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Promises to the Dead

Promises to the Dead

4.3 61
by Mary Downing Hahn

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Mary Downing Hahn combines powerful characters, dark secrets, and breathtaking suspense in a compelling Civil War-era story readers won't soon forget. Aiding and abetting an escaped slave is against the law, and it goes against everything Jesse Sherman has been taught. But he has promised a dying runaway slave that he will take her seven-year-old son, Perry, to safety


Mary Downing Hahn combines powerful characters, dark secrets, and breathtaking suspense in a compelling Civil War-era story readers won't soon forget. Aiding and abetting an escaped slave is against the law, and it goes against everything Jesse Sherman has been taught. But he has promised a dying runaway slave that he will take her seven-year-old son, Perry, to safety in Baltimore. He can't break a promise made to the dead, no matter what the risks. More important, he must follow what he knows to be true in his heart. When the journey turns out to be far more difficult and dangerous than he anticipated, and he loses Perry on the riot-torn streets of Baltimore, Jesse comes face to face with the worst humanity has to offer. But he also witnesses examples of love, compassion, and courage unlike anything he's experienced before. AUTHOR'S NOTE.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hahn's (Anna All Year Round) historical novel, set in a divided Maryland at the beginning of the Civil War, portrays an unconvincing tale of escape from slavery. The story begins with a tenuous premise: 12-year-old narrator Jesse stumbles on a desperate pregnant runaway captive (whom Jesse recognizes), Lydia, and her young son, Perry, fathered by her recently deceased master, Peregrine Baxter. She holds Jesse at knifepoint ("She'd just as soon kill you as look at you," Perry tells Jesse), yet as the woman is dying from childbirth, Jesse promises her that he'll deliver Perry to Peregrine Baxter's sister in Baltimore (though readers will question whether he'd find a welcome reception). While readers may suspend disbelief regarding Jesse's risk taking, they may not take the leap of faith that captives with even more to lose would help them so freely. For example, during a riot inspired by the influx of Union soldiers in Baltimore (based on actual events), the "meanest and most determined slave-catcher in Talbot County" nabs Perry and knocks Jesse, with a pistol, on the head; Jesse faints in front of Judge Baxter's (Peregrine Baxter's father) residence, and the judge's staff secretly nurses him for weeks. The connection between Jesse and Perry is not fully developed, hence their relationship--as well as Jesse's Herculean efforts--seems hollow. Ages 10-14. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Children's Literature - Children's Literature
It's the eve of the Civil War in a Maryland torn between the North and the South. Twelve-year-old Jessie has been brought up by a crusty uncle and his faithful slave Delia, and knows no other way of life, until a turtle-hunting expedition involves him in the death of a runaway slave. Suddenly Jessie finds himself stuck with a deathbed promise--and a seven-year-old mulatto boy he must ferry from the Tidewater to the safety of Baltimore. The execution of Jessie's promise is harder than he could imagine as he finds himself adrift in a new world filled with riots, skirmishes, a villainous slavecatcher, and a hypocritical batch of Southern gentry. Hahn paints her bad guys with a broad brush, but keeps the action moving as Jessie comes ever closer to a resolution of his duties and his political sympathies. 2000, Clarion, Ages 10 to 14, $15.00. Reviewer: Kathleen Karr—Children's Literature
VOYA - Voya Reviews
This action-packed story of twelve-year-old Jesse, a few runaway slaves, and a determined slave catcher incorporates just enough historical references to evoke the flavor of the Civil War. Jesse's narration draws readers immediately and intimately into the tale that begins with his promise to Lydia, a dying slave woman. A simple hunt for turtles in the marsh near Jesse's Maryland home sets in motion the events that lead Jesse into danger from Maryland to Virginia in his efforts to deliver Lydia's young son, Perry, to relatives. Colonel Abednego Botfield is an appropriately evil slave catcher and an obstacle to Jesse at almost every turn, as Jesse frantically tries to get Perry to safety. Perry's light skin and blue eyes, evidence of a union between Lydia and her recently deceased owner, Peregrine Baxter, further complicates the story. Jesse knows that helping a slave run away is illegal, but he intends to follow his heart and keep his promise to the dead woman. Hahn skillfully blends the language and customs of the Civil War era with an exciting plot. Phrases, such as a "bilious" uncle, "a daring deed," and "the big house," lend authenticity to the story, as does Judge Baxter's statement, "My son would never miscegenate with a slave!" With a comfortable place in history, an appropriate sprinkling of expressions of the times, and a genuine conflict for the protagonist, this solid historic novel will appeal to most younger teens. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8). 2000, Clarion, Ages 12 to 14, 208p, $15. Reviewer: Rosemary Chance
Children's Literature
Jesse promised Lydia he would deliver her son to freedom. Even though Lydia died giving birth to her second child, you don't go back on your word with a ghost. They could haunt you forever. But how could he get Perry to Baltimore? He isn't an abolitionist. He has even dreamed of catching a runaway slave and turning him in. Colonel Botfield, however, is the devil himself and out to catch every runaway slave. Jesse and Perry make it to Baltimore only to be caught by Colonel Botfield. Jesse is knocked out and Perry thrown into jail. How can Jesse save Perry now? Will he be haunted by Lydia's ghost forever? Real historical events such as Union soldiers invading Baltimore and the Pratt Street Riot at the beginning of the Civil War compound Jesse's problems. Jesse learns the value of a person is not determined by the color of his skin. Despite obstacles, he remains true to his word and his mission of getting Perry to freedom. 2000, HarperTrophy, $5.95. Ages 10 to 13. Reviewer: Janet L. Rose
The cover, depicting two boys on the run in a woods, seems like the illustration for a children's book; another cover would have made the book more appealing to YAs, who are an appropriate reading audience for this story. There is a lot of suffering, pain, and death in this historical novel, set as the Civil War is just beginning. Jesse, an orphan living a difficult life with his elderly uncle in rural Maryland, comes upon a slave woman with a small boy in the woods near his home. She is about to give birth and needs Jesse to find a midwife. Later she dies, and the baby with her, but before she dies she extracts a promise from Jesse to lead her son to Baltimore where a white woman, Miss Polly, might be able to help shield little Perry from being sold on the slave market. Her death and burial in the woods inaugurate Jesse and Perry's adventures together—two boys, one a Southern sympathizer, the other a little slave. Their journey together reveals to Jesse a great deal about the horror of being a slave and of family intricacies caused by white slaveholder fathers having children with the slave women in their households. The fact that Baltimore was essentially a Southern city located near Washington D.C. held fast by the presence of Union troops is an interesting aspect of this Civil War story. Jesse and Perry face many hardships in their difficult journey to find safety for Perry. As Jesse comes to care for the little boy, he of course undergoes his own transformation. This is a good historical novel with believable characters that reveals to the reader the complexity of the issues that caused the Civil War. KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended for junior high school students. 2000,Houghton Mifflin/Clarion, 202p, 99-048525, $15.00. Ages 13 to 15. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
School Library Journal
Gr 4-6-Despite some unlikely coincidences and superficial secondary characters, this is a reasonably exciting adventure story that integrates many historical details. When 12-year-old Jesse, a white Southerner, promises Lydia, a slave who dies while trying to escape, that he will take her young son, Perry, to relatives in Baltimore, he finds himself not only traveling farther than he's ever been, but caught up in the outbreak of the Civil War as well. The focus of the story is Jesse's realization about the evils of slavery, personified by the despicable Colonel Botfield, who is searching for the runaways. In the end, Jesse has learned to question much of what he has been taught. The African-American characters, while mostly brave and good, serve mainly to move the plot along. Some readers may find the facts that Perry's father was a white slave owner who seduced Lydia and that Colonel Botfield is indeed Lydia's father confusing. While these details add important historical information, they overload the plot at times. Still, the dangers that Jesse and Perry encounter, and the events they witness, from a riot in Baltimore to a skirmish with Union soldiers, make this an involving story that raises many of the issues that led to the Civil War.-Cyrisse Jaffee, formerly at Newton Public Schools, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
In this fast-paced but flawed historical novel, Hahn (Anna All Year Round, 1998, etc.) recounts the harrowing story, told in the first person, of a journey undertaken by two young boys in the early days of the Civil War and of the bond that develops between them. Twelve-year-old Jesse Sherman is accosted at knifepoint in the woods near his home in rural Maryland by Lydia, a dying runaway slave, who implores Jesse to take her small son, Perry, to a white friend in Baltimore. Perry is the child of this friend's deceased brother, and Lydia believes that she is Perry's only hope for safety. After Lydia dies, the boys make their way to Baltimore, where they get caught up in a riot instigated by Confederate sympathizers against Union troops heading South. Jesse is brutally attacked by his nemesis, a vicious slave hunter, who kidnaps Perry. The boys are ultimately reunited—with great difficulty—but their troubles are hardly over. Through an unlikely coincidence, they easily locate Lydia's friend, but she proves unhelpful. Other setbacks include an armed skirmish; the reappearance of the slave hunter seemingly at every turn; and the ever-present dangers that beset other runaway slaves the boys meet (some of who turn out to be Perry's relatives). While the dialogue is frequently uneven and some plot details are not always credible, the action and suspense will keep readers interested, as will the touching friendship forged by the two protagonists and the startling revelation at the end that forces Jesse to keep yet other promises to the dead. Historical events are placed in context in an afterward. (Fiction. 10-14)

From the Publisher

"Hahn has a marvelous touch when it comes to manipulating her story and heightening the tension in a way that keeps readers on the edge of their seats."

"Fast-paced. . . . The action and suspense will keep readers interested."
Kirkus Reviews

A Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Sales rank:
850L (what's this?)
File size:
300 KB
Age Range:
10 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

If my great-uncle Philemon hadn't gotten a sudden hankering for turtle soup, the story I'm about to tell would have come out different. Or maybe it wouldn't have happened at all. But then who's to speak with any certainty about what might or might not have been? Everyone knows fate has a way of finding us no matter how well hid we may think we are.

All I can say is my particular story started when my great-uncle decided a bowl of Delia's soup was just the thing for his rheumatism, which was fearsome bad in damp weather. Since the old man couldn't go hunting himself, not with his stiff knees and aching back, he sent me to the marsh instead. A little spring rain wouldn't hurt a boy my age, he said. Nor the wind either.

Delia raised her eyebrows at this and said, "Age got nothing to do with it. I never knew pneumonia to spare a body, young or old." But she didn't waste her breath arguing. Once my uncle got an idea in his head, nobody could shake it loose. Not even Delia, who had more sense than me and him put together.

Uncle Philemon gave her a vexed look and said nothing. Delia was the only slave he owned, and he treated her good most of the time, fearing she might run away if he didn't. He'd told her more than once he planned to free her when he died; it was already written in his will, item two, right after the part where he left me, his great-nephew, all he possessed. Which didn't amount to much as he had gambled just about everything away long before I came to live with him.

"Go on now, boy," Uncle Philemon told me, "and fetch me the biggest old turtle you can find."

I knew better than to put up a fuss. Armed with along pointed pole to poke the turtle out of the mud and a basket to carry him home in, I headed for the marsh. If it had been later in the year, I would have had an easy time of it, but we'd had a long cold spell in February, worse than a normal Maryland winter, and the wily old rascals were still hibernating. I figured they'd burrowed clean through the earth to China by now. Most likely children on the other side of the world were catching turtles that by right ought to have been mine.

The wind blew across the Chesapeake Bay, straight through the tall grass, driving the cold rain before it. It pricked my face like icy needles and soaked right through my raggedy old jacket. I soon grew weary of prodding and poking the mud and finding nothing.

"Dang you, Uncle Philemon," I hollered, "and dang your everlasting rheumatism, too!"

I was sorely tempted to go home, but I didn't dare, not when my uncle had his belly primed for terrapin soup. If I walked through the door with nothing for Delia to cook, the old boy would throw a fit loud enough to scare the devil himself. Might even give me a thrashing, especially if he'd been into the brandy.

Despite his cantankerous ways, I must say I was normally right fond of my uncle. He'd done his Christian duty by me, sure enough, for he'd taken me in after Mama and Daddy died. I wasn't but four years old at the time and the most useless child you ever did see, but he agreed to be my guardian and teach me to be a carpenter. All he'd taught me so far was hammering, which you can't call a skill. I guessed it was a start, though. After all, I was only twelve. I had plenty of years to learn sawing and measuring and such.

Mostly what I did for my uncle was milk the cow, help the hired hands with the planting and harvesting, and provide Delia with things to cook for supper. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, oysters, crabs, turtles-whatever the old man wanted to eat I brung home. Without me, he'd most likely have starved to death long ago.

Other than that, and a few lessons in reading, writing, and figuring, Uncle Philemon allowed me to do pretty much as I pleased, which was often nothing but playing in the creek or climbing trees or making mischief of one kind or another. As for thrashings, all I had to do was stay out of his way when he'd been drinking. You can't ask for a much better life than that.

So I kept on poking the mud in hope of scaring up a turtle. Before long, the rain turned to a downpour so heavy I could hardly see. Truth to tell, the wetter I got, the better a thrashing seemed, mainly because it would be given inside, in front of a roaring fire. Let Uncle Philemon warm my britches — and the rest of me as well. If he wanted a turtle, he'd just have to drag his sorry old self down here and find one.

I took a path that led out of the marsh and into the woods, hoping to find shelter under the trees. If I hadn't been fussing about my uncle, I might have wondered why the crows were making such a ruckus, but I was just too mad to pay them any mind. In fact, I didn't notice a thing out of the ordinary till someone grabbed me from behind, pressed a knife against my throat, and clamped a hand over my mouth.

"Don't move or I'll kill you," a woman hissed in my ear. "Don't make a sound either. Stay right where you are, as quiet as you can be...

Promises to the Dead. Copyright © by Mary Downing Hahn. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"an involving story that raises many of the issues that led to the Civil War" School Library Journal

"Hahn has a marvelous touch when it comes to manipulating her story and heightening the tension in a way that keeps readers on the edge of their seats." Booklist, ALA

"fast-moving, exciting" Children's Book Review Service

Meet the Author

Mary Downing Hahn, a former children’s librarian, is the award-winning author of many popular ghost stories, including Wait Till Helen Comes, which is being adapted for film. An avid reader, traveler, and all-around arts lover, Ms. Hahn lives in Columbia, Maryland, with her cat, Oscar. Visit her online at www.marydowninghahnbooks.com.

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Promises to the Dead 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 61 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book Promise to the Dead was a outstanding book and I would highly recommend it. The author Mary Downing Hahn is a wonderful author and I am a fan of all her books. The book was suspensful and it made me never want to put the book down. Of all the books I have read I would definitly say that this was the best book. If you like to read good books then you should read this book.
Sydney Curts More than 1 year ago
This book is amazing i also enjoyed all the lovely bad ones and the ghost of crutchfield hall. The best one was all of them i dont know how to decide!!!!!
Caroline Odom More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book and I fell in love. Hahn has a way of pulling you into the story, where you feel as if you were there. She really has a talent. For those Civil War fans you will love this book. You are taken throughout battles and it describea the harshness of slavery. The reason I put only four stars was becauae this book says a swear word a few times. It also has a bit of fiolence, but its mot really anythinf to worry about too much. I really hope you decide to readbthis book. It will mot waste your money or your time
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i have yet to read this book. But i have read one of mary's great books closed for the season. I am excited to read this novel also. The fantastic cover art on all her books really catch your eye. So for readers who are hesitant of reading her books give them a try you may find a new favorite.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like this try closed for the season
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mary downing han has written better
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book mary is awsome! (mary is the auther)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read it chilling book that will touch the heart with a great story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was awsome. It had me reading so fast and it is very suspensfull. I loved it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have only not read 5 of her books and they are soooooooooo good
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If u liked this book just wait. Have u ever read deep and dark amd dangerous ? Well its her best book by far. Also make sure to rea wait till helen comes! She has a talent. Thats for sure
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is really good i love it! Its one of those books where you cant stop reading but when you do you feel like your missing something because you are so attatched to the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Scary but great
mrswink More than 1 year ago
ive read all mary downing hahns books, this isnt my favorite but it os definetly a good read! always have high expectations and om never disapointed! this is amazing!
Anonymous 7 days ago
I couldnt get into it honestly... i dont like to say it but... this is hahns WORST book..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mary has great talent and can write any book you could imagine.This is her best book yet.Its very heartwarming,but scary.There is a few cuss words but nothing to blow over about. P.S Write a report not a blog.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was an awsome book as far as I'm concerned. And to whoever is reading this, it really is a good book. P.S Whoever keeps writing random stuff instead of writing a reveiw needs to stop. It just makes you look dumb. Review not blog.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wait till helen comes is an amazing book- i read it in about 1 day please read it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a book report for school and it was ok but if you get sick real easy dont read this book it goes into a lot of detail with that type of stuff. I liked it though its not my favirite but i still like it.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just have to say if u like scary stories mary downing hahn is the author for you ive read some of her books and they r good wait not good but great
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im only half way through this book and i love it(: