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Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story / by Janet Halfmans, ill. by Duane Smith

Title:  Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story
Author:  Janet Halfmann
Illustrator:  Duane Smith
Publisher:  Lee & Low Books
ISBN:  978-1-60060-232-0
Year: 2008
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level: 5.7

Concepts:  human resources, slavery, jobs, economic history

  Robert Smalls, born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839, grew up to become one of the biggest heroes of the Civil War.  As a slave, Robert started working at a very young age in the McKee household.  In neighboring plantations and in town, he witnessed the brutal treatment of other slaves and quickly grew to hate the institution of slavery.  At the age of 12, Robert was sent to work in Charleston as a waiter for five dollars per month, all of which he had to give to his master. Yet the position led to new opportunities to work on the waterfront, where ultimately he gained the experience and skills to work as a sailor on a coastal schooner.

The start of the Civil War brought new hope for freedom for Robert, his new wife Hannah, and their baby son.  The War also led to different work as a deckhand on a large wood-burning transport ship, the Planter, for the Confederates.  Shrewdly, Robert used this position, and a subsequent promotion to wheelman (the title held by boat pilots of color in the South) to develop his navigational skills, gain the trust of the white officers, and learn the various secret steam whistle signals for passing by the forts in Charleston Harbor.  In the spring of 1862, Robert used his training and immense courage to commandeer the Planter across the Harbor, with his crew and family members on board, in pursuit of freedom.

This outstanding book pays tribute to a brave man who later served in the South Carolina state legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Just as he fought for the freedom of his family and crew, he spent much of his life advocating for equal rights of African Americans, especially in public schools, the military, and in politics. With the intrigue and nail-biting plot, Seven Miles to Freedom is an exciting book that the reader will find difficult to put down.  Mixed into the suspense are some extremely powerful economics lessons about work and the role of slavery in the South.  The Robert Smalls story is one worth learning and remembering.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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