Overground Railroad

On June 24, 1944, my grandparents boarded a northbound train in Mount Olive, North Carolina, headed for New Haven, Connecticut, where my grandfather’s sister lived. For my grandparents, leaving Mount Olive meant opportunities for jobs other than working on the farm or cleaning someone’s house. It meant leaving behind the oppressive Jim Crow laws that governed their every move. For my grandparents, like many other African Americans, moving North promised a better life.

When I read Lesa Cline-Ransome's Overground Railroad, illustrated by James E. Ransome, I feel like I am reading my grandparents' story. The book follows Ruth Ellen and her family as they travel to New York from North Carolina by train. Like my grandparents, Ruth Ellen’s family is looking for a better life than the one they have in North Carolina. They are sharecroppers who will always be in debt to their landlord.

What I find most striking about the book is the mixed-media illustrations. The endpages—split into four frames that depict the various ways Black people left the South—let the reader know right away that people are on the move. In the first frame, we see a Black couple walking; each carries two small bags. Behind them is a small house surrounded by open fields in varying shades of green. The second frame depicts the train as it travels through fields on one side and houses on the other. Patterned paper and watercolor dots are used to represent the crops that are growing. The third frame, with small buildings in the background, shows a group of Black people waiting to board a Greyhound bus. The last frame shows a car loaded with furniture and bags. A stalk of cotton is superimposed over the entire spread, signaling the importance and prominence of cotton in the South.

The title page is a double-page spread. On the left-hand page, there is a large field of cotton. In the background, we again see the train moving on its tracks. The sky is blue, pink, and purple, signifying that the day is just beginning. On the right half of the spread is a small cabin. More flowered paper patterns collaged into the illustrations can be seen here in front of the house; this shows that people not only planted for food but also for beauty. There is a tire swing hanging from a tree. I was especially drawn to this picture, because it reminded me of my grandmother’s stories. The house looks exactly as I pictured her childhood home. The train in the background reminded me of the grandmother telling me about picking cotton with her cousins and wishing for the day they could get on the shoofly (their name for the train) and leave Mount Olive.

As the story begins, we see the joy and the sorrows that come with leaving. Ruth Ellen and her family must leave early in the morning. The pink sky shows that the sun hasn’t yet risen. The family embraces each other in front of their cabin, as Grandma whispers in Ruth Ellen’s ear. Although we can’t see their faces, the way they hold each other in the pictures shows the immense love they feel for each other. In the following spread, we see Mama and Daddy up close. Both of them have their faces set in a way that show that they are determined to make their way to the North.

As Ruth Ellen and her family ride the train, we see the countryside pass by. There are fields with Black people carryings sacks for picking cotton. Once again I thought of my grandmother, who hated picking cotton because she was so slow. More Black passengers with their luggage slowly board the train. Some of the people boarding have clothing made with patterned paper, which gives their clothes a homemade feel. To pass the time, Ruth Ellen reads from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The next spread depicts Frederick Douglass himself. He writes his narrative. Readers familiar with Douglass will instantly recognize him in his suit and with his afro with the deep part. Here, Ransome depicts Douglass's writing with pieces of paper that have cursive writing collaged upon them.

Once Ruth Ellen and her family reach Maryland, the "WHITES ONLY" sign is removed, and they can move about the train. As they move into the train cars with white passengers, they are met with hostility. On one spread, we see a large white hand covering the seat, while a little boy peers from behind a newspaper (an actual front page from The Evening Star).

The final image in the story is of a smiling Ruth Ellen with New York City behind her. It is nighttime, so we can see lights from the building and stars overhead. One can only imagine what possibilities await Ruth Ellen.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Overground Railroad]

As a granddaughter of one of the many people to leave the South, I greatly appreciated seeing my grandparents' story in a picture book. James Ransome’s mixed-media illustrations clearly tell the story of one family's journey from North Carolina to New York. The images he created matched those that I carry in my head from years of hearing my grandmother speak of her experiences in the South — from the small cabin that housed many generations of my one family to the fields of cotton that were integral to the South’s economy. The images in Overground Railroad make clear the plot and themes of a story that belongs to many African Americans.

 

Nicholl Denice Montgomery

Nicholl Denice Montgomery is currently working on a PhD at Boston College in the curriculum and instruction department. Previously, she worked as an English teacher with Boston Public Schools.

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Allison Khoury

I've been meaning to post a comment thanking you for this beautiful review. The family connections you share make my understanding of the book so much richer.

Posted : Sep 28, 2020 05:23

Julie Danielson

I agree. Thanks for sharing those stories, Nicholl. ... I'm in love with all the textures in these illustrations and all the richly colored patterned papers.

Posted : Sep 28, 2020 05:23


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