It Happened on Underground Railroad reviews:

The Underground Railroad was never one nationwide organization, but rather a network of like-minded people. This well-researched account of some of these people is informative, valuable, and a pleasure to read. It Happened on the Underground Railroad should definitely be on your “must read” list.

-Ed Diaz, President of the Association for African American Historical Research and Preservation


Don't let this thin book fool you. It is packed with stories, facts, and resources about the Underground Railroad. Primarily, it is written as a series of short episodes about the different experiences of slaves as they escaped from slavery. Each story runs about five pages, which makes for fast and easy reading. Each story is also well-written with the intent to keep the reader interested by the tension of the slave escape. For example, the very first story is about a man who must steal a baby slave out of the master's room without waking the master and his wife. This is only the first of two dozen suspenseful and fascinating tales.  

Among the book's highlights is the tale of Margaret Garner, which may have inspired Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved." While trying to escape, Margaret finds herself and her family trapped by slave catchers. Rather than allow her children to die in slavery, she attempts to kill them, successfully slitting one child's throat before she and her children are captured and returned to their owners. It is not easy to forget the story of a mother who loves her children so much she would, in her own words: "much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings, than have them taken back to slavery and be murdered by piecemeal." Another story is the true-life tale behind the character of Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" who ran across the frozen Ohio River to escape to freedom. The real life Eliza's story is even more fascinating because she later helped other slaves escape.  

Wagner includes many interesting escapes in her stories. Many slaves escaped in boxes; one even mailed himself to the North, while others, male and female, donned the other sex's clothing as a disguise. Wagner notes that most research on the Underground Railroad has concentrated on the role of white abolitionists, but she gives example after example of African-Americans, most of them former slaves, who worked to free others. Arnold Gragston, for example, lived in Kentucky near the Ohio River. While remaining in slavery himself, he helped nearly three hundred slaves by rowing them over the river to freedom.

 This book, "It Happened on the Underground Railroad," focuses primarily on the stories of the escapees. The book is well-researched and includes several pages of interesting facts at the end, including that between 40,000-100,000 slaves actually escaped from slavery, and that the Underground Railroad had approximately 3,200 people involved in its efforts. Wagner details historical information about slavery in several states, and mentions that most experts on the movement deny that patterns on quilts were useful to slaves in escaping. The book concludes with a list of over one hundred books, articles, and web sites for additional research.  

Wagner has clearly done her research, and she has mastered the art of storytelling to keep the reader interested. Wagner is an elementary school teacher and reading specialist, who also teaches creative writing to children. This background clearly has made her able to write a book that all ages will enjoy. I cannot imagine anyone reading these stories and not wanting to learn more about the Underground Railroad. I highly recommend "It Happened on the Underground Railroad" to everyone with an interest in American History.

Tyler R. Tichelaar for Reader Views (3/07)