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A Powerful Story Examining the Staggering Price of Prejudice
and the Cost of Hope
The years surrounding the Civil War provide some of the darkest moments in American history as well as some of the most remarkable examples of human courage. When Stars Begin to Fall weaves a complex tale of suffering, hope, and love into the rich history of pre-Civil War America. Your heart will break as Williamson's compelling writing takes you into the dangers of the Underground Railroad as she continues the saga she began in The Dark Sun Rises.
Joseph Whitsun's story will take you north to the growing city of Philadelphia in 1851. Joseph has come to reside there after being treated for a severe lung disorder. His quick intelligence makes him a natural study, and he is soon being trained by a Quaker doctor to become a medical practitioner.
At the same time, Mayleda Callcott Ruskin begins her life as a young widow by volunteering as a nurse in the Quaker Hospital for Colored Patients. Her husband, a banker who was deeply committed to the anti-slavery movement, bravely supported black investors, and Mayleda struggles to maintain his vision.
When a fair-skinned Negro child of unknown origin brings Mayleda and Joseph together and threatens to ruin their reputations, they see no choice but to work together to save the child. Evil slave catchers are on the hunt, and the pair's only hope is the Underground Railroad, a choice that plunges them into the depths of danger. Their journey down this path provides a stark examination of the price of prejudice in our nation's history. It also shows the staggering importance of each individual's decision to stand up for justice and equality and looks at the lives of unheralded people who made such choices.
Read an Excerpt
JOSEPH HAD NOT THOUGHT OF TIME until Ba set his squirrel gun in the corner near the front door and gave him a brief signal about going up to bed that Sunday night.
Only then did Joseph consider that the man had put himself on a voluntary outdoor watch for the second night in a row, starting at dusk and lasting hours. Numbed from intensity, Joseph rose from the chair where he had been sitting beside Daniel's bed all this time, but Ba was already through the room and to the loft stairs before Joseph could follow him. He decided to thank him in the morning.
Not more than ten minutes after his friend had gone upstairs, Joseph heard footsteps on his front porch. With the child being helpless to know if anyone was with him or not, Joseph went to the door, ready to meet trouble before it would come in on the boy. Fortunately he saw only Angelene when he looked through the window. For her, he opened the door.
"I brought you some warm apple pie." She held it out.
"Ba and I had supper," he said, then recognizing how blunt that sounded, he invited her to come in.
"How is your patient?"
Her mood seemed mild. They had not spoken since her visit on Saturday, when they had parted on ill terms. Because of the boy, Joseph had not gone to church that morning. "There has been no change." Joseph had not left the child's side once since his bed had been moved. He took the plate she had and carried it to the table. She followed him, which brought her close to Daniel's bed. Joseph watched her look at the weak, gasping body.
"Daddy and Mother are still up, praying every hour for him."
"Please tell them how grateful I am."
"Don't you think you should get some rest? I am willing to sit by his side." They looked at the clock together. It was almost eleven.
"I'm fine. You should not have come across alone in the dark so late."
Her look held him. "Would it be all right if I sat with you for a time?"
Joseph purposed to be more kind. "Of course." He brought her a chair, which he set beside his own.
She sat down. "This is your bed, isn't it?" she asked, keeping her voice low. "How do you plan to get any rest if the boy sleeps in it?"
He didn't answer. Though the question showed her concern for him, the idea of rest for him hardly mattered. His goal was to be with the child as long as there was life in him.
"I don't see how you think you're doing him any good. You're so weary now that I fear it will render you incapable when he does awake."
"If he does!"
"Joseph, you have had sick children in your care before. I have even been with you and watched them die. What is it that makes this boy so different?"
"He is in this condition because he was somebody's slave! When I look at him, I see injustice in the flesh." He shifted his eyes to her. "If you still think that he is Mrs. Ruskin's child, then you do see him in a different light, I know."
Her words were very soft. "I don't know what to think, but I do want to know the truth. Honestly, Joseph, that's why I came." There was silence, broken every moment by the ticking of the clock's pendulum. "Do you really have nothing to say to me?"
He answered her by getting up and going to the same shelf where Ba kept his chessboard and pieces. When he came back, he had a journal book in his hand, but he kept it closed. "I am not quite sure where to begin. It will help if you will just be willing to listen and hear me fully." He hesitated. "Mrs. Ruskin is not a stranger to me."
He saw Angelene's lips began to quiver. "You want the truth! Here it is. Sixteen years ago, when Mrs. Ruskin was just a girl of fourteen, she saved my life."
Her eyes went wide. "Where? How?"
Joseph longed to say that the details did not matter, yet he proceeded another way. "You will not like this story. Neither do I. Since moving to Oak Glen, I know I have worked hard to keep this tale hidden, even from my own memories."
Angelene showed patience with his delaying, and he thanked her for it, then opened the journal for her. "I was trying to write the short narrative for you, even before Mrs. Ruskin came." He let her read his few words before saying some of them out loud. "Sixteen years ago I was a slave on a South Carolina plantation called Delora."
"Oh, Joseph! No!"
"Mrs. Ruskin, Mayleda Callcott Ruskin, was my master's only daughter."
Instead of bringing insight, his words caused Angelene to fly into a rage. "And she touched you! After her family had held you as its brute! How vile! How despicable!"
"Angelene, she saved me on the plantation. I would be dead now if she not had intervened to help me."
"So now she brings this child to you!"
"You need to believe this. She did not know that I was Joseph Whitsun, and I did not know her either, as Mayleda Ruskin. It was only after the surgery that we recognized each other. Yes, and then she did embrace me."
"It makes no sense that you would have allowed it. She, the daughter of the man who would have you as a slave!"
"Her father freed me. That is how I had the liberty to come to Pennsylvania, by way of Philadelphia. He did it because of the conviction of his sin as a slaveholder."
Her mouth turned down. "You said I would not like this story, that you do not like it yourself, yet you do not seem the least bit unhappy about anything that you have said."
"Would you rather that I hate her? For her background? For her color? You overlook that she's an abolitionist in the North now, that she came to Oak Glen as part of a mission to save this child. Never could I have thought that I would see her again, and she felt the same of me. That is why she did embrace me in her joy, and that is why I did not resist her touch for a moment.
"But then, know this too. That is why you saw us in this kitchen together with your father. Right away, after that moment of recognition, I called on him to meet with us so that we would not have our dialogue alone. I wanted to know about my mother. My friends. They are still in bondage. But I wanted your father there as a witness to our words and to our actions."
"Angelene, I give you permission to ask your father. Whatever you want him to tell you about Mrs. Ruskin and me, he may do so."
"Does he know that the woman had her arms around your neck?"
"Yes! As a sister to her long-lost older brother. She thought I was dead. That is an amazing story too. I came to Philadelphia carrying her father's Bible. I was so ill, I could not prevent it from being stolen from me. Later it was returned to her when it was noticed that her name was listed in the family genealogy. She knew that I would never give it up willingly. She concluded then that I had died in the city."
"But you both worked for Dr. Ellis. Didn't that man ever guess the association between you?"
"No. As I told you yesterday, I was gone, committed to helping Ba by the time she started volunteering. She knew about me, but Dr. Ellis always called me only by my last name, Brother Whitsun."
"This is all very touching, Joseph," she said, but there was still fire in her eyes. "However, it doesn't address an underlying fact to this all. Her family still owns slaves."
"She cannot help that anymore than I."
Angelene got up. Unlike yesterday, Joseph went after her. "Don't go! I beg you! At least not until you try harder to understand Mrs. Ruskin and her motivations. She does not deserve mean-spirited condemnation."
"You think I am mean-spirited!"
"No. I know you are not, so that is exactly why I beg you. We must talk more. I want you to understand everything, but trust me, I don't want to reveal all my pain incurred in slavery. I don't want you to be burdened by my past. That's why the journal entry is so brief. I hardly knew what to say. Now, because of this, I know I must say enough to ease your mind. But I want to protect you too. Believe me, please!"
She turned to him fully.
"Mrs. Ruskin, Sister Ruskin, gave up her family and the wealth she was born into to fight against slavery." He saw her take a breath.
"Why does she fight it?"
"What a question! Because it is wrong, and she knows that. She is the widow of Sprague Ruskin. Ask your father about him too! More than any white man in Philadelphia, he understood equality between the races, and he worked to promote it."
She still moved closer to the door. "Did he believe in it enough to love and marry a mulatto who was white enough to pass for being white?"
"What! You still think Mayleda has Negro blood in her?"
"She's a planter's daughter. You admit it. Her mama could have easily been a slave."
"No! I was in the Callcott house when Oribel Callcott gave birth to Mayleda. I was in the very room."
She covered her ears and squinted. "I don't want to hear it. I don't want to know anything about how they used you."
He pulled her hands away from her face. "I knew you would feel this way. That is why I never, never wanted to mention my years of slavery. Yet after Renny was put on the Underground Railroad, you know that your father came to me and told me that he wanted to speak with me in private. That is because he noticed how my hands shake nearly every time I am confronted with the suffering caused by slavery."
"I know that too!"
He dared to continue holding on to her hands. "You can feel my tremors now, I know. They come because I did suffer tremendously as a slave, but Mrs. Mayleda Callcott Ruskin was never the cause of any of that suffering."
"But she knew you as a slave because her family had you!"
He started over with his reasoning. "I will keep my promise to spare you details, but you must know this. I witnessed Mayleda's birth. I was there to hold the basin, to fill the pitcher with water, to do what a boy of six can be made to do as a servant in the master's house."
"Oh, Joseph! Oh, Joseph!" She shook as she sobbed.
"I am saying this to clear Mayleda Ruskin's name and her reputation. It means much to me that you would not despise her."
She pulled one of her hands free, but only to wipe her eyes. When she spoke, the tension within her seemed to subside. "You truly think that this Mrs. Ruskin did not conceive this child."
He kept her hand and led her back to the suffering boy. "This innocent child belonged to a man in Virginia named Venor. I don't know how or why the boy was found in Philadelphia. Or his sister either. What I do know is that if he does not die, he will have a chance for freedom because the deposition papers from his master had been destroyed, and those who pursued him have relinquished their claim.
"I have my freedom because of a manumission paper signed by Mayleda Callcott Ruskin's father on the day he died. Little Daniel, as I call the boy, may be free because now he has no papers."
She moved on her own to read his words in his journal once more. She spoke them out loud. " 'I wanted to forget the past, but your father spoke to me with wisdom. He guessed the truth before I had the courage to tell him or you. He encouraged me to be honest with myself, and with you, as an act of fairness to us both.' "
She turned and raised her eyes.
"Why Mrs. Ruskin came yesterday, I cannot explain. I submit to you, Angelene, that it must be part of God's greater plan."
She stepped closer. Even her eyelashes trembled. "Did she save you in the South because she loved you even then? Did you yield to her embrace today because it is your desire to love her now?"
"The friendship Mrs. Ruskin and I share is deep and innocent."
"Did you speak of love?"
He hesitated. "Yes, Angelene. We did speak of love. Love lost. How she has become a widow. As I am a widower."
Her mouth went wide.
"On the plantation I was married. Your father knows about my years of slavery, but I could not bring myself to say anything to him about my dear wife, Rosa." He squeezed his eyes closed for just a moment.
"She still lives in slavery!"
"No. Ba and the Ellises know my past. They know that I had a wife, and that she did die."
"I am so sorry."
He felt her take his hand again.
"You grieve, in part, because of how she died! Joseph, I can see that in you."
He began to sob. She touched his face as though to share his tears, which he could not stop.
"All this time you have been suffering not only from slavery," she said, "but from the pain of being a widower. All in silence." She started weeping too. "These are tears for your Rosa and for you, dear friend."
He sat down, suddenly having no strength to stand. There was silence again except for the clock and Daniel's gasping. "When my wife died, she was carrying our first child. We had already talked about it. If the child was born a boy, we were going to name him Daniel."
"So you are considering keeping this child for your own?"
He heard no condemnation from her now. "Yes. Yes, I am."
"I do understand! You see his suffering, but you also see your own, in him. You couldn't save your own child, but now you're doing all in your power, and more, to try to save this one."
"Oh, I commend you. I do." She sat with him.
Joseph found himself freed from the grip of uncontrollable emotion. "The night when your father had his private interview with me, he asked how I had gained so much education while being enslaved. I told him a little of the incredible opportunity I had in Charleston, South Carolina. Even as a slave, I was able to study under a brilliant teacher, Mr. Daniel Alexander Payne."
"I know Payne, the preacher! Was he a slave too?"
"No. Mr. Payne was a free brown man in South Carolina. When he was only nineteen, he opened his first school. The persecution he received while he remained there came directly, I think, because he was not afraid to educate even slaves, men and women. And not just in reading and writing, but in all the highest of thinking skills. That's one of the reasons I call this boy Daniel, as a way to honor the man who saved me from ignorance just as Sister Ruskin and her father saved my body from death and slavery."
"It is your passion to teach Oak Glen's students as you were taught."
"Yes. Teacher Payne did shape my philosphy. I was going to write that in my journal to you too. I was going to open myself to the possibility of giving part of my testimony to honor Payne and to encourage others to work for education."
"Oh, I hope you do," Angelene said, taking his hands in her own.
Joseph did not think he could stand more of her touch or her sympathy, yet out of his respect for her, he endured both expressions of her compassion.
"Dear Joseph, my deepest thoughts and my prayers are with you. Thank you so much for sharing what you have shared with me. I am sorry, so sorry. For my words, for my actions. For my jealous heart!"
Suddenly Daniel started screaming, "May! Sister May!"
When Stars Begin to Fall
Copyright © 2001, Denise Williamson
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.