"It was May of 1839 when I got sold. Again...the mistress...sold the whole place--and us, too, just the same as the cows and the chairs." So begins the story of 16-year-old Charlotte, who has been bought by the owner of the Mammoth Cave Hotel in Kentucky and the underground cavern that attracts many visitors every year. But this place is different from her four previous situations. There is no hard-driving owner or overseer, the slaves have plenty of good food to eat, and Charlotte even has a cabin to herself. Her duties as a maid and waitress at the hotel are demanding, but pleasant. And, to make things even better, Charlotte enjoys the camaraderie of the three young men who are guides at the cave: Stephen, always in demand because of his ability to discover new parts of the cave, and the brothers Mat and Nick, and a special relationship with Mittie, an elderly woman who "has been here forever and knows everything about this place." The young woman begins to feel at home, but a fear tugs at her: she could be sold away at any time. When Charlotte shares her concern with Stephen, he is not worried: his popularity as a guide ensures that he will always be owned by Mr. Gorin, and thus can always visit his mother and brother who live at the master's home.
However, Stephen's confidence is dealt a blow when Mr. Gorin sells the hotel and cave, and all the slaves who work there. Charlotte is relieved; at least she will not be sold away when the end of the season means not enough for everyone to do. And their new master, even though he is demanding, is fair and treats them well. The comfort the slaves feel emboldens them when Charlotte discovers that Stephen can read and write (and that it is legal in Kentucky for slaves to do so), and she convinces him to teach her. However, the lessons must take place in secret, as there are those who oppose Black people's being literate. "'They think it makes us dangerous,' [Stephen] said. 'It makes us think we can be the same as them, not something less, the way they say we are. And once we start thinking that way, we won't be so easy to keep down.'" The cave is the perfect place--so at night, the young people begin their clandestine lessons. As Charlotte learns to read and write, she and Stephen become close.
But there are more changes, and surprises, in store for Charlotte. Awakened one night with a craving for some leftover pie, she makes her way to the kitchen--only to discover Mittie involved in a clandestine activity of her own. Once Charlotte learns the elderly cook's secret, she becomes a partner in her endeavors. As her involvement grows, her dissatisfaction with her slave status increases--until she must make a heart-wrenching decision: make a bid for freedom or remain with Stephen.
Jean Ferris' first-rate pre-Civil War novel is based on the lives of actual historical characters. As the author states in a note, Charlotte Brown and Stephen Bishop did work at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, and a number of the other characters also really lived. While many of the events in the novel are fictitious, much of the story actually happened. Readers will learn about the Underground Railroad as well as the realities of slavery (in a manner not too brutal for younger teens). (There is mention of the practice of slave owners fathering children by their slaves, but it is not graphic.) This novel invites discussion. The romantic element, suspense, and fast pace will keep kids enthralled until the last page. 176 pages. Ages 12 up
Recommended by Barbara Karp, Librarian, New York, USA