Underground Railroad comes to life in children's book

When Lucy Hulme of Roseville was assigned to come up with a plot for a children's story, she recalled a newspaper article on the Underground Railroad written by her high school English teacher in 1943 in Ohio. This became the kernel of "Passages," which Hulme, 82, self-published last year.

The newspaper article, saved in Hulme's scrapbook, mentioned a boy who helped his mother take a produce-filled wagon to town sometime before the Civil War. Unbeknownst to the boy, his parents had hidden slaves under the produce to help smuggle them to freedom in Canada. The wagon got stuck in the mud and the boy's mother refused to let him empty it to lighten the load.

"I don't know how I thought of the article," Hulme said. "I had probably re-read it and thought it would make a good story."

In "Passages," Hulme personalized the boy's story in the form of 12-year-old Henry, who heard strange sounds one night, discovered the cornpone and side meat for breakfast were nearly gone when he woke up in the morning, found strange clothes hanging on the line and the wagon unexpectedly loaded without his help. In a reversal of their normal Saturday routine, Henry's parents told him to drive his mother to town for the Harvest Home Festival while his father stayed home to help Henry's sisters bake pies.

The book, a mystery story aimed at fourth- and fifth-graders, tells of Henry's efforts to get the wagon out of the mud at river's edge and to quell his mother's fears by chatting awhile to distract the slave trackers who questioned them on their way home, but also to hold his tongue as he grew aware that his family was involved in helping slaves reach freedom.

At that time, the Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime to harbor runaway slaves, and slave trackers were feared.

Hulme named the book "Passages" for the long trips slaves took to freedom and because Henry reached a new level of maturity; he learned to cope in a difficult and dangerous situation and analyze what was going on even though he hadn't been told.

Stories from childhood

Hulme is a retired writing and literature teacher - 25 years at Minneapolis Community and Technical School - and co-author with her deceased husband, William, of books on depression and child raising. However, this is her first children's book.

Her interest in children's literature began when some of her students asked about it, so she began including it in her curriculum. Then she took a class on children's literature from the Loft in Minneapolis, where she was assigned to write a story plot and recalled the article written by her former teacher.

Hulme grew up on a farm near Zanesville, Ohio and heard stories about the Underground Railroad as a child, though her family wasn't involved. She always loved history and included details she recalled from childhood about harvest festivals and stories of Revolutionary War ancestors. She remembered the pumpkins and bittersweet vines that decorated the church, the produce donated to orphanages to provide food for the winter and her family's Model T Ford getting stuck in the mud.

"I've (also) done a lot of research to make sure my book is historically accurate," she says. "Passages" has an afterword that tells more about the Underground Railroad as well as offering discussion questions. She added a vocabulary list later.

Hulme wanted accurate details in the artistic presentation of her story, too. The Loft recommended artist Dale Redpath of St. Paul, co-director of the Atelier art studio in Minneapolis. Hulme is very pleased with her drawings.

Redpath says, "Lucy had a strong idea of what she wanted to get across - she wanted to be as literal as possible as far as details go because she thought it would be a teaching book.

"We talked about the story and thought about the best places to illustrate to get the emotions across. She wanted an older look, and the pen and ink with cross-hatching seemed to do that. ... She was very easy to work with, and she wrote a good story."

Ellen Green of St. Paul did the editing, design and production. Hulme's daughter, Marcia Brugger of Hastings, wrote the discussion questions in the back.

Teaching the story

Hulme has been taking her book into charter schools such as Clara Barton, New Hope and Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, where she sometimes is a guest speaker.

"I'm pretty passionate about having my book in schools because it's short and good for international readers," she says. "The schools have just been delighted. They like the fact it's a mystery about a boy who really lived and tells about the Underground Railroad."

"From the standpoint of inner-city, African-American kids, there's a very reconciling message to hear a story about poor white farmers helping black people even though it put them in harm's way," says Hulme's son Dale, a minister at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis. "It makes kids think about how race is not always a dividing thing.

"For those children with limited exposure to African-American people, the story offers a powerful opportunity to develop sensitivity to racial concerns," he adds.

Hulme is also talking to church groups, telling them how their denominations were involved in the Underground Railroad, and to Sunday schools and senior citizens groups. She has held book signings in her neighborhood and at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. A few friends have sold some of her books.

"My ambition is to recover the amount of money I put into the project," she said. "I gave away many books to humanities people and schools with no money like Higher Grounds Academy."

Her book has also been accepted into the highly respected Kerlan Collection of children's literature at the University of Minnesota.

Hulme is now doing research on pioneer life in Ohio, where her ancestors lived. Zanesville is steeped in history. This could provide material for another book, she said.

In her free time, Hulme travels, swims in local lakes, attends two book clubs and teaches when the opportunity arises - Tanzania in 1997, Concordia Language Academy in China in 2001 and six or seven years at OLLIE, a learning institute for retirees. She also volunteers at her son's church, and for Volunteers of America and political groups. She describes herself as a "peacenik" and attends peace rallies.

"I have a very nice life. I really do," she says. "And I'm very happy with the book itself and the presentation."

"Passages" is on the shelves of the new Underground Railroad Museum in Zanesville, Ohio, and available for purchase in the Twin Cities at Macawber's, the Red Balloon and Fort Snelling book stores, the Minnesota History Center and by calling Hulme at 631-2173. Many libraries have purchased her book, including the Roseville Library.

Comment Here