Robert Smalls was born a slave in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. As a child he was expected to help with the household chores, but as a teen he was hired out to wait tables and make deliveries to rooms in a hotel and later had a hired job to work on the waterfront loading and unloading cargo. He had to send most of his wages home to his "master" but was able to keep a bit of what he made for himself. After growing bored with that job, he moved on to making and rigging sails and started learning the skills required to be a wheelman, or a boat pilot. When the Civil War started, Smalls would have preferred to volunteer on the Union side but was forced to work on confederate causes. One day, after loading several cannons on board a steamship, Smalls instituted a plan he has been scheming on for a while---to steal the ship, with the cannons on board, and sail it to a spot where he could surrender it to the Union Navy. His plan worked as planned and all the black men that worked on the boat along with all their family members made it to safety on the northern side. After the war, now a free man, Smalls returned to Beaufort where he was one of sixteen black men elected to Congress during reconstruction.
The short book, just over 80 pages, is designed around short chapters when contain a few pages each of Smalls story and then some relevant background information about the topics in that chapter. 'Slavery'; 'sailing ships in the 1800s'; 'what caused the Civil War?'; all helped give Smalls' story context and a fuller meaning.
As I was glancing though reviews of this book on Goodreads, I came upon a review written by a mother who had read the book to her son. She said, "Whenever I read an amazing historical book like this with my child, I am angry that my own education was deprived of these amazing stories from American history and how miseducated I was about the history of the Reconstruction era. The story of Robert Smalls is inspiring and enraging and important." I concur. Imagine for a moment that the person who had stolen the ship with several cannons on board was a white person. Don't you think that the history books would have sung his praise? It angers me that so much of what we were taught in schools only glorified white history and downplayed, ignored, or vilified history made by people of color. I am so glad that there are publishing companies like Lee and Low Books, willing to set the record straight finally!
What I liked about the book:
- Robert Smalls was an American hero. This book tells his story, one we all need to hear.
- The back story information was delivered in small bites and didn't try to over-educate the reader all at once.
- There are nearly twenty pages of reference materials, glossary, index, timeline, bibliography, and suggested further reading materials listed.
What I didn't like about the book:
- I know it is necessary, but I don't like to read information broken up by other tidbits of information in boxes. This book does a good job putting extra material at the end of each chapter but it still breaks up Smalls' story.
- I don't think that the illustrations, done in black, white, and greys, added much to the story. Other historical charts and photos did add points of interest, however.