Promises to the Dead

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
July/August 2010

By Mary Downing Hahn, Reviewed by Bhavana Penmetsa

Promises to the Dead book cover

Promises to the Dead, by Mary Downing Hahn;
Sandpiper (reprint edition): New York, 2009;

“Jesse, give me your solemn word you’ll take Perry to Miss Polly Baxter,” a dying slave named Lydia makes twelve-year-old Jesse Sherman promise. She wants him to take her seven-year-old son, Perry, to a safe place in Baltimore and hide him from Colonel Abednego Botfield, who is a greedy and persistent slave catcher who “caused nothing but misery from the day he was born.”

Jesse figures it’ll only take him a day to do what Lydia bid him to do, and his uncle, with whom he lives, wouldn’t even notice that he’s gone. However, since the Civil War is just starting it takes much longer: in fact, it takes months. When Jesse arrives at the house of Miss Baxter, Perry’s aunt, he’s wounded from the colonel’s gun and the colonel has snatched Perry from him and returned him to his owner. Once Jesse rescues Perry again and is sure that he can leave him safely where he is and go home, something else comes up, and they have to start all over again. And that is how the rest of their journey goes.

While helping Perry, Jesse learns many truths about himself that shock him to his core. For example, he realizes that he hates the practice of slavery, Mr. Lincoln isn’t really as bad as he’d thought he was, and, most important of all, he’d much rather fight for the Union than for the Confederacy.

Jesse’s character is a great role model for the readers. Jesse could have just abandoned Perry any time and gone straight back home, but he doesn’t. He stays committed to his promise, which proves that Jesse is responsible and trustworthy. At first, he just wants to keep his promise so the ghost of the slave woman won’t haunt him, but as time goes on, he starts caring about Perry and wants to keep him safe.

One part of the story that I really liked was, when Jesse later finds Perry with the rest of his family in a Yankee camp, both the boys are elated and are not embarrassed to express their delight. There were a couple of things in the book that I wish were different, though. After Jesse helps Perry find his family, I wish the two could continue their friendship; after everything they’d been through, I’m sure they would’ve been happy to have a normal visit every now and then. There was a twist to who fathered Lydia, but we never know whether the same person fathered Lydia’s sister. I don’t like it when books leave you hanging, even in the case of those tiny details that don’t affect the story line.

What would you have done if you were in Jesse’s place? If it were me, based on how I am now, I probably would have helped Perry to safety, though I doubt I would be as brave as Jesse. Also, I most likely would have taken longer to say yes to Lydia’s request. Being a girl, it most likely would have been a little easier for me though, because back then no one would have suspected a girl of doing anything as dangerous as helping a runaway slave.

This is a really well written book. The author makes each of the scenes come alive for the reader. The book makes me realize how thankful I am for the freedom and the rights we enjoy today. Although it takes the reader through some pretty dark times, Promises to the Dead has a positive and heartening message underneath: you can become best friends with anyone, no matter what color, gender, age, or race.

Promises to the Dead Bhavana Penmetsa

Bhavana Penmetsa, 11
Plano, Texas

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