From about 1838 to 1857, Stephen Bishop was an underground guide in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. With carefully chosen wording, rich historical detail and luminous images, author Heather Henson and Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier bring Stephen’s story to light.
Stephen guides the reader through tunnels and quagmires of the cave and his own life. He tells us he can neither read nor write—it’s against the law to teach him these skills because he’s a slave: “Because I am bought and sold, same as an ox or a mule.” But Stephen has a yearning to learn, and he does, in a law-abiding manner. By the light of a candle, deep below the ground, when the visitors write their names on the cave’s ceiling, Stephen is watching and learning. In time, he writes his own name, too, along with the names of his wife and son.
Stephen hints at other secrets of Mammoth Cave. He tells of the men who discovered the cave and tracked bear beneath the earth. He makes his own discoveries of eyeless fish and albino crayfish. He finds a deerskin moccasin in the passageways below and wonders about his own legacy. Today, though Stephen no longer walks the cave, his name remains there for visitors to see, if only they look carefully.
This sensitive portrayal hints that every man and woman who walked this earth, free or slave, has a story worth telling.
Billie B. Little is the Founding Director of Discovery Center at Murfree Spring, a hands-on museum in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.