Brandy's Reviews > Promises to the Dead

Promises to the Dead by Mary Downing Hahn
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Nov 20, 09

bookshelves: 2009, for-reviews, historical, teen, middle-grade
Read in November, 2009

When Jesse is sent down to the marsh to hunt a turtle for the soup pot, he knows he's in for a miserable night--it's dark, it's rainy, and it's too early in the season for turtles anyway. Just as he's about to give up, there's a knife at his throat, and a runaway slave is begging him to go fetch the midwife, because this slave's baby is coming now. Unfortunately, labor doesn't go so well, and Jesse makes a promise to the dying Lydia to take her older son, Perry, to Baltimore to live with her white friend. Despite his misgivings, Jesse agrees, and the two boys set out on a dangerous journey to find Miss Polly. It'll be hard enough to avoid the riots and skirmishes at the cusp of the Civil War, but with the ruthless slave catcher just one step behind them on the whole journey, Jesse's promise to Lydia is looking almost impossible to fulfill.

As historical fiction goes, it's not bad--the plot moves along at a consistent pace and the drama of the slave-catcher on their tail keeps tension. A lengthy author's note at the end explains which events really happened and which were fabricated, and gives some background on the era. The plot winds through a number of contrivances in which every stop houses one of Perry's relations before ultimately depositing him with his grandmother and sending Jesse back home just in time to nurse his uncle back from the brink of death. This is a relatively short (200 pages) book to fulfill historical reading assignments, but teens picking this up based on the author's name are bound to be disappointed as this is not her usual supernatural horror story.
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