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  • Susan Stoderl

Writing Middle-Grade Historical Books | Making History Exciting and Thought-Provoking

escaped slaves going through the swamp
Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia (Thomas Moran, 1862)

In Sophia of the Bright Red Sneakers, Book 2, Mission 1: Unexpected Visitors, two enslaved twins try to escape via the Maritime Underground Railroad aided by their Free Black father. I needed a historical and thought-provoking incident to drive the rapid overnight departure. Here is the scene:

“What happened? Are the twins all right?” asked their father.

“Yes, they good, but I’m guessin’ that’ll be short-lived. The new Missus knocked young Peg to the floor before the guests. Claimed the girl spilled wine on her on purpose and looked the mistress in the eye! She forced me to take Peg to the foreman so that he would send her to the fields. That girl’s too frail to be in the fields. She’ll be lucky to last a few weeks. That new missus nothing but a spoiled little rich girl—got no business being Mama to those three sweet girls. None of us is safe with a woman like that runnin’ the Big House.”

“I came to warn you that the slave patrols are out scouring the countryside,” said Elijah in a husky, pinched voice. “White folks are afraid the enslaved are going to rise against them, like Nat Turner, and come murder them in their beds. The white militias are robbing and setting fire to Black folk’s cabins throughout Virginia and the Carolinas, free and enslaved alike. I guess if they’re doing a rich slave owner’s bidding, they figure that makes them equal. Even if they’re poor, barefoot, and wearing rags, they ain’t Black,” Elijah said with disgust

“Lord, have mercy on us.”

“The children have to leave with me tonight, Mother Phisbe. I've got everything arranged.” There was a sad sob in Elijah’s words.


This passage kick-started my characters' journey, but that was only the beginning of investigating countless issues. I spent a lot of time on different maps. Then, technical questions. How do canal locks function? What footwear did travelers in the swamp wear in 1832? (Hint: There were no waterproof waders then. Answer: Animal skin boots coated in beeswax.) What are the mechanics of a steamboat? How much time would it take a steamboat to travel X nautical miles? Wood or coal for fuel? How much wood or coal does a steamboat use per nautical mile? Those were just a few.


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