Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer

Young Adult - Mystery
352 Pages
Reviewed on 10/21/2022
Buy on Amazon

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Author Biography

I began writing young middle-grade/young adult fiction because I had a story to tell. The Last Crystal Trilogy was the result and I am honored to have won an Agatha Award for the third book in the trilogy. When I piloted the first book in the trilogy with kids, they were excited by the historical fantasy. But to my delight, they asked that I make the next project a history that takes someone all the way to California on the Santa Fe Trail. Sid Johnson was the result. In The Phantom Slave Stealer, we look at his backstory and why the family left for California. It was nominated for an Agatha, one of 5 finalists. My forthcoming book carries him all the way to Santa Fe.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Alex Ndirangu for Readers' Favorite

It is 1855 in Illinois, and tensions between slave abolitionists and those who were pro-slavery are at an all-time high. Even though this is a free state, bounty hunters get paid to retrieve people who have escaped. Sid Johnson, a young boy, is awakened by the sound of a gunshot near his family's farm. He makes his way downstairs, where he overhears his mother and father discussing Lula, a woman injured by a bounty hunter's bullet. Could this be related to the gunshot that had startled him moments ago? Later, Sid finds out that his parents are concealing people running from bounty hunters during the day and helping them escape the chains and torment they would otherwise endure. Young Sid is aware that this is against the law and will result in his parents' arrest, leading him to question whether they are doing the right thing. Shortly after, Sid encounters Lula's son Elijah. No sooner has he discovered Elijah hiding by the haystack when two bounty hunters arrive with warrants to arrest Elijah and Lula and conduct a thorough search! Given his young age, will Sid choose what is legally correct or what is morally justifiable? Pick up a copy of Frances Schoonmaker's Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer to find out.

What makes this historical tale a success are Frances Schoonmaker's solid characterizations and her superb plot. Her descriptive writing style made her characters and settings seem plausible, demonstrating impressive imagination and writing abilities. From Sid's mother removing the singing kettle from the fire and filling two big, gray-speckled enamel pans with hot water, to Serena the family cat sprawled in the hayloft, I conjured up a beautiful world that I did not want to leave. The tale developed into a lengthy work of well-constructed suspense. I enjoyed the fact that the plot is character-driven. There were no passive characters in the plot, not even Serena the cat, and all the characters contributed significantly to the plot's advancement. This element ensured that the story never dragged. Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer will go down as the best historical novel I have ever read.

Pikasho Deka

Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer is a young adult historical fiction novel by award-winning author Frances Schoonmaker. Set in 1855, the book follows a young boy named Sid Johnson who lives on a farm in Alton, Illinois, with his parents and two siblings. Sid's life turns upside down when he learns that his parents supported the Underground Railroad and harbored escaped slaves hunted by dangerous bounty hunters. When their barn is burned down, presumably by bounty hunters, Sid's parents decide to move to California. Soon, Sid finds himself traveling on the Santa Fe Trail on a wagon train, having unexpected adventures along the way. But soon, Sid will have to face real danger as the cruel bounty hunters he and his family encountered in Alton make their presence felt on the trail.

An adventure novel that focuses on the plight of runaway slaves in pre-Civil War America, Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer is a book that should be a must-read for the young adults of today. The character of Sid Johnson reminds you of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, as both boys provide a window into events of great consequences through the lens of an adolescent mind for the reader. Frances Schoonmaker crafts some genuine characters that feel like people from the mid-19th century and gives them realistic motivations for their actions, which makes them compelling to read. I enjoyed the book very much, and Sid and his family's life on the wagon trail were probably my favorite parts of it. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Ibiam

Sid lived in Illinois with his family in relative comfort when the slave trade thrived. He could not relate to the situation because only African Americans were victims. Then weird things started happening in and around his home at night. Gunshots, dogs barking, strange noises, painful moans, blood, and surreptitious discussions between his parents. Were his parents part of the famous underground trail? Did they harbor runaway slaves? He vowed to find out because no one gave him satisfactory answers. Unfortunately, tragedy struck, and the Johnson family accepted their uncle’s offer of relocating to California. But it seems the Johnsons will never outrun the slave hunters, and Sid has a battle ahead. Follow the journey of Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer by Frances Schoonmaker.

What kind of sin would you gladly commit? Would you break the law in a heartbeat to help a victim to freedom? Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer by Frances Schoonmaker is a riveting historical novel that took me back to the horrors of the mid-1800s. It was educational, refreshing, entertaining, and a story for everyone who appreciates history. This novel preaches kindness, community spirit, integrity, and grit. I loved the Johnson and Willis families, even though they overindulged Cora. However, Sadie, Ben, Grace, and Sid were kind-hearted, resilient, resourceful, and thoughtful heroes. The Swarthmore family were complete opposites who showed that hate is not innate but learned! The brief lecture Mr. Westerly gave about oxen captivated me, and I developed a new respect for animals. Frances is a fantastic writer with a vivid imagination. I await the concluding part of this story.

Sheena Monnin

Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer by Frances Schoonmaker is an adventure story about a young boy who gets thrown deep into the abolitionist movement in the 1850s with his family. The story tells the tale of Sid, his parents, and his two siblings who live a quiet life on a farm where, unbeknownst to the children, his parents are part of the Underground Railroad and work diligently to help slaves on their way to freedom. The story takes a turn when bounty hunters are determined to stop the Underground Railroad and target the family as rumors of their involvement run rampant in the town. The family loses their barn in a fire and decides to head west to California. Along the way, Sid learns about slave stealing and tries to figure out who the slave stealer from his hometown was. In the end, the family sticks together despite the odds and outwits the bounty hunters.

Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer by Frances Schoonmaker is well-written, engaging, and highlights family values and bravery. I love the adventures that the main character, Sid, goes on and the lessons he learns as he grows up throughout the story. The author brings Sid to life for the reader by showing his emotional experience as he learns about the brutality of slavery and how he can be helpful to his family as they work to hide slaves on their journey to freedom. The plot is age appropriate and intricate and the pacing moves the story along at a pleasant rate. This story is sure to please both young readers and parents who may be reading along with their kids. This is a great book full of subtle lessons for kids.

Vincent Dublado

Frances Schoonmaker’s Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer is an incredible historical tale. It is the kind of story that young people of today should be reading to get a deeper understanding of American history - warts and all. Sid Johnson lives with his family of five on a farm in Illinois. In a time of tension and unrest before the Civil War, he would often wake up in the middle of the night after hearing strange sounds and noises. He is not convinced by the way his Ma and Pa explain these disturbances. He knows that they are hiding something from him. Sid discovers that his parents are part of the Underground Railroad helping runaway slaves. This causes him to be anxious about his parents being slave stealers. But a young runaway slave named Elijah, after a harrowing experience at the hands of his owner, gives Sid the firm resolve to help his parents in their crusade - at the potential cost of their property and even their lives.

For the most part, Frances Schoonmaker keeps things straightforward and engaging as Sid and his parents face the dangers of harboring runaway slaves and feigning innocence in the presence of ruthless bounty hunters. Yet these perils and oppression are what push Sid and his family to a stronger connection to their sense of justice. Schoonmaker powerfully anchors her scenes on historical events, with the Fugitive Slave Act as a factor that doesn’t protect people like Elijah and allows bounty hunters to come into a free state to retrieve runaway slaves. Schoonmaker profoundly rectifies this long-standing wrong with passionate characters, promoting the encouraging notion that the power of the human spirit can indeed perform wonders. If this story had been written during the period that it describes, it was certain to become the fuse that would ignite the fires of abolitionism. I highly recommend Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer to all school libraries, teachers, students, and parents. We must never forget.