secure the freedom of Walker’s mother and her children. Nathans’s account is full of twists and turns, as efforts to free the family are thwarted and Mary’s son makes his own escape. The intimacy achieved through the use of letters between friends and family is remarkable; here is history lived in an ordinary household. The center, however, is held by Mary Walker’s crusade, accompanied as it is by the Lesleys’ own evolution; Susan finds “her work in the world,” and Peter moves from antislavery to abolition. Nathans has transformed the paraphernalia of academia (ploughing through archives, thorough documentation, guarded speculation) into a book that will entrance the general reader, inform the scholar, and engage both. (Feb.)
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