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An Interview with Susan VanHecke, author of Under The Freedom Tree


Under The Freedom Tree2014 Junior Library Guild Selection!

Author Susan VanHecke, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing

Today Good Reads With Ronna and Susan VanHecke discuss how the seeds of a story were planted for her new picture book, Under The Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 6-9) with illustrations by London Ladd, which we’re highlighting for Black History Month.

We’re joining other reviewers this week as part of a special Charlesbridge Publishing blog tour and hope you’ll take the time to visit all the bloggers’ sites. We’re also delighted to be giving away one copy of Under The Freedom Tree, so enter by clicking here for a chance to win. This giveaway ends at midnight PST on February 24, 2014. Please be sure to write Freedom Tree in the subject line and include your address. Like us on Facebook for an extra entry. A winner will be chosen by and notified via email on February 25th.

Under The Freedom Tree shares the story of three captured slaves, Frank, James and Shepard, during the Civil War, who take an enormous risk to escape across dangerous waters in Virginia to reach the Union Army on the other side only to discover they are still not totally free. However, with the help of clever General Butler, a lawyer before the Civil War, the three fugitives are able to remain with the Union side on a technicality. The winds of change were beginning to blow in the right direction.

Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014.

VanHecke delivers a powerful tale told poetically in free verse and based on actual accounts of the creation of America’s first “contraband camps.”  After word of Frank, James and Shepard’s successful escape, others followed suit. First hundreds then thousands.



Barefoot, mud-crusted.

Better forward than back.

Former slaves built a community in what was known as Slabtown, or the Grand Contraband Camp. By day they worked for the Union, but they were freer than they’d ever been, some living in a home of their own for the very first time.  Silent witness to this all was the majestic old oak tree, the Freedom Tree. Illustrator Ladd conveys so much spirit and emotion in every spread, whether by depicting children being taught under the shade of the oak or the joyful gathering of the community to hear the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Lives forever changed under the Freedom Tree.”

Be sure to sit down with your kids and read this fantastic picture book that helps shed light on a little-known yet inspiring event of the Civil War. Also included are a bibliography and author’s note at the end providing more historical information that helps place many of the events in Under The Freedom Tree in context.


Good Reads With Ronna:  Susan, I had no idea the story would be anything other than straightforward prose, but it was so much more. It was poetic and flowed like the water that carried the three slaves to their eventual freedom. How did you decide upon this form of storytelling?

Susan VanHecke: Thanks so much, Ronna, and your imagery is beautiful! You know, I struggled for quite a while (a couple of years, actually) trying to write the contraband slaves’ story in prose. But it was just too dry, too flat, too distant. I didn’t think it would hold young readers’ attention or get them feeling exactly what was at stake.

Then one day I picked up a collection of the late, great author Virginia Hamilton’s essays and speeches. In it, she described a concept she called “rememory,” an “exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined.” I liked that idea, especially the texture and imagination parts. I decided to make a personal visit to the Freedom Tree. There in the summer quiet, under those sprawling, sheltering branches, I could feel all those heart-pounding emotions, I could imagine all those daring events, that took place under or near Emancipation Oak.

It was a powerful moment for me, and it definitely shook loose the words. My “rememory” came in the form of free verse. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Hamilton.

GRWR: Did you happen upon the history of Frank, James and Shepard accidentally or was their story one you had heard about and always wanted to share with youngsters?

VanHecke: It was totally by accident. Do you ever get those local lifestyle magazines in the mail that are really just slick vehicles for home improvement ads? I was flipping through one of those when it opened to a photo in the back. It was a stunning, sepia-toned image of a spectacular tree. The caption underneath said that this was where area contraband slaves learned to read and write and heard the Emancipation Proclamation, what some consider the first Southern reading of that important document.

I was astonished that I’d never heard of this history, especially since Emancipation Oak is just a few miles from my home. As I researched the full story, I knew I wanted my kids and their classmates to know this exciting, little-known aspect of the Civil War.

GRWR: Under the Freedom Tree is a reminder that even in many places in the North, freedom for slaves was not readily embraced. How did some African American former slaves get to be free while others remained “contraband” until the 13th Amendment?

VanHecke: I’m certainly no expert, but it’s my understanding that former slaves could become free through manumission (emancipated by their owner, usually by “purchasing” themselves) or escaping to the free states of the North. Of course, slave hunters were always on the prowl—in the North and South—and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 created harsh punishments for those who assisted runaways in any way.

That’s what made Union General Benjamin Butler’s “contraband” decision so important. Virginia was a slave state, so by law (the Fugitive Slave Act), Butler had to return to their Confederate owners those three brave souls who rowed under cover of night to Fortress Monroe. But Butler, a lawyer himself, found a loophole: Virginia had just seceded from the United States, so U.S. law no longer applied to it. Virginia was now an enemy of the United States. Therefore, clever Butler was able to declare those escaped slaves “enemy contraband,” since they were being used in the Confederates’ effort to wage war on the Union.

As word spread, more and more slaves escaped and made their way to the Union line, where they too became “contraband.” They weren’t free, and in fact labored for the Union for many months before they were eventually paid for their work. But contraband surely seemed—and ultimately was—one step closer to free.

Interior spread from Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing.
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