Published: 1st September
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA
Recommended Reading Age: 9+
‘Fourteen-year-old Lucky Valera is a seasoned sailor about to join the crew of the whaling ship, Nightbird. But when his estranged older brother suddenly kidnaps him and forces him into servitude as a mule spinner at the mill, his life takes a dramatic turn for the worse. Determined to escape, Lucky links up with some unlikely allies: Daniel, a fugitive slave who works alongside him at the mill, and Emmeline, a Quaker ship captain’s daughter. Emmeline offers Lucky passage on her father s ship in exchange for his help leading escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad, but Lucky knows getting out from under his brother won’t be easy. When their plans go awry and Daniel is threatened by ruthless slave catchers, Lucky discovers that true freedom requires self-sacrifice, and he comes eventually to realize he is part of a larger movement from which he cannot run away.’
Hmm I can’t say I really loved this book, but then I’m not the intended target audience either. I read Chasing the Nightbird fairly quickly (its only around 190 pages) and while it was enjoyable enough, ultimately I found it forgettable. I think I expected more going off the synopsis. So many books for younger readers nowadays are full of adventure and are so imaginative that Chasing the Nightbird pales a bit by comparison.
The entire story takes place in New Bedford where Lucky is trapped working at a mill after his less-than-loving brother kidnaps him and forces him to work as a spinner. I was a little disappointed that we never progress any further along than Lucky attempting to get back to the sea and his ship, the Nightbird. I would have liked to have seen some of these characters leaving New Bedford and traveling to far off places.
This is quite a short story and as such we aren’t given enough time to really get to know, or come to care for the characters. None of them had a distinct voice (Emmeline in particular felt more like a footnote, a means to an end) and while Lucky was nice enough and I was happy to follow his story, he never felt real to me. I also found the sailor’s slang difficult to get used to and some younger readers may be put off by it.
What Chasing the Nightbird does fairly well, is incorporate real historical events about the abolitionists, the life of a fugitive slave and the working conditions of the mills. But I have to admit, it is missing that certain something. It simply didn’t have as much depth as it could have. The inhuman conditions and the cruelty suffered is deliberately kept vague and while this is a book intended for 9-12 year olds, I think Russell should have taken more risks and trusted her audience more – as it was I didn’t feel upset or outraged or fearful for any of the characters. For a book that, presumably, aims to tell something of the slave trade and abolitionist cause, I don’t think it was hard-hitting or informative enough to make an impact.
While Chasing the Nightbird does provide some insight into an important part of history, I’m not sure it’s one kids will really come to love, or will want to revisit. I see this more as classroom book, good for opening up discussions amongst students, but not necessarily one they’ll find that entertaining.
*Many thanks to NetGalley and Peachtree Publishers for making this book available for review*