Review by Frank Plowright
Until this fifth volume in his series Nathan Hale has generally presented the positives of the USA, allowing for a few stupid people here and there, but with The Underground Abductor he investigates the appalling reality of 19th century slavery. The focus is Araminta, one of a large family owned by the Brodess household in Dorchester, Maryland, and hired out to others at a dollar a day from her early childhood. Hale doesn’t soft soap the grim existence of a slave, Araminta’s beatings common despite her young age, and her overseers having little concern for her health, while she lives with the constant fear of being sold like her sisters. After being wounded she suffers from narcolepsy, and experiences visions during her sleep. Araminta’s dreams are symbolic, almost every one involving flight, and just before the halfway point she decides to act on them.
If the violence doesn’t ignite your anger, than the general unfairness of slave life surely will. Administrative oversight meant Aramninta’s mother wasn’t freed aged 45 as intended, spending another 15 years a slave before this was discovered, and thereafter there being no local will to enforce the freedom she should have had. Hale brings out the dangers of fleeing slavery, with hunters, dogs and a constant fear of discovery even in ingenious hiding places among sympathetic people. It’s worth pointing out that any journey from the Southern slave owning states in the 1840s to the nearest state without slavery was one of several hundred miles on foot where everyone should be presumed hostile.
To those unfamiliar with her story, but familiar with the basics of American slave history, there’s a surprise to be had when it’s revealed how Araminta is now known. Having engineered her own freedom she determined to free her relatives, and as her contacts and routes increased she became more ambitious. However, balanced against that was the increased presence of the Paddy Rollers, licensed agents prowling the free states for suspected escaped slaves that they dragged back south. Eventually even Philadelphia wasn’t safe enough, and the slave escape route extended to Canada, but Araminta’s story extends to the American Civil War.
Hale’s art has become stronger with every passing book, the need to convey great amounts of information in as little space as possible prompting inventive solutions. His symbolic illustrations are imaginative and his diagrams precise. How good he is compressing information is seen in short interludes spotlighting John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner As ever the extras at the end of the book feature copious bibliographical references and photos where possible. You’ll want to see them.
The Underground Abductor is a peculiar title, but a phenomenal story about a remarkable person wonderfully told. It’s included with two of Hale’s earlier books as the first Hazardous Tales Box Set, and Hale’s next work spotlights Alamo All-Stars.