This wonderful historical novel, by author Rhonda Rucker, is told from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old slave boy named Ben. It is geared toward middle grade readers, and offers a unique narrative point of view for juvenile fiction that isn't explored enough. Below is a short, short summary of the book.
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People on the Lowndes plantation have heard of a woman known as Moses. There are tales about how she leads folks to safety and freedom. When Moses starts showing up at meetings, some are curious to know more, while others think it’s safer to keep a distance from her. The war is on—can anyone be trusted? Still, no one, including Ben, a thirteen-year-old slave, can ignore her message: “Be ready. Freedom is at hand.” Even wish Uncle Minus says things are different now. And though Ben doesn’t realize that Moses is actually Harriet Tubman, he does know a dangerous secret about the soldiers that he wants to tell her. Then Ben’s sister, who works in the Big House, learns another important secret: The plantation owners know about Moses and they don’t like her moving about the area and spreading her new ideas.
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Author Rhonda Hicks Rucker practiced medicine before becoming a full-time musician, author, and storyteller. Rhonda performs with her husband, James “Sparky” Rucker, adding vocals, piano, blues harmonica, banjo, and rhythmic bones to their music. They appeared on the Grammy-nominated CD, Singing Through the Hard Times, in 2009. Rhonda and Sparky have recorded ten albums together. Their 1991 release, Treasures & Tears, was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording. Rhonda has been an author since 1998, publishing articles in newspapers, magazines, and books. She was a contributing author for the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, published by University of Tennessee Press. In 2013, Highlights published her article, “Rescuing Miracle,” and Motes Books published her debut novel she will be discussing with my today, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to talk Rhonda today and offer one lucky person a chance to win a free copy of Rhonda's book.
Ann: Hi Rhonda. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog about your wonderful debut novel, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet. Many people know about Harriet Tubman’s work with the Underground Railroad, but I’d never heard about her involvement as a spy for the Union army. How did you learn about this particular part of Harriet Tubman’s life?
Rhonda: Thanks so much for having me, Ann! My husband and I are musicians and storytellers, so we travel around the country and occasionally overseas for performances. About twenty years ago, my husband was doing a solo performance in Savannah, Georgia. (At the time, I had a day job in our hometown.) After the concert, Asa Gordon, a historian and scholar, told my husband about Tubman's role as a spy and scout during the Civil War. After verifying it, my husband began telling the story on stage. The slaves in that region of the country were Gullah, retaining much of their African tribal customs and heritage. According to their legend, they wrote the song we've all heard, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. However, they say they originally wrote it as Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, as a way of honoring Harriet Tubman.
Ann: Your work as a storyteller and musician with your husband sounds really fascinating. I’m surprised you could narrow down the scope of the story you wanted to tell with that kind of background in folklore music.
Had you ever written any historical fiction before tackling this novel? What went into researching it? Were you familiar with this area of South Carolina?
Rhonda: This is the first novel I have ever written. I had originally written it as a picture book. Somewhere along the way, I realized this story was better suited for older children. I shelved the idea, thinking I would write it as a novel someday. In June 2011, I went to a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators event in Lexington, Kentucky and told an editor about the Harriet Tubman story. She loved the idea and asked to see the first chapter by October. She provided the motivation I needed. For the next several months, I focused on the novel, initially spending many hours researching the story. I used both primary and secondary sources. In many ways, researching is easier nowadays since some documents can be found on the Web. Sarah Bradford interviewed Harriet Tubman and wrote two biographies of her in the 1880s, and I found those online. I also found newspaper articles written after the raid. My husband's copy of the Official Records of the Civil War was helpful. Some of my sources are listed at the back of the book. During our travels, my husband and I stopped a couple of times to view the area of the raid. Seeing the river and the terrain helped me visualize the story.
Ann: Wow! So going to workshops and SCBWI events really paid off in this case.
Have you read other historical novels told from a slave’s perspective that is geared toward this age group? Did you find it challenging to tell a story from this perspective and a boy’s at that?
Rhonda: I've read other children's historical fiction from that time period, but I can't remember ever reading one from a slave's perspective. I think it's always challenging to write from a child's point of view. However, I enjoyed my childhood, and I love using my imagination to put myself in a child's shoes. I also like to empower children and make them realize that they can have a real and important role in changing the world.
Ann: I agree. I think it is a very important privilege of writing for children that we can use this art form to empower and inspire them.
How long did it take to write this novel and find a publisher for it? What advice would you offer to other writers struggling to complete or publish their own first novel?
Rhonda: I think I first began writing the story as a picture book in 2010. I sent it to a few publishers then before realizing it would be better told as a middle-grade book. I began working on the novel in June 2011. I finished the first draft before I sent the first chapter to the editor in October 2011. I did that because I had heard that novelists often throw out their first two or three chapters after realizing they have started the story too soon. I wanted to make sure the chapter I sent to the editor was really my first chapter. By the time I sent her the final copy, two years had passed, and I had done several revisions. I know I was incredibly lucky to have my first novel published. I still can't believe I ran into an editor who was interested in the story as much as I was. In writing historical fiction, it's important to do meticulous research. Just as important, though, is coming up with a compelling plot to capture the reader. I think it's helpful to do both those things before beginning to write the novel. Once you've decided on a plot and you have a good sense of the historical events and time period, you can start writing. More research will inevitably be needed as you write.
Ann: You took your time with this first book to get it right and it certainly paid off. It is a beautifully written story.
What new work do we have to look forward to from you in the future? Will you publish with the same publisher?
Rhonda: I am currently working on another historical novel—a YA book based on the Birmingham Children's March in 1963. I started this one two years ago, and it's already undergone multiple major revisions. I'm currently looking for an agent who would be interested in this book as well as future ones.
Ann: Thank you so much for being a guest on my blog, Rhonda.
Rhonda: Thanks to you, Ann!
Ann: For more information on Rhonda visit her webpage at: www.sparkyandrhonda.com. To purchase a copy of Swing Low, Sweet Harriet click on these links for Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell Books.
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