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Was it right?  We didn’t discuss it.  Did they suspect?  They had no outside information, not even in the slave grapevine, because Pa forbade the visiting back and forth to other plantations, even by men or women who had wives or husbands there.  And they had Sam the overseer’s cooperation.

We became a country unto ourselves.  Did it matter? we asked ourselves.  Who would be hurt with a couple more months in bondage?

I am sure God has that question written down in a dark book in gold print somewhere.

(from Come Juneteenth, page 89)

I’ve read several of Ann Rinaldi’s middle grade and young adult historical novels this year, and so far, Come Juneteenth is my favorite.  In the Author’s Note, Rinaldi says these characters haunted her and that she’s most fond of them, and her love for them shines through in this book — the only one of her novels that has made me tear up.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in 1863, but in Texas, the slaves were not told they were free until more than two years later, on June 19, 1865, which is known to this day as Juneteenth.  Come Juneteenth is Rinaldi’s attempt to determine exactly why and how the Texas plantation owners kept the slaves’ freedom a secret until the Union Army rolled in.  Was it because Texas wasn’t part of the States?  Was it because the plantation owners were afraid their slaves would walk away and leave them scrambling to find workers to take over their tasks?  Were they afraid of an uprising?

Rinaldi personalizes this historical event by focusing on the Holcomb family, mainly Luli, her older brother, Gabe, and her “almost” sister, Rose, or Sis Goose.  Sis Goose was born to a slave and a white steamship captain and given to Luli’s Aunt Sophie, a witch of a woman who’s always trying to turn Sis Goose into a servant and threatening to sell her.  As an infant, Sis Goose took to Luli’s mother, so the Holcomb family raised her as their own and never treated her as a slave.  Three years older than Luli, they grew up together as sisters, getting into trouble together, laughing, and trading secrets.  However, as teenagers, their relationship changes when Luli realizes that Gabe and Sis Goose are in love.

Honor means a lot to Gabe, and when he joins the Confederate Army and is sent to fight the Native Americans, he is haunted by the images of the women and children that died at his hands.  He means to marry Sis Goose, but she says she must be free first.  However, when a former slave arrives at the ranch and tells the Holcombs that the slaves have been freed, he is given payment for his silence and sent on his way.  Luli’s brothers insist that she must not let the news slip, not even to Sis Goose.  Gabe is torn throughout the book between his love for Sis Goose and his decision to keep her freedom a secret, his love for Luli and his need to discipline her, his duty to his country and his belief that the country should be united, and his belief that his family treated their slaves well and the realization that slavery in any form is wrong.

With her father near death and the Union Army taking over the plantation house, Luli’s life is in chaos.  When Sis Goose finds out that her family has hidden the fact that she has long been free, the consequences bring the Holcombs to their knees.  How can a family torn apart by war and lies ever be reassembled?

Come Juneteenth is a fast-paced novel that grabbed my attention right from the start.  Why are Luli and Gabe making their way across the prairie in search of a young woman they both love?  Why did they have to conceal Sis Goose’s freedom, when she loved them and wasn’t likely to leave?  The answers to these questions pulled at my heart, and Rinaldi doesn’t pave the way for a happy ending this time…but that’s what makes this book so good.  The characters are so flawed, yet so easy to love:  Gabe with his sense of honor, his tenderness and affection for Luli, his loyalty and love for Sis Goose; Luli, the sassy, trouble-making girl who can shoot a gun and ride a horse and has nothing but good intentions; and Sis Goose, whose brokenness hit me hard in the gut.  I can see why Rinaldi had a hard time leaving these characters behind.

Rinaldi never fails to inform me about historical events that I didn’t learn in school.  I knew nothing about Texas during the Civil War and had never heard about Juneteenth until reading this book.  That’s why I insist that Rinaldi’s novels are perfect for adults and younger readers alike.  Come Juneteenth has a little something for everyone:  war, romance, action, family secrets, complicated sibling relationships, tragedy, and redemption.  Highly recommended, but keep the tissues handy.

Disclosure: I borrowed Come Juneteenth from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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