Freedom Train takes place in the late 1850s, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, when tensions were building between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions.
The setting is Maryland’s Eastern Shore (birthplace of both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman), a border region between North and South where countless slaves made a break for freedom. Even today the land is splintered by rivers, streams, woods and wetlands; in the mid-1800s this landscape offered refuge to desperate freedom seekers.
Nearly half the black population in Maryland enjoyed the status of “free” Negro, though their freedom was somewhat tenuous and certainly less assured than that of whites. In northern Delaware, along a popular route to freedom, the percentage of free blacks was even higher.
It was this network of free African Americans, plus congregations of Quakers and other compassionate whites, who helped the fugitives find their way north to freedom.
At the same time, the proliferation of cotton plantations in the Deep South created an insatiable demand for slaves. The high prices offered for healthy young men attracted slave catchers, who knew they could kidnap “free” blacks with impunity and sell them south as slaves.
In the three decades before the Civil War, Maryland slaveholders sold an estimated 20,000 slaves south. Slave families were shattered by the slave trade.
In Freedom Train, the main plot centers around the Turners, a white family that includes twelve-year-old Tim, his mother, father, and younger sister Elizabeth. Their farm lies on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, between the Choptank River and the Delaware state line. The main characters are fictitious, but the incidents described in the story are based on historical events.
Tim’s mother is drawn to the Underground Railroad, but she realizes she must first gain her husband’s consent before she participates in it. Though the father does not personally own slaves, he remains reluctant to flout the law that forbids assistance to fugitive slaves.
Little by little, with the help of a free black man, Tim becomes aware of the precarious position of both free and enslaved blacks, as well as the risks taken by anti-slavery activists. As tensions escalate, neutrality is no longer an option; Tim and his family are forced to take a stand.