Crossing Ebenezer Creek

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
Crossing Ebenezer Creek Book Poster Image
Heartbreaking novel follows freed slaves on Sherman's March.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Rich in details about the grim reality of life on Southern plantations and the opportunities available and denied to enslaved people. While the book doesn't get into the political conflict that precipitated the Civil War, it does open a window onto the dynamics of racial hierarchies and the brutality of the slave system, as well as offer some insight into how Union soldiers viewed the rebel Confederates and those they held in bondage.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of hope and resilience are counterbalanced by devastating discrimination, cruelty, and tragedy. In an epilogue, the author stresses the importance of telling such heartbreaking stories from history: "It is my hope that through these characters, through this book, future generations will not lose sight of what happened at Ebenezer Creek, that they will remember. And pass it on." 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The book's war-torn Georgia landscape is populated by both heroes and villains. Union Capt. Galloway tries to get to know the enslaved people who are liberated. Caleb is kind to a plantation family traveling as part of the march. While many of the enslaved people show incredible resilience and generosity toward one another, the desperation of the situation exposes the moral rot caused by life in a slave society and the human cost of civil war. 

Violence

Many horrific instances of brutality are described, drawing from the type of violence that slaves regularly faced in pre-Civil War America. Includes depictions of grotesque punishments such as being beaten to death, drowning in a shallow dungeon, dismemberment, dog attacks, and other degrading and destructive interactions. Multiple references to extreme sexual violence and rape, although the author omits most of the details. Multiple incidents of sexual violence lead directly to deaths, though the language used to describe them is somewhat vague, using terms like "taken" and "had his way."

Sex

Warm romantic feelings between Mariah and Caleb, with some kisses on the cheek. 

Language

A few uses of antiquated racial epithets that would have been common in the 19th century, including "darkies," "niggra," and "useless negro." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some of the men in the Union Army reportedly get drunk and wreak havoc a few times throughout the march, though these moments are only referenced, not described.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Crossing Ebenezer Creek, by Tonya Bolden, is a haunting and heartbreaking work of historical fiction that follows a group of formerly enslaved African-Americans who were among the thousands who followed Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous 250-mile "March to the Sea" near the end of the Civil War. Filled with inspiring stories of profound courage and communal resilience, the book's message of hope and freedom is devastatingly counterbalanced by truly disturbing depictions of cruelty, racism, and sexual violence, three of the pillars upon which slave societies were built. The tragedy and brutality may be too much for some young/sensitive readers to bear, but these incidents will help readers understand and confront the horrifying realities, consequences, and legacy of one of the darkest chapters of American history. 

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What's the story?

CROSSING EBENEZER CREEK is a YA novel from award-winning author Tonya Bolden set during the closing months of the U.S. Civil War. The story follows Mariah, a young enslaved woman, and the people she grew up with in bondage, who join the legions of liberated African Americans trailing General Sherman's "March to the Sea." While the Union Army rampages across Georgia, the former slaves marching and camping alongside them dream of new lives in freedom, begin to plan for the future, and attempt to heal their wounds, both physical and psychological. Mariah starts to fall in love with a man she meets, Caleb, who was born free but still oppressed due to his skin color. As the grueling trek continues, the constructed communities salvaged from the wreckage of chattel slavery endure and strengthen, the people united by their shared traumas and steadfast faith and courage. But on the last leg of the journey, on the verge of true emancipation, the hopeful exodus is betrayed by the insidious racism that has infested even Union ranks, and the resulting tragedy is almost beyond belief -- though, sadly, the fictionalized plot is based on true events.

Is it any good?

Beautifully written and poetically rendered, this historical novel is equal parts uplifting and depressing. Bolden's depiction of the Civil War South in Crossing Ebenezer Creek, with its period-specific language and historical insights, provides an excellent overview of the diverse range of experiences of both enslaved and free and people of color. This includes some inspirational stories about some of the lucky few black Southerners who were able to establish a bit of success and eke out a middle class life by the mid-19th century, though sadly these examples were the exception and not the rule. The war affected all Americans, and the epic and terrifying story of Sherman's March serves as a painful reminder of the complicated outcomes and implications of the conflict, as well as the shocking carnage endured by those who lived through it.

The dynamic characters Bolden crafts draw from historical archives and archetypes and mostly ring true. Importantly, this includes several with physical and mental disabilities that serve as examples of the damage inflicted upon enslaved people. One is Dulcina, a woman who frequently wanders off and is unable to verbally express herself, who had a psychotic break after her family was sold away to Texas. Another is Mariah's little brother, Zeke, who was born prematurely after her mother was flogged to death by a ruthless overseer at the behest of their maniacal master. Zeke has difficulty pronouncing his big sister's name, even though he's nearly 10 years old. Many of the other former slaves on the sojourn also bear the scars of bondage, each with its own unconscionable accompanying story. These are difficult things for audiences of any age to read about, but it's important history to learn.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the educational value of historical fiction like Crossing Ebenezer Creek. How can exploring the past through dramatic storytelling contribute to our understanding of how people in the past lived and experienced events in their time?

  • How does learning about the U.S. Civil War and the history of American slavery help us understand the country we live in today? What do you think are the enduring legacies?

  • Often, in movies and books about the Civil War, the focus is on the political and military events that led to the outbreak and conclusion of the conflict. Why is it important to also include the perspectives of the people who were enslaved, on whose behalf the war was supposedly being waged? 

  • What do you consider the book's ultimate message/take away? What is the value in reading stories of tragedy and heartbreak?

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