Willow's mama died when she was young and her Granmam died last year, leaving Willow with just her Papa. She sits by her mother's grave located just near the Mason and Dixon line, the line between slavery in Maryland and freedom in Pennsylvania. Under the old willow tree next to her mama's grave, Willow writes letters to her mama about her life now. The letters are written in an old copybook with one of Rev Jeff's grease pencils.
Rev Jefferson Jeffries, the master of Knotwild Plantation lost his baby daughter and wife in a fire while visiting family in Pennsylvania before Willow was born. He and Willow's Papa, Ryder, have worked together on Knotwild all their lives. Willow is considered part of Rev Jeff's family; her birth is even recorded in the family's bible. Like Rev Jeff, Ryder also lost his wife, but he still has Willow, whom he loves dearly and is determined will inherit Knotwild.
Lately her father's been talking about marriage and how it's her duty, responsibility and her station to get married and have a family. Although Willow wants to be married, she desires other things in life too. Willow wants to go to school, study literature. She was taught to read the bible, but her desire to read other books has lead her to read parts of Shakespeare.
Then one misty morning, Willow's life is forever changed by a chance sighting of a young black man across the river. He waves to Willow but she flees on her horse, Mayapple.
The man Willow sees is Cato Freeman, from Haven, Pennsylvania. He has traveled south to help slaves fleeing the south, to guide them to freedom. Unfortunately, trouble befalls Cato when he steps into a rabbit hole and breaks his ankle. While the slave he helps travels onward to freedom, Cato is forced to remain hidden in the woods until his ankle heals.
When Cato accidentally discovers Willow's copybook, he is enthralled by the beautiful writing and even more so by the mysterious writer. He learns through Willow's letters to her mama about her predicament of being forced to marry Raymond, a cruel slave from the neighbouring Merriend plantation and this leads Cato to write messages to Willow.
Cato suggests that love done out of obligation is not true love, especially when it condemns a person to a life of bondage or slavery.He encourages Willow to leave Knotwild and seek freedom with him. However, Willow feels she cannot abandon her father. But as Rev Jeff and her father make arrangements for her to marry a man she does not love, and as it becomes increasingly apparent that the woman Rev Jim is about to marry will change life forever at Knotwild, Willow must determine the meaning of love and make a difficult choice.
Tonya Cherie Hegamin has crafted a beautifully nuanced coming-of-age story interwoven with many interconnected themes of identity, the right to self-determination, loyalty and love. In particular, she connects together the issues of slavery and the emancipation of women, demonstrating the parallel thinking that existed during this era regarding rights for blacks and women. For example, when Willow's father, Ryder, is trying to justify his actions forcing Willow to marry,
"Shut up, boy. Why you think God made us the stronger sex? Women's minds and bodies are weak. They need us to put them right."Cato counters:
"Ain't that the same thing masters say about us? How they justify slavery?"
Hegamin effectively captureds the mindset of slaves in 1848 through the character Ryder; some were grateful to their masters for feeding and clothing them, others felt they were saved from a heathen existence.In contrast to Ryder, is the character of Cato, a freeborn black man who lives in hope and dignity, a somewhat idealistic person who still believes in the goodness of all men.
Willow is a strong, intelligent protagonist, struggling with her internal conflict of desiring to be educated, to be free to determine her own life with her duty to her father and the notion of accepting one's station in life that was common to this era for both slaves AND women. Unlike many slaves, Willow can read and write and she has the desire to learn more.
Hegamin, on her website states that she attempts to "interpret human nature through writing". She also states that "I like the phrase “Translating the Imagination”– stories that make meaningful connection between writer and reader imaginations, ultimately cultivating compassionate understanding." Willow accomplishes this, placing her readers firmly in 1848 America, where black men were free but not, where masters could travel to Haven and re-possess their escaped "property" and where any black man, even a freeman could be captured and enslaved.
Willow has a lovely watercolour painting by E.B. Lewis on the book jacket, showing the first meeting between Willow and Cato in the early morning, near the willow tree. Lewis is renowned for his beautiful illustrations in children's books. More about this artistrator and his watercolours can be found at his website, eblewis.com
Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin
Somerville, Massachusetts : Candlewick Press, 2014