Ann Rinaldi,
Come Juneteenth
(Harcourt, 2007)

When Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation frees southern slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, landowners in far-off Texas decide to keep the news to themselves. Who can blame them, when the announcement could result in all of their workers abandoning the crops and kitchens? What would it be like to live in Texas in the 1860s, to experience those days in person? Veteran historical fiction author Ann Rinaldi helps us understand those turbulent times by weaving a story set in that era.

Come Juneteenth is foremost a book about relationships, told in first person by Luanne "Luli" Holcomb, a young girl whose family goes back several generations on Dunwishin', a sugarcane and cotton plantation in East Texas. Luli cannot remember a time when the country was at peace and when her father didn't have slaves. Her brother Gabriel, 13 years older, has spent the war years fighting Indians on the plains. Of everyone in her family, Gabe is her favorite sibling, and his visits home are special ones. Luli can be a tomboy at her age, as she rides astride instead of sidesaddle and is quick to claim that she can "not only shoot a wild turkey but bring it home, strip off the feathers, take out the innards, and cook it." She's happy not being a traditional southern belle like her older sister Amelia.

Besides Gabe, Luli has a good friend in Rose "Sis Goose" Smith, a light-skinned mulatto who is owned by Luli's Aunt Sophie, but who lives with the Holcombs at Dunwishin'. The two girls are three years apart in age and feel like sisters all the same, referring to each other as such. Sis Goose is treated as one of the family and not as a slave, which surely wouldn't be the case if she lived with Aunt Sophie. Together Luli and Sis Goose share small adventures and girlish secrets. They even get to meet Major General William Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee, son of Robert E. Lee, when he is a guest at Aunt Sophie's estate. Luli will always remember him as a large, solemn man.

As time passes, it becomes obvious that Gabe and Sis Goose have also become close, but in a different way. Perhaps one day they will even marry. To their credit, the Holcomb family members seem to accept this fact graciously, in spite of the general view of society at the time.

In spite of their mutual fondness for Sis Goose, neither Gabe nor Luli find the strength to tell her she's technically a free woman. When the war is over and Yankee officials come to Texas, the cat is out of the bag. Freedom finally comes for slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865. Sis Goose feels betrayed and leaves the Holcomb family to serve the Yankees. Through an odd series of events, she is led away from the plantation, and Gabe and Luli set out to find her. In fact, much of the backstory of Come Juneteenth is revealed in Luli's reflections as she and Gabe are on the road, searching for Sis Goose.

Reaching the astonishing conclusion, and delving into times that are in some ways more complex than their own, readers will no doubt ponder over the many "what ifs" in this story. By the last page, they may be relieved to return to the 21st century, leaving the 19th far, far behind.

Rinaldi's "Author's Note" acts as an additional epilogue and provides insights into her writing process. A bibliography of historical sources is included as well. Come Juneteenth is especially recommended for young adult readers, its target audience. Adults interested in the Civil War time period or in Texas history will find it fascinating as well.

review by
Corinne H. Smith

8 December 2007

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