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A&E >  Books

Virginia swamp is a haven from slavery in ‘Freewater’

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 21, 2022

By Mary Quattlebaum Special to the Washington Post

“I felt I was entering a mysterious place,” said author Amina Luqman-Dawson. “The smell was mossy, earthy, and the trees were so tall, with leaves that cast shadows.”

Luqman-Dawson is describing the first time she set foot in the Great Dismal Swamp, the setting for her middle-grade novel “Freewater.”

In the book, the swamp is a place of danger and safety. Fleeing a plantation at night in the 1800s, Homer, 12, and his younger sister Ada plunge into the marsh. They discover snakes, sinkholes – and a thriving community of Black people who, like themselves, have escaped slavery. Their village is called Freewater.

Though grateful to live in Freewater, Homer is determined to return to the plantation and free his mother. But doing so will surely endanger his new friends. The tension is high, and the pace is urgent as Homer tries to figure out what to do.

Americans are probably most familiar with the Underground Railroad and the history of enslaved people escaping to the North, Luqman-Dawson said by phone from her home in Arlington, Virginia. But much less is known about those who escaped into the forests and swamps in the South.

How did they survive? What kind of life did they create? These questions jumpstarted her book almost 20 years ago, Luqman-Dawson said. And they fueled her research, including her visit to the Great Dismal Swamp.

When the novel opens, the swamp covers “over two thousand square miles and stretch(es) from southern Virginia to northern North Carolina.” Today, part of this land is protected as the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, with a main entrance in Suffolk, Virginia.

Luqman-Dawson sprinkles “nuggets of history” throughout her book. For example, archaeologists’ recent findings of pottery shards and parts of cabins helped her imagine the way of life in her fictional Freewater.

She learned about the plants and wild animals eaten by real swamp dwellers. And she based the brave adult character, Suleman, on accounts of formerly enslaved people who raided plantations, taking tools, livestock and supplies to help them survive in the swamp area.

In researching the novel, “one of the biggest surprises,” said Luqman-Dawson, “was seeing the extent of Black resistance, not just in the United States but in other places (of African enslavement) like parts of Central and South America and the Caribbean, especially Jamaica.”

As a child – the second of four kids – in Lynwood, California, Luqman-Dawson took her mother’s suggestion to read Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” which received the Newbery Medal in 1977. It proved vital to her development as a writer. “I’d hear the voices of those kids in my head,” she said.

She gives credit to that classic novel – and others by Taylor about the Logan family – for her desire to create a vivid “symphony of voices” in her book.

Readers hear frequently from Homer, but other short chapters focus on timid Billy; Nora, the plantation owner’s mute, lonely daughter; and fearless Sanzi, whose risk-taking often leads to trouble.

“I wanted readers to hear multiple perspectives and discover who and what they most connect with,” Luqman-Dawson said. “That’s how history can come alive.”

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