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The book begins and ends in 1914, when Oscar Mercer attends a talk given by Booker T. Washington honoring Harriet Tubman, the woman responsible for coordinating the Underground Railway and, therefore, securing Oscar’s freedom.
Oscar reminisces about his life, from his birth in 1852 into a life of slavery until the time he gains his freedom, aged ten. As a child, he stands by helplessly as friends and family members suffer the cruelty inflicted by the plantation’s foreman. When he is five, the slaves start hearing tales of “a Negro woman who was working with a group to help free slaves.” That woman is Harriet Tubman. We never meet her, but her presence runs through the narrative. Another milestone in Oscar’s life is when he gets the opportunity to learn how to read and write. He is drawn to comment, “Why do learning things feel so good?” Then, on the day he sees the hummingbird in the field, a chain of events is set into motion that ends in tragic consequences but eventually leads to his freedom. Armed with a Bible, a dictionary, and the skills taught to him by “conductors” with the Underground Railway, Oscar finally makes it to freedom. It is a gruelling journey from Louisiana to New York City, during which his faith is tested and he learns the true meaning of freedom.
Throughout, Oscar maintains his spirit and resolve by recalling his mother’s words of wisdom: “My mama’s womb had given me life, but it was her wisdom implanted in my brain that kept me alive.” She imbues in him the belief that “Skin color don’t make us no less a person.” This belief is reinforced when he meets the many (white) people who are willing to help him on his trip along the Underground Railway: “I was overwhelmed with relief when I realized that people are people. Simple as that. And the color of my skin doesn’t make me less of a person. It doesn’t separate or define my humanness. No, what makes some less human is hatred and hateful actions.”
In the Foreword, the author gives us some background into how she came to write this story: “In many southern states, educating slaves to read or write was illegal. […] I incorporated the element of educating slaves into this story and, in particular, with the protagonist and narrator of the story. […] Many of the scenes depicted were adapted from historical notes, letters, and other documentation from slaves who lived to tell their stories.” She succeeds admirably in giving us a look into the psyche of the young slave Oscar and rendering a heartbreaking account of the atrocities committed in the name of greed and prejudice.
Oscar’s story will haunt you for a long time after you have finished reading.
I received this book in return for an honest review.
The Day I Saw the Hummingbird is both a journey and a coming of age novel about Oscar, a nine-year-old enslaved boy traveling the Underground Railroad from a Louisiana sugar cane plantation to New York.
Author Paulette Mahurin tells this story from the perspective an adult looking back at his childhood, so we know at the outset that Oscar survives the journey. Though this approach keeps us at arm’s length from some of the emotion of the story, arm’s length may be a good place to be as events unfold and we see how vicious and violent the journey to freedom could be. In this respect, the story reminded me of the book version of Solomon Northup’s memoir “Twelve Years A Slave.”
In the course of this story, we not only learn about Oscar’s life, we also meet “conductors” on the railroad and experience a number of safe houses. With each contact, Oscar receives not only shelter and food, but also friendship and an education that includes everything from swimming, to reading and writing, to human kindness. I’ve always been awestruck by Harriett Tubman and others who put their lives on the line to help others. After reading this novel, I admire these brave souls even more. Mahurin made good use of research for this book as she has in her other historical novels.
I recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more about the Underground Railroad. Be aware, though, you’ll encounter graphic violence