cover image Flee North: A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery’s Borderland

Flee North: A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery’s Borderland

Scott Shane. Celadon, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-84321-0

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Shane (Objective Troy) brings to vivid life the exploits of abolitionist Thomas Smallwood in this exhilarating account. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1801, Smallwood eventually bought his own freedom, established a shoemaking business in Washington, D.C., and at the age of 40 decided “to wage his own personal war on slavery,” orchestrating the escape of hundreds of enslaved African Americans to freedom in the North and Canada. He often personally led them, but also established, with the help of allies including white abolitionist Charles Torrey, the beginnings of the covert network known as the “underground railroad”—a phrase Smallwood himself coined. It originated as an imaginative joke—or “running gag,” as Shane calls it—that recurred in Smallwood’s many “laughingstock letters” to an abolitionist newspaper published in Albany, N.Y. For two years, from 1842 to 1843, the paper (where Torrey was editor) published these scathing and erudite dispatches from Washington, in which Smallwood (writing as “Samivel Weller, Jr.,” a reference to The Pickwick Papers) boasted about the success of the rescue missions while taunting and shaming the “bereft” slaveholders, many of whom were members of the federal government. As the police closed in, suspecting Smallwood of being the mysterious Weller, he had to make his own intrepid escape to Canada. This astonishing and propulsive narrative rights a historical wrong by returning Smallwood to prominence. It’s an absolute must-read. (Sept.)