Unbound: A Novel in Verse by Ann E. Burg is the first person narrative of nine-year-old Grace, a slave living in with her mother, her husband, their two toddler sons and the elderly Aunt Sara. Burg uses Grace's questioning voice to tell the story of her family, and the stories of other slaves, with Southern tone that is not quite dialect and often lyrical.
While their lives are bleak, Grace and Aunt Sara tend to the small cabin, the "moonlight garden" and Willy and Thomas while Grace's Mama and her husband, the man Grace calls Uncle John, work the fields from before sunrise to after sunset. With he fair skin and blue eyes, Grace is called up the hill to work at the Big House. Unbound begins with her tantrum and refusal to leave her home. Mama tries to comfort her, but, in the middle of the night, Aunt Sara cautions her, warning that the Missus is "as hateful as a toad," and always looking for any reason to punish. This proves true enough and, despite warnings, Grace can't quiet her thoughts and can't stop seeing injustice everywhere. From Jordon, the manservant who the Master likes to make serve meals blindfolded to the regularly whipped Anna, the Missus's servant, forced to sleep on a blanket next to her bed to hand her the chamber pot in the middle of the night, Grace knows she is no different from them and that color is no way to judge.
When, after Jordon runs away and must be replaced, the Missus determines to punish Grace by selling Mama and her brothers. Grace runs to her family in the middle of the night, convincing them to follow the stars and run. Their journey is dangerous and filled with revelations for Grace. She finally confesses to her mother that she is the reason they are on the run and she also learns much about the slaves she worked and lived with. Learning that Aunt Tempie, the cook who cautioned Grace over and over, the person Grace thought, "didn't care / bout nothin cept / makin Master Allen / n the Missus happy," had for years been secretly aiding escaping slaves, she wonders how she could have been so wrong. Uncle Jim tells Grace, "Less the children know, / the better, / But now it's time to grow up."
The family heads into the Big Swamp which, Burg's author's note tells us, is a stand in for the Great Dismal Swamp, which archaeologists are learning was a refuge for fugitive slaves that allowed them freedom. Burg's descriptions of the family's path is harrowing, but not as harrowing as the descriptions of life as a slave. And, once in the Big Swamp and settling in, the other refugees share their stories and remain on guard, listening for any unexpected noise from the brush. Yet, there is also hope. A young refugee begins to teach Grace and her brothers to read and Grace decides to leave a porcelain button behind so that others will know she was there, echoing the artifacts found by archaeologists studying the region. Burg researched the narratives of former slaves prepared by the Federal Writers' Project, and, along with photographs, this helped shaped Unbound: A Novel in Verse, making it an unforgettable story.
Source: Purchased Library Bound Edition