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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.