Steal Away by Jennifer Armstrong, 1992.
Most of this story is framed as a flashback, actually two of them. In the beginning, during the late 1800s, a girl named Mary is taken by her grandmother, Susannah, to visit an old friend of hers who is dying. The friend, Bethlehem, is a black woman who is a teacher in Canada and has a student living with her, a young black girl named Free, who is about the same age as Mary. At first, Mary doesn’t completely understand who Bethlehem is and why they are there to see her, and Free is somewhat aloof and suspicious of these white people, but together, Bethlehem and Susannah explain to both the girls about their unusual friendship and a shared history that changed both of their lives forever. As they explain, Mary writes down their story.
Years ago, before the American Civil War, Susannah was a young teenage orphan. She traveled from her home in Vermont to the home of her aunt and uncle in Virginia, her new guardians. Homesick, missing not only her deceased parents but the friends she left behind, especially a boy who is her best friend (and who eventually becomes her husband, Mary’s grandfather), Susannah finds life in Virginia strange and unpleasant. Her aunt and uncle own slaves, which is something that makes Susannah uneasy. She was raised not to believe in slavery, but her aunt and uncle give her a slave of her own to take care of her, a girl about her age named Bethlehem. Susannah is extremely uncomfortable with the situation, not really being the kind of person to get others to do things for her or order anyone around, and Bethlehem isn’t happy about being saddled with this sad, somewhat weak and clueless, white girl.
Bethlehem already has serious problems. Susannah’s older, male cousin has taken a liking to Bethlehem and pursues her, trying to force his attentions on her. Bethlehem resists but knows that one day she might not be able to stop him because she’s in his family’s power. They own her and have authority over her. Susannah is unaware of this situation at first, being a rather naive girl. However, Susannah’s unhappiness at her new home increases, and more and more, she longs to return to her real home in Vermont, and her desire to escape also becomes Bethlehem’s ticket to freedom.
Both of the girls long for freedom, although each craves a different kind of freedom and has in mind a different kind of life they long to live elsewhere. Together, they team up to run away in disguise as boys, although Bethlehem does not trust Susannah at first because she resents white people and the slavery that has been forced on her for her entire life. However, with their common interest in escape, they learn to rely on each other. They come to trust and understand one another much better during the course of their journey. It is an eye-opening and life-changing experience for both of them. Then, when it comes time for them to say goodbye and go their separate ways, it is one of the hardest things that either of them have had to do.
It is a story about lives with separate directions but which crossed in unexpected ways to the benefit of both of them. Because Susannah and Bethlehem have different destinies and different things that they want in life, they cannot live their lives together and do not see each other again for many years after their adventures, but because of their shared experiences, they still share a bond that lasts across time.
After Bethlehem’s death, Mary becomes concerned about the young student of Bethlehem’s, Free, who was living with her as a part of her family, but Free doesn’t want their help. Susannah tells Mary that they have to let her live her life and establish her own independence in the way she wants, just as Susannah had to let Bethlehem go her own way years before as a strong, independent young woman who only wanted the freedom to choose her own course in life.
In the end, Mary, as an adult looking back on the one and only time she met her grandmother’s old friend, just before her death, realizes that she has also learned much from the experience, not just about her grandmother’s history, but about herself, other people, racial differences and attitudes, and some of the realities of the world, absorbing vicariously some of the lessons her grandmother learned years ago through her story and Bethlehem’s.
This isn’t really a happy story. The ending kind of leaves readers with an unsettled feeling because there are many things left unanswered and unresolved. The book does explain a little about what happens to the characters at the end, but for the most part, they all kind of go their separate ways. Although they’ve had an effect on each other, nothing is clear-cut, and they share moments together more than lives. I have to admit that I felt like some of the story dragged in places and others were downright depressing, making this a difficult book to get through. However, it is interesting for showing a part of history, a life-changing event from different points of view, and some poignant thoughts about caring but letting go.
The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.