Promises to the Dead

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
July/August 2001

By Mary Downing Hahn, Reviewed by Reed Gochberg

Promises to the Dead book cover

Promises to the Dead by Mary Downing Hahn;
Clarion Books: New York, 2000; $15

Promises to the dead is a very interesting book. On the surface it seems simple, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find a unique story that obviously took some work.

In Promises to the Dead, a young boy named Jesse happens upon a pregnant slave woman and her son. As the woman goes into labor, she sends Jesse to fetch an abolitionist midwife who lives nearby. As her condition quickly deteriorates after delivering a dead child, she makes Jesse promise to bring her little boy, Perry, to her dead master’s sister in Baltimore. Then she dies, leaving Jesse stuck with his promise, since you can’t break promises made to the dead. For the rest of the book, Jesse and Perry have to evade a slave-catcher, as well as Perry’s master’s widow. Because Perry was his master’s illegitimate son, his mistress would like to get rid of him as fast as possible. Finally the two boys manage to find freedom, despite the hardships along the way. I thought the plot was unique, because it dealt with normal people having to help runaway slaves. The only people that one usually hears about are the names that are now famous, like Harriet Tubman. Mary Downing Hahn shows the reality of the normal abolitionist. That was my favorite part of the plot.

I really enjoyed how many ideas she was able to rope into one plot and be able to make it work. However, I didn’t think the plot was very plausible. It seems like there are many things that are hard for Jesse and Perry, and yet somehow there are many things that miraculously happen so that they are able to keep going. I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if Mary Downing Hahn had kept things agreeing with what she had said earlier in the story (i.e., what would happen if Perry’s owner got him back).

I also thought the book was a little too easy to read, so I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone aged twelve and above, or with an above average reading level. However, all in all, the originality of the plot made it a light read that made up for unlikable details in the plot.

There are many things in this book that are phenomenally well done. Not only does the plot have certain intricacies that keep the pages turning, but also the characters are extremely well drawn. Mary Downing Hahn knows how to make the reader like the good characters and hate the bad. She has successfully mastered the art of character creation, which I, as a writer, often struggle with. Making characters with multi-dimensional personalities of their own is a hard task. I commend her for making it seem easy.

I also appreciated the honesty in this book. It is very hard to write a book on slavery and abolition (trust me, I’ve tried) and make it seem real. Mary Downing Hahn showed that it was the common people and not just those known as conductors on the Underground Railroad that made the real difference in eliminating slavery. I think that it produces good lessons to all of us out there today: keeping promises is important, and no matter what you do, it’s important not to give up along the way, because you are somehow making a difference. Jesse remembered that when he was taking Perry to safety, and he fought to keep going. I try to remember that whenever things seem pointless, that no matter what, I need to keep going until I succeed.

Promises to the Dead Reed Gochberg

Reed Gochberg, 13
St. Paul, Minnesota

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