The Washington Post
To Free a Familyby Sydney Nathans
To Free a Family tells the remarkable story of Mary Walker, who in August 1848 fled her owner for refuge in the north and spent the next seventeen years trying to recover her son and daughter. Her freedom, like that of thousands who escaped from bondage, came at a great price—remorse at parting without a word, fear for her family’s fate.
The Washington Post
Like so many other slave stories, Walker's is mostly shrouded in mystery, but Sydney Nathans has found enough reliable documentation to render it plausible and pertinent...Nathans is a careful researcher and lucid writer.
With few exceptions, we know little about the day-to-day lives of female runaways, their families and their relationships with Northern whites. Sydney Nathans's To Free a Family is a minor masterpiece that goes a long way toward filling this gap. [It is] deeply researched and elegantly written...Nathans is brilliant at reconstructing Mary Walker's life and her relationship with Peter and Susan Lesley...Nathans creates a vibrant and subtle portrait of the Lesleys, enabling readers to decide for themselves how trusting Mary Walker's relationship with them became. The result is a remarkable story of an extended biracial family that embarked on a 15-year effort to reunite Walker with her surviving children.
Nathans provides a compelling account of one mixed-race slave woman and her quest for freedom, as well as her long struggle to reunite her family in the North...Nathan's effort to reconstruct long-overlooked historical events through the close readings of correspondence and public records is commendable and comprises an educational, informative contribution to the U.S. narrative.
A page-turning history.
[A] penetrating narrative...[A] captivating book.
Charles Shea LeMone
In piecing together Walker's story, historian Sydney Nathans has accomplished a remarkable feat. With a penetrating eye, he researched letters, diaries, public records and more to uncover the wrenching details of Walker's efforts to reunite her family. Where sources did not reveal the entire story, Nathans is careful to explore multiple possibilities and weigh them. The historian's craft is readily apparent throughout each chapter. To Free a Family will enthrall the casual reader as well as the scholar. Detailed maps and historic photographs immerse the reader in Walker's world. The tumultuous events of the Civil War era do not just serve as a contextual backdrop; one can see direct effects on ordinary people. Almost two decades after escaping, Walker brought her family back together. Her compelling journey reinforces that slavery, in all its brutality, did not destroy the African-American family.
Nathan P. Johnson
- Harvard University Press
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What People are Saying About This
Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America
William H. Chafe, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Century
Jean Fagan Yellin, author of Harriet Jacobs: A Life
John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men and Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
Meet the Author
Sydney Nathans is Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker is a spellbinding true story of two families, one anchored by a Northern abolitionist husband and wife and the other by a fugitive slave who had left her children behind in North Caroline. More than just a good read, this book reminds us of our real or hoped-for heroic ancestors. Indeed, in Peter and Susan Lesley, white New Englanders, we see remarkable courage and generosity in their support of Mary Walker, the runaway slave. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who hopes that my forebears showed some measure of the same courage and generosity in those pre-Civil War days and that in similar circumstances I myself would do the same. And in Mary Walker we see steadfastness that is often tried and bravery in the face of even physical danger, both as she lived her own life in the North but as she carefully and patiently plotted to free her children, who remained in slavery. Sydney Nathans is a wonderful writer. This is a superbly written, remarkably well-researched book; I found it hard to put down. I loved To Free a Family. Joanne Arnold