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Review of 2023 Newbery Winner – Freewater

 

FREEWATER

by Amina Luqman-Dawson

(Little, Brown BYR; $16.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

 

Awards: John Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award

An Indiebound Bestseller

Starred reviews: Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Connections

 

“A gripping story of friendship, survival, and courage as a group of young children overcome trauma and fear to pursue freedom for themselves and their community.”

 

Freewater is the award-winning novel by Amina Luqman-Dawson published a little over a year ago. It opens with the harrowing flight of two enslaved children, twelve-year-old Homer and his younger sister Ada, from the Southerland Plantation.  Their escape goes horribly wrong when their mother, Ruth, returns to rescue Homer’s friend Anna and is captured. The two siblings,  pursued by slavers and their dogs, stumble into a nearby swamp and flounder in an unfamiliar world.

Bravely forging ahead in the unfamiliar and frightening environment, the children are rescued by Suleman, a formally enslaved man, who takes the exhausted children to Freewater. Homer and Ada are welcomed to this hidden village, a safe haven for its formerly enslaved residents and their freeborn offspring. The supportive community draws the children into their society, beliefs, and traditions, which are based on a complex relationship with the swamp.

Homer, wracked with guilt, is determined to rescue his mother and makes plans to return to Southerland to rescue her. When his new friends learn of this, they help Homer organize a rescue. Meanwhile, at Southerland, clever Anna is making plans to disrupt the plantation daughter’s wedding in order to flee with Ruth. Will Anna manage to escape? Will Homer and his new friends be able to rescue his mother … without getting caught?

In a compelling, multi-voiced narrative, five children, some freeborn, some formerly enslaved, relate the story from their POV. Even the plantation owner’s youngest daughter, Nora, contributes to the narrative, describing her struggle to understand the implications of slavery. Through their narratives, the reader learns about the children’s pasts, secrets, traumas, fears, and dreams.

The author imagines a fascinating world, not just of survival in the swamp, but of a nurturing society and culture flourishing there. Family life and supporting the community are paramount.  Jobs and tasks include weaving vines into rope, hollowing out giant trees for shelters or boats, tending to the crops, and hunting and fishing. Sky bridges made from rope help the community travel safely above the ground where they cannot be seen or caught by slavers or militia. Huge, moving partitions, woven out of branches and leaves are created to close off parts of the swamp for protection.  A few members, like Suleman, stealthily visit the plantations at night to “liberate” supplies (like matches) that cannot be made in the swamp. 

Luqman-Dawson has populated the story with well-developed characters and a richly described setting, both beautiful and deadly. The author does not hesitate to include the horrific treatment of African Americans by white people. Woven into the story’s many dramatic events are moments of friendship, selflessness, joy, and even budding young love. 

The author’s endnote details the historical background including references to African American scholars working on Maroon society in the Great Dismal Swamp, which was the inspiration for this story. Visit Luqman-Dawson’s website to see a video of her summary of Freewater and more resources on the Dismal Swamp.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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