Ben, a 13-year-old slave, figures he’s too young to be a spy for the Union Army. That’s before he overhears Rebel soldiers talk about planting something in the Combahee River. Later, he finds a strange, dark object floating near the riverbank. During the next few weeks, he finds more.
Then Moses, a mysterious runaway slave woman, sneaks on the plantation and shows up at Sunday night meeting. She claims to work for the Union and says the Yankee soldiers will be bringing their gunboats to rescue slaves. But there’s one problem: the Rebels are planting torpedoes in the river – mines that could blow up the boats. She’s trying to find the location of the torpedoes. During one visit, Moses has a seizure. The preacher promptly declares her a conjure woman and not to be trusted.
Ben’s not sure if he should tell Moses about the objects in the river. If he’s discovered passing information to the enemy, he could be whipped – or even sold. But if he doesn’t tell, he could be throwing away an opportunity for freedom – not only for himself, but also his family and friends.
SWING LOW, SWEET HARRIET is a middle grade historical novel based on Harriet Tubman’s work as a spy and scout during the Civil War when she helped lead African American soldiers on the Combahee River raid in South Carolina.
GO DOWN, MOSES: Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s Swing Low, Sweet Harriet is an exciting tale of Civil War espionage.
In Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, her new historical novel for
young readers, Knoxville writer Rhonda Hicks Rucker tells a suspenseful
story of Civil War espionage and the inspiring struggle for freedom
waged by African Americans—both those whose names we know, like Harriet
Tubman, and many more unsung heroes.
As Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s Swing Low, Sweet Harriet opens,
it’s been three years since thirteen-year-old Ben last saw his mother.
That’s when she was sold to another plantation on the Combahee River in
South Carolina. His sister, Milly, and his brother, Thomas, barely
remember her. But Ben will never forget her anguished last words to him:
“Promise to remember me to the little ones!”
It’s 1863 in this historical novel for young readers, and Ben and
his family are slaves on a rice plantation during the Civil War. Ben
works in the fields, Milly works in the plantation house, and Thomas
carries water to the workers. They all live in the cabin of “Big Mama,”
who cares for a number of motherless children. On Sundays they gather
for church meetings in the slave quarter with Brother James, Big Joe,
Uncle Minus, and the others. They sing spirituals and pray, but they
also share news about troop movements, runaway slaves, and rumors of
At one of these gatherings they meet the famous Harriet Tubman,
who is known as “Moses” because of the number of slaves she has helped
to escape via the Underground Railroad. Tubman is in South Carolina as a
spy for the Union Army and seeks the locations of torpedoes placed in
the river by Confederate troops to discourage Union gunboats. Ben and
his friend Will know the river well and have a healthy respect for its
hazards, especially alligators and cottonmouths. They have the
information Moses wants, but they aren’t sure it’s safe to tell. The
decision they make could be a matter of life and death—and it could
change all their lives forever.
Rucker’s enthralling and suspenseful storytelling skills bring to
vivid life this important period in American history. Rucker includes
an epilogue describing the historical facts of the inspiration for Ben’s
story—the dramatic June 1863 rescue of more than 700 slaves from
Combahee River plantations by Union troops, including African-American
soldiers from the Second South Carolina Colored Volunteers out of
Beaufort, South Carolina. She also lists resources for students
interested in exploring Civil War history.
Swing Low, Sweet Harriet captures the tremendous
courage required to defy the plantation system and the inspiring
struggle for freedom waged by African Americans—both those whose names
we know, like Harriet Tubman, and the many more unsung heroes
represented by young Ben. Middle-school readers will find much to
identify with in Ben’s longing to escape the brutality of slavery, his
loyalty to his family, and his desire to do something important in the
fight for freedom.
Swing Low, Sweet Harriet - A Children's Book Any Adult Will Savor
Rhonda Rucker's fine debut novel, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, is
a pageturner with a gripping story line, smooth narrative, beckoning
character development and plenty of suspense. A historical novel written
as an introduction for middleschoolers and older students, any adult
reader also will find this book more than engaging.
Through the eyes of Ben, an enslaved boy, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet
tells the story of Harriet Tubman's foray leading Union troops up South
Carolina's Combahee River in 1863 and freeing over 700 enslaved people
in under a week.
Both blacks and whites on the Lowndes plantation have heard of a
woman called Moses freeing slaves and leading them to safety and
freedom. When Moses starts showing up at meetings, some of the Lowndes
slaves are curious to know more, while others think it's safer to keep
their distance. The war is now all around since Union soldiers have
captured the South Carolina coast, so can a stranger be trusted? Still,
no one, including Ben, can ignore her message: "Be ready. Freedom is at
hand." But wise Uncle Minus, the 88-year-old sage of the slave cabins,
says things are different now. Though Ben doesn't know Moses' true
identity of Harriet Tubman, he does know a dangerous secret about the
local Confederate soldiers that he wants to tell her. Then Ben's sister,
who works in the Big House, learns another important secret: the
plantation owners have learned about Moses and are laying plans to keep
her from moving about the area and spreading her new ideas. What the
plantation owners don't know is that there will soon be a raid that will
attempt to liberate Ben and all of his family and friends.
Ben's scouting for strange devices laid in the river by the
Confederates and daring outing to warn Moses when she visits a nearby
plantation get him caught and lashed but he keeps his silence. Families
broken by human sales, long back-breaking hours picking cotton, cruel
overseers, the hopelessness of slavery Rucker etches in vivid mounting
style in her book.
This historical fiction is closer to history than fiction. In
addition to using Tubman's well documented action along the Combahee,
the book pays close attention to the account of Minus Hamilton – the
story's uncle Minus – 88 at the time of his liberation, whose story of
Tubman's raid on the Lowndes Plantation was recorded by Union Colonel
Thomas Higginson, commander of a black regiment which had a major role
in the Combahee action.
There is too little fiction in Underground Railroad literature and Swing Low, Sweet Harriet joins David Durham's Walk Through Darkness in starting to fill a still thin shelf. As soon as the children you buy this for finish reading it, enjoy it yourself.
Rhonda Rucker, MD, is a Grammy-nominated musician who with
her husband Sparky travels extensively in North America and abroad
presenting music of the Underground Railroad, abolitionism and civil
rights. They are recognized as among the foremost artists of the genre
ever. Their album Treasures and Tears was a nominee for the W. C.
Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording. She is a frequent author of
articles and a contributing author of The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
There are many heroes from American history, and although young Ben from
the Lowndes plantation is purely fiction, he is a hero just the same.
In author Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s latest middle grade novel, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet,
a young slave named Ben has a big responsibility. He stumbles upon
rebel soldiers hiding big smooth things called torpedoes in the Combahee
River. He wants to tell what he has heard, but since he never had
permission to wander so far from his plantation in the first place,
there’s no one he can safely tell.
His secret might have been lost forever if not for the mysterious woman
(whose name is rumored to be “Moses”) who shows up on the Lowndes
plantation. She claims to work for the Union Army and she asks lots of
questions, like whether anyone has seen any rebel soldiers. Ben wants to
tell, but he hesitates because he has been told that white people can’t
be trusted…even whites from the Union Army.
When Ben’s owner and a rebel colonel discuss the fact that they know
about Moses, Ben decides to find her and tell her all he knows before
it’s too late. But finding her means leaving the plantation, an act that
has already earned him a bloody lash once before.
Swing Low, Sweet Harriet is a poignant read about slavery, the
Civil War, and striking a blow for one’s liberty. Ms. Rucker’s prose is
wistful yet markedly hopeful, and her characters’ voices and actions
ring true to their ages and the times in which they live.
Ben’s bravery, his dogged determination to investigate his surroundings,
and his deep love for a mother he hasn’t seen in years all make for a
well-rounded, well-liked character that anyone would root for.
The description of the slaves being rescued from the plantation is quite
unforgettable. I won’t spoil it by telling you everything, but be ready
for chickens squawking, pigs squealing, and a sea of ex-slaves running
willy-nilly toward the freedom boats to escape their bonds.
This is an excellent resource for both independent reading and
supplemental reading in American History or Citizenship. It can also
serve as a conversation-starter for discussions on slavery, the 13th
Amendment, and lifestyles then and now.