The Literary Hill

March 2019

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Author Jenny Masur tells the stories of freedom seekers and their accomplices in the Underground Railroad.

Underground Heroes
“How much longer shall these outrages upon human nature be permitted under the very shadow of the Capitol?” This impassioned plea was written in 1862 by John Dean, a local lawyer who frequently advocated for fleeing slaves in DC courts. Dean was only one of a host of people—of various races, ethnicities and religions— who recognized the inhumanity of slavery and fought to help those who suffered under its yoke.

In “Heroes of the Underground Railroad Around Washington, D.C.,” author Jenny Masur chronicles the courage, compassion, and resourcefulness of those who risked their own liberty to facilitate the flight of freedom seekers (a term she prefers to “runaways” or “fugitives”). While no one knows the exact number who escaped, the Underground Railroad was especially active between the passage of the amended Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which made assisting in escapes a crime, and the official end of slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

Masur writes that “for every story rescued from oblivion, there are hundreds that may be lost.” Thanks to her unearthing of oral histories, census and tax records, and other primary source materials, we get a remarkable sampling.

One story involves Ann Maria Weems, a teenager who disguised herself as a boy to flee her Maryland owner. She was passed from one sympathetic abolitionist to the next until she reached relatives—and freedom—in Canada. Another concerns William Chaplin, a white Underground Railroad operative, who was set upon by a posse of slave catchers while trying to aid in the escape of two bondsmen owned by a pair of southern congressmen. Chaplin was arrested and jailed for his efforts.

And then there was Ann Thornton Sprigg, a widow who owned a boardinghouse on First Street SE where a Library of Congress building now stands. With the help of several antislavery congressmen who boarded with her, this “estimable lady” ran a veritable Abolition House that became a haven and conduit for many enslaved African Americans. Both Mrs. Sprigg and counselor Dean are buried in Congressional Cemetery.

Accompanied by maps, period illustrations and photos, the stories in “Heroes of the Underground Railroad” are not only compelling, but also serve to remind us of a painful chapter in our history, when some brave souls were willing to risk much for their belief in a moral code that they felt took precedence over the unjust laws of the land.

A native Washingtonian, Jenny Masur has worked for 17 years for the National Park Service as National Capital Regional Manager for the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

William S. Kurtz has created a delightful world of sylvan creatures who communicate with a child via The Animal Post Office.

Special Delivery
The animals of Many Tree Island are all atwitter. Many summers ago, they would leave letters in the Animal Post Office—a space “between the trunks of the twin birch trees near the North Shore”—for a visiting child. But then the child failed to return and “the Post Office lay empty for many long years.” Now they’ve spied a boat bringing another child, carried by a father—”so familiar he is”—and the animals can’t wait to resume their correspondence. “Open the Post Office! Open the Post Office!” they clamor.

In “Ben’s Tale,” William S. Kurtz’s read-to-me adventure for ages 6-8, the animals have a stockpile of pent-up news to share. Ben Beaver and Ollie Otter relate how their lodge washed away in a big storm— “Just like that!”—and how the other animals came together to help them rebuild. Each of the others—from Bart Bat and Fannie Flicker to Sammy Squirrel and Peter Porcupine the Younger—chimes in with a unique perspective on the disaster.

Their letters simply burst with personality. Terrance Toad ponderously describes how he organized the rebuilding effort, assigning tasks particular to each animal’s skill. Ben Beaver, forced to lodge temporarily with the Mole family, confesses to being embarrassed by his table manners (but says that Ollie’s are even worse). Monika the butterfly likes to throw around French phrases (“C’est magnifique!”) and Willie Warbler favors a jazzy style “like ella…diddly-do-da.” But all are delighted to have a new Friend they can confide in. As Mollie Mole writes, “Thus, the circle may be complete.”

“Ben’s Tale” is a charmer on every level, with lively illustrations by Kurtz and Elizabeth Thottam that look as though they could scamper across the page. Happily, this is only the first in Kurtz’s Animal Post Office stories, which are based on a tradition in the islands of northern Lake Huron. I’m already looking forward to the next delivery. www.wildwoodbook.com.

Paul Smith Rivas, a local study skills coach, shares his tips on making the most of college in “This Book Will Not Be on the Test.”

Prep School
“Parents, your kid is not ready for college,” warns Paul Smith Rivas in his new book, “This Book Will Not Be on the Test: The Study Skills Revolution.” “Sorry,” he adds, but high school has not taught them how to study or, more importantly, “how to learn when nobody’s making them.”

Rivas aims to remedy the situation, setting out a series of rules to help students get their money’s worth and also have a great time in college. “Remember that having four years to learn whatever you want is a luxury you can’t afford to waste,” he writes. He provides concrete steps for students to follow, from developing long- and short-term plans to taking responsibility for their own learning and connecting what they’re learning to what they already know.

According to Rivas, the right study skills can help anyone learn. But while he is very encouraging—and has plenty of success stories to share—he can also be painfully realistic, reminding college freshmen that, though they may have been at the top of their high school classes, they’re now competing with students who were also top performers at their (probably better) schools.

Rivas is also plainspoken about the US education system, stating that “high school is bullshit,” wearing students out with constant demands that make them “dumber by the minute.” He also believes that “college is largely a scam nowadays,” but writes that it is still worth it if students heed his advice; otherwise, it’s back to “that basement in their parents’ house.”

Paul Smith Rivas is founder and director of Smith Rivas Study Skills & Academic Coaching, where he teaches study skills and time management to students. www.smithrivas.com

Para los Niños
Hill publisher Platypus Media has announced a new Spanish-language version of its classic title, “If My Mom Were a Platypus.” The illustrated book, which follows the growth of fourteen mammals—including bats, shrews, bears, hippos and humans—from infancy to adulthood, is geared for readers ages 10-14 or for reading to younger listeners, and comes with a free online teacher’s guide. www.PlatypusMedia.com

On the Hill in March
Visit these websites to find listings for additional readings, book clubs, discussions, and signings:

Capitol Hill Books
www.capitolhillbooks-dc.com

East City Bookshop
www.eastcitybookshop.com/events.

The Folger Shakespeare Library
www.folger.edu/poetry

The Hill Center
www.hillcenterdc.org

Solid State Books
www.solidstatebooksdc.com/events