Review of Overground Railroad

Overground Railroad
by Lesa Cline-Ransome; illus. by James Ransome
Primary, Intermediate    Holiday    48 pp.
1/20    978-0-8234-3873-0    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-4390-1    $11.99

“Some walked. / Some drove. / But we took the train north.” In 1939, as part of the Great Migration, young Ruth Ellen and her parents leave North Carolina, their extended family, and the oppression of the sharecropping system (explained in an author’s note) behind and board the Silver Meteor, destination New York City. “No more picking,” says Daddy. “No more working someone else’s land,” says Mama. Cline-Ransome’s lyrical verse and Ransome’s lush, full-bleed mixed-media illustrations illuminate their journey, punctuated by the conductor’s announcements of station stops. Ruth Ellen and her parents sit in the uncomfortably overcrowded “colored car” until Baltimore, at which point they can legally sit where they want (having passed the line “that divides black from white / south from north / wrong from right”); still, they aren’t made welcome by white passengers, whose eyes say “keep moving”; whose hands covering empty seats say “not here.” Ruth Ellen is reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass on the train, and Cline-Ransome generalizes the details of Douglass’s own escape to emphasize the similarities in the two situations: “jobs / education / freedom / are waiting…for us. / And like the boy in the book / we all running from / and running to / at the same time.” Ransome does an admirable job of setting mood as well as establishing time and place. Warm browns, greens, and golds predominate; a spread showing the family’s necessarily clandestine departure glows with the striking pink of a predawn sky. Paneled endpapers depicting Black people migrating North via foot, train, bus, and car are particularly effective.

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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