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Eliza's Freedom Road

An Underground Railroad Diary

Illustrated by Shadra Strickland



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About The Book

Christopher Award–winning author Jerdine Nolen imagines a young woman’s journey from slavery to freedom in this intimate and powerful novel that was named an ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee.

It is 1854 in Alexandria, Virginia. Eliza’s mother has been sold away and Eliza is left as a slave on a Virginia farm. It is Abbey, the cook, who looks after Eliza, when she isn’t taking care of the Mistress. Eliza has only the quilt her mother left her and the stories her mother told to keep her mother’s memory close.

When the Mistress’s health begins to fail and Eliza overhears the Master talk of the Slave sale auction and of Eliza being traded, she takes to the night. She follows the path and the words of the farmhand Old Joe: “Travel the night. Sleep the day…Go east. Keep your back to the setting of the sun. Come to the safe house with a candlelight in the window…That gal, Harriet, she’ll take you.”

All the while, Eliza recites the stories her mother taught her as she travels along her freedom road from Mary’s Land to Pennsylvania to Freedom’s Gate in St. Catharines, Canada, where she finds not only her freedom but also more than she could have hoped for.


Life with Abbey in Virginia

February 6’June 22, 1854

Monday, February 6, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

I love to work in the kitchen, where I can be close to Abbey. One day I will work alongside her in the kitchen. She will teach me what she knows and I will serve a master and mistress. I do not know what else there is for me.

Abbey is my mistress’s cook. Mistress never worries to come to us here. All the time she says she is glad the kitchen is in the kitchen yard away from the house, where it is supposed to be. She does not like the heat or the cooking smells. But I do. I like them most fine.

Abbey is as close to me as a mother, but she is not my mother. My mother is Jane Mae. I never knew my father, but Abbey knows. Abbey says she knows every hair on my head. She was my mother’s dearest friend. She was the midwife who brought me into this world. She nursed me back to my health once when I fell so sick. Mistress said the sickness was Shock that came from the suddenness of losing my beloved mother, Jane Mae. Shock sickness is a deep, dark sadness that covers you. Even when the Shock has passed, it never leaves, like the smell from Sir’s tobacco smoke.

I love Abbey mightily, for she tells me the things I need to know to keep me safe. This night, before we slept, I asked her, “Why am I all the time so full up with thoughts and words in my head?”

She did what she always does when she tells me something I need to know. She smiled and patted me. “You got reasons so many talking words in there.” Then she tapped my head. Tap, tap, tap. “Your mama filled your head up with stories. And Mistress petted you and taught you to read and to write.” Then she said, “Eliza, you are a child who is all filled up with words.” I love when Abbey tells me these things. My arms are not long enough to wrap around Abbey’s waist like I did with my mother. I wrap my arms tight around Abbey as far as they can go.

Then Abbey told me, “You are not like me, Eliza.” First this made me sad. She is all I have now. But my sadness did not linger for long. I became the happiest I can be!

“Talk your words in this,” she told me. That’s when Abbey gave me Mistress’s never-been-used writing diary. Mistress had thrown it out. She cannot see so well to write anymore. I am writing in it now. Abbey gave me two lead pencils, too.

“Write your words in it. But do not ever let Sir see you do it,” she warned me. I know what she means. It is unlawful for Slaves to read and write. Mistress does not but Sir enforces the Slave Laws to the letter. Sometimes I am so full of fear for writing in my little book. But I must write. It helps me to think and remember.

Sunday, February 12, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

All day long I worked beside Abbey cleaning out the kitchen garden. Soon the ground will be warm enough to turn over. When we stopped I asked Abbey, “Tell me your favorite story.” But Abbey said, “I cannot tell the stories the way your mother, Jane Mae, did. I never did learn them good enough to tell. I just know them good enough to know.” When my mother, Jane Mae, was here, there was always a story to listen to. Back then, Abbey said, “Jane Mae told the stories right, from the old way.” Then Abbey did not speak for a long time. Finally she said to me, “Eliza, you should tell the stories now . . . you your mother’s daughter. Look at the picture pattern on your quilt, and remember how each one goes.” And Abbey said something that made a smile come up. “You already got them inside you.” She poked my chest and tapped my head the same way my mother, Jane Mae, did. “Remembering in your head and feeling in your heart tells you you always is loved, Eliza.”

Wednesday, February 15, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

This day brought too many chores. I did all my usual ones. The work was hard but I have strong hands. Every day I carry the firewood to the kitchen. I fetch hot water to fill two tubs for Sir and Mistress to bathe in; I fill a third for them to rinse off in. I do not spill a drop. I broom-sweep the floors. I peel potatoes and empty the rinds. I scour the pots. Then today Mistress said, “Now, Eliza, you must wait on me since Caroline and Abbey cannot.” Sir said Abbey and Caroline must help prepare the seed beds for the tobacco. Poor Abbey, she cannot stomach the bad smell from the tobacco, whether it is seedlings or the full-grown plants.

I had to serve Mistress’s morning, afternoon, and evening meals in her room. Mistress is not the same, either, since we lost my mother. She was not always so friendly, and now she is much more sickly and more frail. Mistress is beginning to look like one of those long-necked white egret birds with yellow eyes that live at the river. Abbey says Mistress has always been sickly, and sickest in the winter months. Now that things will be warming soon, Abbey says her strength will come all the way back. I hope so; this sickness in her body is causing Mistress’s eyes to go blind. Abbey says she reckons there is a whole lot in the world Mistress just don’t want to see. I try to understand Abbey, but sometimes what she says is puzzlement to me. Still, Abbey said she would teach me to gather the herb from the forest and prepare the all-heal remedy. But I already know this. I want to tell Abbey I know where to find the best all-heal. Mama always said it is best for Mistress’s ailments where it is wild in the deep woods. All my life my mother would take me to the woods with her to gather it. She taught me about plants and these things and what to do if I am ever lost in the woods. I will wait until Abbey’s mind is eased from working with tobacco to remind her of this.

Monday, February 20, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

This morning Sir said Abbey must do more tobacco. This makes her very vexed on Sir. She never wants to be around tobacco. When Abbey is most vexed on Sir, she speaks her mind to me. Today she said there is something I must know and always remember. I write it here so I will never forget. “The Slave has to be two of they selves. One self belongs to Mistress and Sir. The other one belongs to you, Eliza.” Then she tapped my chest. “Keep that one hid. Do not ever let Sir see that one. Do not ever let Sir know that Eliza is even alive.” Abbey told me this so I can stay safe. Some of us are beaten, sold, or more—much worse, than those who do not do this. And now, for the first time, my eyes are all the way open. I can see for myself what this is meaning.

This day Caroline’s oldest boy, Abel, was sold away. I have heard Sir say all the time to Mistress, “That boy do not know his place.” Early this morning Caroline came to Sir crying. She begged Sir, “Oh, Master, please do not take my boy from me!” When Sir turned a deaf ear to her, she ran after the wagon. But before she could catch it, Mr. Forrnistock, the overseer, caught up to her on his horse. He landed three heavy blows across her shoulders with his piece of rawhide strap. She dropped to her knees crying. Then they dragged her off to her cabin. No telling how long she will be down from the Shock sick.

This filled me up with such fear. What will Sir think of me one day? I said this to Abbey. But Abbey said the mistress would protect me. My head wonders why Mistress would save me and not my beloved mother, Jane Mae? I know Abbey did all she could.

Tuesday, February 21, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today my head is full of remembering. Caroline’s Shock sickness made me remember my own. But Abbey says the past must stay the past. I try but the remembering keeps coming to the front of my mind. I think of that day Sir sold my mother away from here. Abbey said that was a mean trick Sir played on me.

Early that morning Sir had called for me. “Eliza, you go on to town with Ezekiel.” Me? I thought. Sir had never sent me to town with Ezekiel to get supplies before, even though I always wanted to go. Ezekiel always goes to town for Sir. He cares for the horses and carriages, too. At first I thought maybe Sir was turning nice, but there was no smile in his voice and his hard face looked about the same.

The sun was high and pretty in that bright blue sky. The way we go to town, we must pass the whitewash building. “That is the Slave pen,” Ezekiel said of the place where slaves come to wait to be sold. Ezekiel knows all about it. He talked and talked of it but I hummed so I did not have to hear.

When we came back from town, I carried a peppermint sweet in the hem of my skirt so it would not melt all the way from Mr. Riley’s store. Mrs. Riley had gave two to me. I ate one; the other peppermint was to be a present to my mother. Sir disallows us to have pockets.

I ran from the wagon to the kitchen before Ezekiel had time to unload. I wanted to see my mother’s face full of love. But I did not see her face at all. She was not in the kitchen yard. She was not in the kitchen. She was not tending Mistress. She was not where she was supposed to be with Abbey. It was just a mournful Abbey in the kitchen, stirring tears into Sir’s stew. My mother was nowhere that I could find her. Then Abbey told me what had happened. “Jane Mae is gone. Sir sold her off.” I know Sir probably sent her to the whitewash pen that Ezekiel showed me. I started to run there, but Ezekiel caught me. That’s all I remember, before I fell down sick.

That day, Abbey said Sir is not for truth. He speaks lies. He separates us and sells us away when he says he will not. Abbey said Sir is the worst of a master. Abbey tried to soothe me with her words. But it is not words that I wanted. It was my mother. For how long I was down, I do not know. But when I awoke, Abbey and Mistress were at my side. Mistress said Abbey doctored me back to myself. When I think on this, it makes my sadness deep as the river. I do not want to be by myself all alone in the world without my mother, Jane Mae. Abbey said nobody slept well in the house for two days. Sir said Abbey put too much salt in his stew. He had a stomachache for a week. Mistress cried steadily. She loved my mother best. That was nearly about one year ago now.

The day I woke up, Abbey was still crying. I remembered my mother’s voice, it saying, “Be careful, my daughter, Eliza. But do not fear. You will never be lost from me.” And then I remembered what Ezekiel said: “Be like me, Eliza, and forget you even had a mama.” But I knew I could not do that. I will not do that. And now that I have my little writing book, I can remember everything about Mama. And like Abbey says, I can remember her stories because they are inside me now. I will write them in my little book to remember them always. This is my favorite one:

Each day as the sun rose, a man set out to hunt. And every evening as the sun went down, he returned to his home and family with the prize of his hunt.

One day the man did not return. Another day came and another night went, but the man did not return. A week went by, then a month. About the seventh month, the seventh son was born to the man and his wife. His name was Asa. The boy grew in a fine way. There came a time when Asa began to talk. The first thing he said was “Where is my papa?”

“Yes,” said the eldest son. “Where is our papa?”

“He should have come back a long time ago,” said the second son.

“Something must have happened,” said the third.

“I saw him go toward the village,” said the fourth son.

“I saw him go across the river,” said the fifth.

“We should follow his footsteps to see if they will lead us to him,” said the sixth son.

They walked deep into the forest. Finally they came to a clearing. There on the ground were the man’s bones and rusted spear. Now they knew what had happened to him.

The first son stepped forward and said, “I know how to put bones together.” He put them together, each in the right place.

The second son said, “I know how to cover the bones with flesh.” He covered the bones just as they should be.

The third son said, “I have the power to make blood flow through his veins.”

The fourth son said, “I can put back breath into his body.”

The fifth son said, “I can give the power to move.” Sure enough the man opened his eyes. He stretched. He sat upright.

“I can give the power of speech,” said the sixth son, and he did. The man had to do the rest on his own.

When it was all right, Asa hugged his papa for the first time.

“It is time to go home,” the man said to his sons.

The man’s wife was most overjoyed to see her husband again. “Something must be done to show how grateful we are to have you back in the land of the living,” she said.

In thanks the man killed one of his best cows. There was a great feast for all in the village. Then he took the tail of the cow and braided it. He decorated it with beads and cowry shells. It was a fine and beautiful cow-tail switch. Everyone admired it. The man said, “I will give it away to the one who did the most for me to bring me back to the land of the living.”

The first son said, “I am oldest; give it to me.”

The second son said, “I deserve it more.”

The third son said, “I should not be left out.”

The fourth son said, “Surely I deserve it.”

The fifth son stood. “My gift was best.”

The sixth son said, “I should have the cow-tail switch.”

The man thought, but he did not think for long. “I have decided,” he said. “I will give it to Asa because he did the most. He was the one who asked: ‘Where is my papa?’ You see, a person is dead only when he is truly forgotten.”

I know I could never do what Ezekiel said. I will always remember I have a mother and her name is Jane Mae.

Sunday, February 26, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today Sir was on the warpath. He made me so full of fear. When it was time to sleep Abbey asked me how come I do not write in my little book? I told her I have nothing to say to it. Abbey knows me better than that. She said, “You remember Sir is early to bed and late to rise, Eliza. These are two good times that Sir would not even pay attention to you.” Now I see I have so much to say. And the fear of Sir does not keep me from remembering in my little book, and I feel so much freer to write.

Wednesday, March 1, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

I am Eliza. It is shortened for Elizabeth. Come April and this spring, I am to be twelve years old. Abbey will drop another pebble in a jar for every year of my life. Then all the year long she will have me count them again and again. I know that twelve comes after eleven the same way I know I am always hungry. Abbey saves what she can for me. But today Abbey said in time the hunger I feel should be for more than food. “It should be for your freedom.” “Freedom” is a big-sounding word but I did not say this to Abbey. Then Abbey spooned a crumb of bread pudding into my mouth before she popped the pan onto the floor of the oven. I love the word that says “Abbey’s bread pudding.” I could eat that all day. I spelled it in flour on the baking table:


Abbey clicked her tongue. “Yes,” she said, brushing the words away. “Soon and very soon you be grown too big for this kitchen. Take a paper and write down this recipe. Your mama loved this on a cool night, and you should make it for your little ones one day.”

Abbey’s Bread Pudding

Cut or break one loaf of stale bread into fine pieces and sprinkle with a little salt. Take a pint of cream and a quarter of a pound of butter, set it on the fire, and keep it stirring; when the butter is melted, put in the bread pieces. Cover until cool and well soaked; mash it well. Beat six eggs very light, powdered nutmeg and cinnamon, and a half cupful of sugar. Mix it all together, butter a dish, put it in, and bake it in a quick oven, one hour and a half.

It made me happy to have a favorite of Mama’s so close by in my diary.

Sunday, April 2, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

It is all the way April now. I am living twelve years. This is one whole year without my mother.

Today I have only my mother’s memory and the stories she would tell. This makes me feel as if a deep well inside me cannot be filled. I said to my mind that something inside me is lost. Then, somewhere else in me, I heard the little song Mama always hummed to me. I cannot sing out loud how it goes.

Thursday, April 6, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

The only keepsake of my mother is this quilt that covers me. She stitched it with her very hands. When I was small she would wrap me up tight inside it. Then she would tell me such wondrous stories. She would laugh and say to me, Eliza, did I ever tell you about the time . . . ?

All my years she said to me, “Eliza, this is your story quilt. I made it special for you so you can remember the stories, too!” Everyone always wanted to hear Mama tell stories. I even remember Mistress asked for special ones sometimes. She even said to my mother, “Jane Mae, you are a natural storyteller.”

My quilt has twelve panels. Each panel is stitched to show a picture pattern of a story she would tell to me. She did this so I could remember the stories. If I close my eyes I can describe the pictures without even looking. Nobody knows I remember all of Jane Mae’s stories, but especially the ones on my story quilt.

The first picture pattern is stitched with the cow-tail switch decorated with buttons and beads and shiny thread. In the second panel is stitched many shades of blue for the water and the sky; the white is for the wind. My favorite spider story is in the third panel. Then, in the fourth panel, two people and every kind of bird have taken to the air and are flying.

The second row starts with panel number five. A proud rooster with his big red comb and colorful feathers sits high up in a tree. He is looking down at sly-looking, hungry-looking, bushy-tailed Mr. Reynard Fox. Night as deep and dark as velvet in the sixth panel is filled with the sun, moon, and many shining stars, including the North Star. Here Mama stitched into the quilt a gadget called a compass. It always points to the north.

Long-eared Brother Rabbit running fast away from bushy-tailed Brother Wolf is in panel number seven. The wisest man in the whole Bible, Moses, is parting open the sea in the eighth panel. Then, in panel number nine, all you can see of the shepherd boy David is his slingshot. And all you can see of Goliath are his legs because he is so big and tall—he is a giant. Panel number ten has a little man sitting up in a tree with Mr. Owl. Panels eleven and twelve are not filled yet. Mama said they are for my stories, for me to sew one day. But I do not know how yet. Mama said, “Eliza, you got time yet. Just remember, a good story is how it comes out at the end.

“Maybe,” she said, “your stories will come out in freedom. Just because you are born in Slavery does not mean you have to stay there.” I remember that Mama said that to me over and often, just the way Abbey now says it.

Friday, April 7, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Tomorrow, Abbey said, we shall plant the kitchen garden.

Saturday, April 8, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today was setting-out day. This is Sir’s happiest time. Tobacco plants must be placed in the ground while the weather is cool and wet. This is very rainy season, so there will be no chance the plants will dry out. Sir said Abbey must work with the tobacco today, not plant the kitchen garden.

Late in the night I awoke from a dream hearing the sound of my mother’s voice. The tobacco planting took all day and into the night. Abbey was not here in the room where she should have been sleeping. She was very tired, but the morning meal had to be ready to serve when Mistress rose. I went to help her side by side like Mama would have. “Tell me my favorite one,” Abbey said. And I write her story this way, exactly as Mama told it:

Mothers love their children. Back at the beginning of the world Mother Water and Mother Wind used to be friends. One day they got to talking about their children. “I got all kinds of children,” Mother Water said. “I got the biggest and the littlest children. I got children of every color. I got children of every kind and shape in the whole world. I love all my children.”

Then Mother Wind took a turn. “I love my children, too. I got more children than anybody in the whole wide world. They can move every which way. They fly. They walk. They run. They swim. They sing. They talk. They whistle and they cry. Lord oh Lord, my children sure are a pleasure to me. Nobody in the whole wide world has babies like mine.” Sooner than soon Mother Water got tired of hearing about Mother Wind’s children.

One day the whole passel of Mother Wind’s young’uns come up to her. “Mother, we thirsty as we can be. We run and we walk. We fly and we swim. We talk and we sing. We whistle and cry and laugh this whole world through and through.”

“Run over to Mother Water to ask for a long cool drink.” But Mother Water was churned and stirred up. She grabbed on to every one of them children of wind and would not let go even when Mother Wind called them to come home. Woooooo wooooo wooooooooo. Mother Wind passed over the ocean, calling her children. But every time she called, there was only a rustle of an answer—a white feathery cap came up to the top of the water. Time and time again no wind children, only white feathery caps. When Mother Water did not show up to talk anymore, Mother Wind knew what had happened. Mother Wind never saw her children again. Mama says that is why the wind sounds so lonesome sometimes. But she still calls for them. She is still looking for her children to come on home. Mothers love their children.

Yesterday Abbey told me, “You surely are Jane Mae’s daughter. You got the stories in you, all right.” I hope she is right.

Sunday, April 9, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

This morning Abbey told me I must wait on Mistress the whole day. I do not mind to do this one bit because Sir is called away today. Everything is grim when he is near.

Monday, April 10, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

I am very busy with Mistress now. I help with everything. This is what I must do: First I help Mistress rise. Then, I wash her, get her dressed, comb her hair, and make sure she eats breakfast, supper, and dinner. Today Mistress said she feels strong, but to me she does not look it. Some days she is hardly able to feed herself. I help guide her spoon into her mouth so the food does not go on her dress or the floor.

Abbey says to mind when I am around Sir and Mistress. I do. Sir is back today. Today Mistress talked to Sir like I was not there. She said she is not sad the Good Lord did not bless them with children to depend on. Then Sir said that is what the Slave is for. I declare, when Sir said this, everything inside me went cold like leftover porridge. I declare I find what Mistress says most curious. I remember her telling Mama so many times how she wished she had had at least one child to depend on and to love.

I think inside myself how I wish I could be for only myself and not for Sir at all and only sometimes for Mistress when she is not having one of her angry, hateful spells. Abbey said Mistress was kind before she got so sick.

Thursday, April 13, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Now my mistress needs me so. When my mother was here, she served only Mistress. Then Caroline. Now it is my job. But Mistress was not ailing the way she ails now. Abbey said to mind and watch how she prepares the all-heal medicine she gives to her. One day it will be my turn to make it for her. This night while Mistress was deep in sleep, I rose, for there was too much light coming from that full moon. I look out the window and what do I see? The North Star is twinkling just as bright.

Saturday, April 15, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Normal times I sleep on my pallet, a mattress filled with straw and corn husks in the loft of the storeroom near Abbey or close by the fire in the kitchen. I am first to rise to start the fire so it is hot for her. I sweep the ash to the side to get ready to bake the morning bread. I fetch water and firewood for cooking. I scrub pots. I peel potatoes and tend the kitchen garden—whatever Abbey needs. Times are not normal now.

I sleep on a bed that rolls out from underneath my mistress’s bed. That way I am close when she calls for me, which is oftener and oftener by the day and the night. This means I cannot write much. This bed is soft but there is no comfort here. I long to be in the kitchen next to Abbey.

Tuesday, April 18, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today, most of this day Mistress wanted to hear me read to her from the Good Book.

I love to read the Good Book. I read: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. When I told Abbey what I read today and how much I love these words, she said the next best green pastures there ever were is in freedom.

Wednesday, April 19, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

How lucky I am to be able to read! Sometimes I read out loud all the morning long to Mistress. At first this gives me a scare to be so bold to read in front of Sir, too. I asked Abbey what I’m afraid to say to Mistress: Why won’t she read for herself? She loves to read. She is a good reader. She taught me how to read. She gave me her old childhood hornbook to practice my letters and verse. Every day she did this when Mama was here and times were so much better than this. Now Abbey says Mistress is nearly all the way blind.

Sunday, April 30, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Now I also read from the newspaper. And there is so much news.

This is a Bad News, Bad Luck Day. Today I read to Mistress from the newspaper about what happened yesterday, when the ground moved and my heart trembled so. Yesterday there was an earthquake. I thought the whole world was coming to an end. Mistress screamed and cried when her looking glass mirror fell to the floor and cracked all to pieces. I fear this may add to her bad luck. Part of the chimney fell to the ground and now must be repaired. Sir cussed something awful. Abbey said that it means something when the earth shakes and quakes. It means change is coming. Where the earth quakes, the ground where you walked will never walk the same. “You must keep yourself under close watch and mind what you say and do,” she said. I declare sometimes what Abbey says frightens me so.

Then this same day there is worse bad news for Abbey and me. I read in the newspaper today: “A Negro Arrested and Shot, whether by accident or design we cannot say. A Negro named Smith was shot while in custody. A number of blacks were present when it happened.” I was so afraid for myself but I did not let it show.

Sunday, May 14, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Good news today for me, because Slaves have escaped their bonds. This is not good news for Sir. This is what the paper said: “More Fugitive Slaves. Warrants have been issued today for the arrest of several fugitive slaves in Rochester, New York. Three slaves have known to have been in the city yesterday, but they are believed to have taken a sudden departure by the underground railroad, and there is little prospect of any arrest.”

Do they mean departure by an underground railroad train? Is there a way they escaped on a train that runs under the ground? I want to know how to find that train station. I want to know how to get three tickets: one for Abbey, one for Mama, one for me. Abbey hushed me. Do not talk about such things out loud, she said. Tonight, I tell these things to the moon, which is glowing so bright, and my star.

I declare, I love to read to my mistress but sometimes it gives me too much fear of what I know.

Saturday, May 20, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Mistress is getting stronger now. Abbey said I must make the all-heal remedy. It will work, but slowly. Mistress is still very low and sickly.

This morning when Mistress woke she did not want to rise. She felt strong but she only wanted to hear me read. “Read the Good Book to me, Eliza. Read me the Genesis story,” she said. I started the reading looking at the book. I read: “In the beginning.” I read the rest from my heart without looking at the words. Abbey said this is my gift.

Tuesday, May 23, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today I snuck to find Abbey while Mistress slept. I told her about my day. Then I rushed right back to Mistress’s bedside before she woke.

Later while I was reading the newspaper to my mistress, I thought how lucky I am to know how to read. And I think of this even while I have to read all the horrible stories from the newspaper. Sir said Mistress must know these things that happen in the world. He said, “The master must be vigilant over his Slaves.”

One thing unsettles me so. It says in three months’ time there is to be another Slave sale auction. That means August. Maybe in August Sir will send me to the whitewash pen and sell me away. I pray not, only if he will tell me whre he has sent my mother.

I wonder to Abbey if Sir could buy my mother back like he say he will. Abbey said Sir cannot bring her back till he pays off his debt. By the time he can pay it off, no telling where my mother will be. First she was sold to a farm in Natchez, Mississippi. Now word has come that she was sold to a farm somewhere in Kentucky. I asked Abbey if she thinks I will ever see my mother again but she has no answer for me.

Wednesday, May 24, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Sir was angry as can be today. He cusses too much for Mistress’s taste. Today he cussed because of the poster paper of a wanted fugitive runaway. There is a reward for the capture of the woman. No Slave catcher knows how to capture her. Sir said to Mistress he wants to catch her with his bare hands. I prayed so hard in my heart he does not ever catch her or any other runaway. I prayed she can take the underground railroad train or follow the North Star. Mama said to always keep it over your left shoulder and the river on your right side.

Thursday, May 25, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today I read this in the paper: “Governor Hunt on the fugitive pardon. Governor Hunt has deemed it proper to notice in a letter to Senator E. D. Morgan that the case of SNOWDEN, a colored convict and a fugitive slave, recently was pardoned out of the Sing Sing prison.

I am glad of this news. I wonder if they sent him on the underground train to his freedom?

Sunday, May 28, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today Sir was so vexed. It does not matter that it is the Sabbath. All morning he cussed and yelled at us and then at Mistress. But I thought he yelled the worst to Mistress. So many times today I heard Mistress say to Sir how she mightily needs me. Then Sir said something to her in a bad, bad voice—more bad than he say to us. I did not make out the words. But I know it is because I read out in the open to my mistress and write for her and I am a Slave. Sir said he must enforce the Slave Laws to the letter. But on this matter Mistress does not. Abbey said Sir was not so harsh toward Mistress before she turned sick. To hear Mistress crying so makes me feel a deep well of sadness for her and fear for Abbey and me.

Wednesday, May 31, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Late in the day, a man came to see Sir. When I passed through the parlor I heard him say something to Sir about the price I would fetch. I pretended I did not hear the talk. But I am in so much fear. Soon as I could, I ran to Abbey’s apron. “Something must happen to save me,” I cried to her. But we do not know what it can be.

Thursday, June 1, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

This morning Dr. Hardy came to give Mistress a bleeding cure. He says getting rid of the bad blood is a good way to heal my mistress. He uses his little old leeches that he said he loves, which come all the way from France! I must do what he says, but it is the worst thing. I have to hand him the precious leeches when he calls for them. I do, but I put my mind someplace else because I do not like these things. He put seven of them on Mistress’s back. After he finished, he turned to me. “Now, Eliza, you must feed your mistress good meals and make sure she rests.” When she is up to it, he said a change of scene would do her a world of good.

Mistress slept for a long time. She woke me up in the middle of the night. “Eliza, you must write a letter.” This one goes to Mary’s Land. Mistress has a sister, Susan, there. Mistress asked one thing: “May I visit very soon?” Then I wrote what Doc Hardy said: a change of scene will do some good.

I could hardly hold the pen to write the letter for fear. If Mistress goes away from me, I think come August, Sir will say my time has come to be sold away from here, too, as he did my poor mother. The Slave sale auction is in two calendar pages away. That is in two months.

Saturday, June 3, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Abbey says the sickness takes all of poor Mistress’s strength. I try my hardest to please her so she will remember to protect me. But today she was in her hateful mood. “Eliza, I taught you to talk and to read and write the right way. It is a gift to know these things.” She looked toward me but she did not see me. “But it is my gift for me because I own you, Eliza. You belong to me!”

“Yes’m,” I said. But I believe what Abbey tells me. It is my true gift.

Friday, June 9, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Today my spirit rose a bit. It is because of Abbey. I visited her in the kitchen while Mistress slept. Abbey said, “I love to hear you talk.” She said all my reading and writing and speaking practice improves me. She said I speak so much like our mistress. “Your mother would be proud to know you are growing into a fine-sounding lady.” When Abbey says these things, I can see my own mother’s face smiling at me.

Monday, June 12, 1854
Alexandria, Virginia

Mistress rose today feeling very hearty. She feels strong enough to take an overnight riding visit to Simmons Farm with Sir. She will not come back until Sunday. Now I am free to be with Abbey, to return to the kitchen chores and to my corn-husk pallet. I do not have to serve my mistress. I should be happy but I am not; things are not the same. And I think Abbey is right—since the earthquake, the ground does not walk right. I do my best to be of help to Abbey but I dropped the soup pot and spilled all the soup. “Never you mind,” Abbey said. “It is not right having a fine-sounding lady doing kitchen chores.” My mind wonders, What am I to do? Too many worries fill my head.

© 2011 Jerdine Nolen

About The Author

Photo by Nancy Kavanagh O'Neill

Jerdine Nolen is the beloved author of many award-winning books, including Big JabeThunder Rose, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book; and Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life, a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, all illustrated by Kadir Nelson. She is also the author of Eliza’s Freedom Road, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, which was an ALA/YALSA Best Fiction Nominee for Young Adults; Raising Dragons, illustrated by Elise Primavera, which received the Christopher Award; and Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, illustrated by Mark Buehner, which was made into a movie by the same name. Her other books include Calico Girl, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and Irene’s Wish, illustrated by A.G. Ford, which Kirkus Reviews called “delightful and memorable” in a starred review. Ms. Nolen is an educator and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.

About The Illustrator

Shadra Strickland studied, design, writing, and illustration at Syracuse University and later went on to complete her MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She won the Ezra Jack Keats Award and the Coretta Scott King - John Steptoe Award for New Talent in 2009 for her work in her first picture book, Bird, written by Zetta Elliott. Strickland coillustrated Our Children Can Soar, winner of a 2010 NAACP Image Award. She teaches illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. Visit her online at

Product Details

Raves and Reviews

"A story of hope, determination, and the triumph of the human spirit."—Alma Powell, wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell

"Like the young slave girl who watches a cook ‘stirring tears into…stew,” Nolen stirs Eliza’s sad and frightening diary into a rich, empowering story. There’s enough history here to make this required reading, but the urgency of Eliza’s voice makes this trip back in time a compelling page turner brimming with authentic details. Jerdine Nolen truly brings Eliza to life and puts you right on the road north with her...the road to freedom."—Pat Cummings

"The best stories take us on a journey, make us happy to have gone along for the ride, and leave us a bit saddened to have reached the end. This is such a story."—Nikki Grimes

“This is not a book for yesterday but rather for tomorrow. I’m so glad Jerdine Nolen had the imagination and courage to write this. Read it now to your children so that they will read it to your grandchildren so that it will be read on and on. History and imagination is how we survive.”—Nikki Giovanni, poet

Eleven-year-old Eliza keeps a journal of her life as a slave on a farm in Alexandria, Va., in 1845. Ever since Eliza’s mother was sold at a slave auction, Eliza has gotten by with the support of another slave woman, Abbey, and by holding close to her heart the stories and the story quilt her mother passed down to her. When Eliza discovers that she, too, will be sold upon her sick mistress’ death, she decides to risk everything on a journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad with Harriet Tubman. As she makes her harrowing journey, Eliza tells her mother’s stories, each one keyed to a square in the quilt and just right for the situation at hand. In this well-crafted tale, Nolen reveals some of the traumas and tragedies of slavery but keeps her focus on those things that allow Eliza the power to escape: literacy, her mother’s legacy, a bit of luck and a great deal of courage. - KIRKUS, December 15, 2010

NOLEN, Jerdine. Eliza’s Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Diary. 160p. map. bibliog. Web sites. S & S/Paula Wiseman Bks. 2011. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-5814-7; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-1723-6. LC number unavailable.
Gr 4-7–As she turns 12, Eliza is a Virginia house slave, increasingly responsible for the care of the ailing mistress who taught her to read and write. Since Sir sold her mother a year earlier, Eliza has only motherly cook Abbey, the discarded diary Abbey encourages her to write in, and a story quilt her mother made. When the mistress takes Eliza along to stay with family in Maryland, Eliza learns of the Underground Railroad from fellow slaves and a found stack of newspapers containing the serialized Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With the help of a shadowy Harriet Tubman herself, Eliza escapes to freedom in Ontario, where by chance she reunites with her mother. Presented as the girl’s diary published later by the adult Elizabeth, the narrative suffers from thin characterizations and awkward pacing resulting from sometimes forced pauses to record her mother’s stories. –Riva Pollard, Prospect Sierra Middle School, El Cerrito, CA

- SLJ February 2011

Awards and Honors

  • Volunteer State Book Award Nominee (TN)
  • ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults - Nominee

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