This historical novel depicts a lifelong friendship between two 13-year-old girls who meet in 1855. Susannah is a white orphan uprooted from Vermont to her coldhearted uncle’s Virginia farm; Bethlehem is a slave there. Each miserable for her own reasons, they escape together and flee north. Their perilous journey is described in flashbacks as they take turns narrating it 41 years later in Toronto, where Bethlehem is dying of tuberculosis. Susannah has come from New York at her old friend’s request, and she has brought her granddaughter, Mary.
At Bethlehem’s shabby rooming house, they meet Free, a homeless black girl whom Bethlehem has taken in and who now takes care of her. Mary and Free take turns writing down the stories the older women tell.
Mary is surprised to learn that her grandmother is capable of passionate conviction and decisive action. Visionary even as a young girl, Bethlehem now faces death with spirit, dignity and pride.
This tale is not saccharine or oversimplified. There is much respect and humorous camaraderie between Susannah and Bethlehem—both as girls and as grown women—but there also are subtle barriers of reserve, guilt and resentment. Mary finds Free difficult to befriend and is mortified to discover prejudice within herself—and is too ashamed to tell her grandmother the truth.
Full not only of adventure and history but also of moral and psychological complexity, this book is an excellent, absorbing read for ’tween girls.