I usually don't go for historical fiction. But I picked up North by Night by Katherine Ayres because she is going to be one of my workshop teachers this summer at Chatham. I have read another of her books, assigned for the class, but thought I'd read one of her youth novels.
It took a while to drawn me in. But after not too long, the story of Lucy picks up speed and I found myself very moved. Lucy is a 16 year old girl living in Ohio in the mid 1800's. Her family is involved in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape north to Canada. It was a time when the Fugitive Slave Law had been enacted; the law that said any escaped slave must be caught and returned to his master in the south, and that all northerners had to help catch these runaways. The law essentially forced every white person to participate in keeping slaves bound, whether they believed in the practice or not. It also made it so black people were not even safe once they had left their captivity in the south. Canada was the nearest safe haven. (Gotta love those Canadians, eh?)
Sure, we all know about slavery. We all know it was bad. We all know about the Underground Railroad, But reading Lucy's story of all those years ago reminded me of the freedom many are still fighting for today. Reading about the vulnerability of women at that point in history was deeply sorrowful to me. As was the truth that real people were kept captive and abused for no reason other than white men wanting power. As was the truth that the American government allowed this practice for so long.
In the entirety of human history, there have always been human beings who hoard power with plans to use it to destroy, who blame others for their own inadequacies, who hurt people weaker than themselves because they themselves were hurt. It is a truth that is hard to bear. But equally true is that there will always be people willing to risk it all for freedom, to sacrifice themselves for their babies, to fight a corrupt system and fight to change the rules of the game.
It was a dangerous time, back when people had to sneak across the land in the dark of night to transport other people to safety. We still live in dangerous times; times when financial giants hoard power and money in their wall street offices to destroy the small businesses and communities; times when people aim their guns as another human being because their fear rules them and they think the gun will protect them; times when women still are objectified, ignored, undervalued, and abused daily. We live in a time when a young man can blame the entire population of women for his bad feelings, and instead of looking within himself for answers, decide to wreak vengeance for his pain. I am so deeply saddened by so much of what goes on in our world.
And yet, I see the people risking it all for freedom too. I see a field of poppies blooming like the orange of the sun. I see teachers giving their lives to protect their charges. I see the surprise of art bursting onto bleak backdrops. I see fields of grain growing without the needless destruction of billions of insects. I see the small standing up to the big, and saying we are alive and here and together we can create so much more good. I see communities standing up for marriage equality, for literacy, for the little patches of land they call home. I see people evolving, life moving forward.
For now that has to be enough.
I don't think a time will come when secret organizations like the Underground Railroad will not be necessary, or when women don't fear rape or harassment, or when every voice will sing out together in praise of Mother Earth. That is utopia, and I don't believe it exists. But I do think that that might be ok.
For every day we are given a choice. We can choose to follow the horrific unjust laws, or we can help move people to freedom. It is up to us. Each of us. Every day. The choice is up to us.