Book Review: Unbound by Ann E. Burg

Unbound is a coming of age tale written in verse from the point of view of Grace, an enslaved girl who at the start of the novel is summoned to work inside the master’s house. She is mistreated and subjected to jealousy (it is hinted that the master is her father), and when she learns that her family is going to be sold, she runs away with them in order to keep them together. Their travels take them through the Great Dismal Swamp.

The fact that it is told from the point of view of an older child makes it authentic. Grace has to balance her own raw emotions with the advice she is given from well-intentioned friends and relatives, such as keeping her thoughts to herself and her eyes down. She doesn’t understand why those who do the most work (the enslaved) are given the least amount of food to eat and have to wait until well into the day to eat. She expresses the usual child-like misunderstanding of grownups’ intentions when she doesn’t realize that the adults have found their own ways of coping with their situation, such as helping others escape to freedom.

The most emotionally raw for me was the first half of the book, in which the reader experiences Grace’s frustration and fear with the way she is mistreated and the way she is separated from her mother. The fact that she has to sneak out weekly simply to see her mother is both terrifying and infuriating. The rest of the work pales in comparison, though the journey through the Great Dismal Swamp is dangerous. The description could have made it more terrifying, but at that point Grace seemed mostly numb and exhausted from her journey.

While I won’t spoil the ending, I did enjoy the positive outlook it carried as well as the idea of the entire community of enslaved and allies being one family. When my kids are old enough to read this, I think it would be a good book to help my kids understand history and build empathy. Since it is written in verse, there is not as much detail as if it were a full novel (in prose), so there is lots of room for discussion of different characters and their motivations, even discussions of why the bad guys acted the way they did (what might they have been ignoring, what details or facts might have changed their outlook or actions). In short, a good discussion starting point.

It all goes back to my main idea about reading as a way to expand perspectives and build empathy. I have said it before, and I think I’ll always believe that if more people read more books, the world would be a kinder, more empathetic place.

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