(Note: This review contains spoilers.)
The year is 1864. Mariah and her little brother, Zeke, have never known any other life but slavery on the Georgia plantation of the cruel Chaney family. But when Captain Galloway of the U.S. Army arrives as part of General Sherman’s march through Georgia, he announces that the slaves are now free. Mariah, Zeke, and nearly all of their fellow slaves on the plantation, almost giddy at the prospect of freedom, join the march under the guidance of Caleb, a mysterious but kind black man accompanying Captain Galloway’s forces.
Tonya Bolden’s “Crossing Ebenezer Creek” follows the group on the march through Georgia, as they face hardships both physical and spiritual. As Mariah and her friends are joined by other freed slaves, stories of the horrific past spill out: the beatings, brandings, rapes, and other abuses that they were once subject to; the violent killings of family members and friends. Rejoicing in their new freedom, they still find it hard to feel safe. There are good men among the Yankee soldiers who treat them with a consideration they’ve never known before — especially Captain Galloway, a devout Christian who is unfailingly respectful and helpful to Caleb, Mariah, and the others. But there are others who treat them as chattel, or worse.
There are other dangers, too. Jonah, an old friend of Mariah’s who wants to be more than a friend, grows jealous of Caleb, to whom she is clearly attracted. He falsely denounces Caleb as a former slave driver, nearly bringing on an attack from the group of freed slaves. Even worse, the group comes across Nero, an actual slave driver responsible for the death of Mariah’s father and the torture of many of her friends. Now with a power over him that she had never dreamed of, Mariah is forced to decide whether she will use it for revenge.
“Crossing Ebenezer Creek,” a YA novel based on historical events, is a beautifully written, absorbing story that brings home the harsh reality of slavery and its effects. The horrible treatment endured by these men and women almost beggars belief, and yet it’s all based on careful research by Bolden. It’s incredible that they still have faith in God and hope for the future after what they’ve been through, but somehow they do, and it sustains them.
Yet Mariah’s faith is stretched almost to breaking point when she confronts Nero and remembers the pain he caused her, and is strongly tempted to take his punishment into her own hands. The decision she has to make, with Caleb’s help, will ultimately teach her more about the nature and ways of a God she cannot always understand, a God who watches but doesn’t always act when she longs for His help.
As Caleb and Mariah’s romance blossoms, they spend a night or two together, but, the story suggests, without sexual activity (though both are tempted). The main content issue is the horrific violence that the group members recall from their past, and that sometimes still stalks them. One character wanders off and is found dead with a Yankee cap stuffed in her mouth, and strong indications that she was raped. This triggers Caleb’s memories of the raping and killing of his own sister, which in turn led him to attack the killer. Both Caleb and Mariah have to learn bitterly hard lessons about the cycle of violence and what it does to people’s souls, in order to have any hope of overcoming it in their own lives.
Near the end of the story, a shattering betrayal by a treacherous Yankee general — ripped directly from the pages of history — snatches away the prospect of a happy ending for most of these characters. By this point, the reader has gotten to know and care for them so much that the climax is heartwrenching.
Ultimately, “Crossing Ebenezer Creek” is a bleak and sobering read; though there are whispers of hope in the closing pages, they are almost overwhelmed by the vicious hatred and cruelty that came before. Yet the book is also a good and important read, well worth the heartache it brings. It not only educates the reader about historical truths, but it also points readers to the One who offers true hope and refuge when human beings seem to have nothing to offer but pain and abuse.
Image copyright Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.