Written by Rachel Walman
This blog post is part of a series on this year’s four finalists for our annual Children’s History Book Prize. Follow along each week as we interview the authors to learn about their awesome books! Read all four books, then starting April 24, vote online for your favorite to help us choose this year’s $10,000 prizewinner. Get your own copy of this week’s book, Unbound, from the NYHistory Store or check it out from the New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, or Brooklyn Public Library.
This week we turn our attention to a gorgeous novel-in-verse that explores a little-known piece of the history of slavery. In Unbound, Ann Burg brings to life the story of an enslaved family that escapes their Southern plantation and finds freedom in a very unusual but real place: the Great Dismal Swamp that spans parts of Virginia and North Carolina. Read Burg’s take on her novel below and then read it for yourself!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In Unbound, you tell the story of Grace, an enslaved child whose family makes a daring escape into the wilderness. Why did you choose to write this story in verse?
Ann Burg: Most of my stories are character-driven and I’ve discovered that writing in verse affords me the most direct connection to a character’s thoughts and feelings. We are so used to reading history in generalities. We read that millions of people were enslaved, massacred, or left homeless, but we seldom grasp what a number so large actually means. Every tallied scratch-mark is an individual human heart with unique potential, aspirations, and experiences. Writing in verse provided me with a deeply personal connection to Grace. I wasn’t writing about her in the abstract; I was seeing the world through her eyes.
DCHM: Your novel in verse begins with Grace being sent to work in her enslaver’s house. Why did you choose this setting for Grace? What aspects of slavery could you explore with Grace in this position?
AB: In order to understand what would make a family escape to a place where they would be living among snakes, bears, and wild cats, I needed to work my way backwards into the horrific conditions they had already been forced to endure. Not all the scars of slavery were visible. By including Grace’s move from the slave cabin to the Big House, I was able to underscore the deep family bonds that enslavers cruelly disregarded. The sense of loss that permeated the lives of the enslaved is highlighted again later in the novel when Brooklyn mourns the loss of his family—the mother, father, and brothers he will never see again. It was important to make that connection—to remember that in addition to the brutality they faced in their everyday life, enslaved people had been cruelly torn away from the families who cherished them.
DCHM: Grace and her family eventually attempt to escape to an area known as the Great Dismal Swamp. What about the Great Dismal Swamp interested you? Why should kids know about it?
AB: While researching for another story, I stumbled on an article about the archeologist Daniel Sayers and his work in the Great Dismal Swamp, a large marshy area between Virginia and North Carolina. I learned that Native Americans had been living in the swamp for thousands of years and that it had also been a refuge for maroons—enslaved men, women, and children seeking their freedom in the swamp’s wilderness.
Dr. Sayers explained that even the smallest fragment found by his team would be catalogued for further study and discovery. I was amazed to think that the tiniest splinter of wood or chip of pottery could reveal so much about the swamp’s inhabitants. But the more I thought about this, the more I realized how much the tiny fragments and slivers of wood couldn’t tell us. Maybe we’d learn about an inhabitant’s diet, how they hunted, or how they built their homes, but the newly discovered artifacts would never reveal what each brave inhabitant had endured—what terrible experiences had pushed them so deep into the wilderness.
I think the very existence of the Great Dismal Swamp as a place of refuge demonstrates the profound cruelty in any system or individual action that seeks to deprive a human being of his or her innate dignity. I think kids should know the terrible price enslaved people were forced to pay for the chance to be free, and the courage it took each one of them to try and live life on their own terms.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Were there any primary sources that inspired you?
AB: Once I came across the article about the work of Dr. Sayers, I scoured the library for any information on the maroons who settled in the Great Dismal Swamp. One of the best books I found was Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons by Sylviane Diouf.
What inspired me most, however, were the slave narratives collected by the WPA. Although I recognize the limitations of these narratives, a singular, indisputable truth remains: enslaved people, cruelly separated from their families and forced into servitude, were denied their basic human rights. No work of fiction could ever adequately capture the daily indignities and harrowing experiences endured by the enslaved, but reading and listening to voices long gone compelled me to offer some recognition of their suffering. In each archived voice, there is an absolute and unblemished dignity, which I hoped to honor.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical fiction?
AB: Sometimes the truest, clearest facts leave out the most important details. When I was growing up, it seemed to me that history was little more than a meaningless recitation of dates, names, and battles. What did any of these dusty numbers and fading photographs have to do with my life? Then I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. My life was forever changed by that book and the recognition that we are all connected to those who came before us.
History is filled with so many Annes, so many ordinary heroes who didn’t leave us diaries, whose voices may be lost or unheard, but who faced the struggles of life with courage and grace. Historical fiction allows us to hear the forgotten voices of these heroes. Hopefully, as we forge a connection with those who came before us, we will recognize our shared humanity. As we celebrate their triumphs and learn from their mistakes, as we witness their struggles and honor their accomplishments, we might even be motivated to create a kinder, more just world.
DCHM: What three words best describe Unbound?
AB: It’s difficult to describe one’s own work, but I hope that readers find Unbound revealing—clearing away the bramble that has kept so many courageous lives hidden—and heartbreaking (how could any story about enslavement be otherwise?) but ultimately triumphant. Even in their secrecy and silence, maroons bear witness to slavery’s cruelty and give testimony to the spirit and courage of an oppressed people.