"When Soonie's Great-Grandma was seven, she was sold from the Virginia land to a plantation. . . ." So begins Jacqueline Woodson's lyrical telling of her family history. Soonie's memory of her ma and pa is a mere remnant of muslin and thread, from which she fashions quilt pieces. Soonie listens "real hard" to stories of freedom and before long, she too has a daughter born a slave and sold away. Mathis May, as she is called, continues in the tradition of sewing and becomes known for her "Show Way," a quilt to guide those who slip away in the night, seeking freedom. With passing time, history presents new challenges for Woodson's ancestors. But the strong women of each generation face what life brings, with an eye for beauty: sewing, teaching, making art and writing.
Woodson's musical phrases draw the reader in, creating such images as the sky changing "from pink day to blue-black night." The story, though a work of fiction, has a genuine sense of history which is enhanced by Hudson Talbott's inky watercolors. In keeping with the story's textile theme, Talbott uses collage with muslin and other fabrics. His use of period artwork, photography and newspaper clippings hints at the many aspects of slave life. Quotes by Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune and others, all patched together with stitching, whet the appetite of readers who might wish to know more about this time in our nation's past.
Parents and teachers alike will find Show Way a perfect springboard for discussion with school-age children about slavery, the Underground Railroad, segregation and the civil rights movement. Both the text and richly detailed illustrations serve to pique the reader's interest in the past and the people who created it. Woodson's conclusion imbues readers with a sense of unity. Everyone has their own family stories that have bearing on who they are and it is these events that create, for each of us, our own Show Way.
Jennifer Robinson is a teacher in Baltimore.