Don't you hate it when someone cherry picks the good bits out of a review??? I know I do, so here is the complete review from start to finish from Independent Book Review:

In this heartbreaking family story, a tenacious man helps the Underground Railroad. Gary V. Brill’s historical novel Journey: The Story of an American Family follows the Woodmans, a Black family in Pennsylvania. The War of 1812 has ended, and the local militia are no longer fighting the British. James Woodman is the strong character at the center of this story. He isn’t enslaved, but nonetheless he is less than free in Pennsylvania. It’s important to learn about how different people experienced this American era. This fictional tale is profoundly informed by that history. Brill deftly reveals how the character James is emotionally attached to his family farm and yet is inspired by dreams of border crossing, with all the implied promise of freedom. The scenes of his life that comprise the novel are unrelentingly violent. In the novel’s opening, a constable knocks him down and says: “You know your type is not allowed on our streets after dark…” This characterizes many of his interactions throughout the novel. He faces—and uses—fists, knives, rifles. There are kidnapped children and repeated threats of lynching. Hostile strangers demand a horse and kill a pet cat. James doesn’t shrink from responding to violence with the force necessary for his survival, and he continually lands in such danger, partly due to his commitment to helping formerly enslaved people escape to freedom. Though James does meet white Quakers who assist with the Underground Railroad, most white characters in this story are execrable. James knows that if he fights them and leaves any alive to tell the tale, it may haunt him forever. The novel follows the Woodman family for years, as well as James’s friend Luke, a man who escaped slavery. The characters’ life stories are layered and detailed. James purchases the freedom of Abigail from her enslaver, Francis Scott Key (yes, the one famous for writing the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner”), and James and Abigail marry. We watch the children grow up. In 1830, James and Abigail’s children Jonathan, Francis, and little Abbie are between the ages of seven and fourteen, and Luke and his wife Anna live nearby. Abigail is willing to see her former “master,” Key, again. Her feelings are complex. “I truly wish we lived in a more simple world, a place where right and wrong were always obvious,” she explains to one of her children. “But we do not.” in other respects the narrative can be emotionally curt. When the matriarch fades away on the farm, James is said to be “bereft and unable to think clearly,” but the story cuts to a few months later when the snow has disappeared and it is “time to get back to work.” The novel educates about the changing political situation in a place and time where the legal status of slavery was in flux. Some states were voluntarily abolishing slavery, but not without intense political fights. “Governor Ritner had come out as an abolitionist and praised Pennsylvania for starting to outlaw slavery in his annual message to the State Legislature,” Brill writes, but the progress could be slow and incremental and wasn’t guaranteed to hold. It should be mentioned that, in characters’ spoken interactions, white men frequently use the “n-word” to intimidate and discredit Black people. The slavers, including hunters of runaways, don’t always know or care about a Black person’s status under the law, and their use of a racial slur reinforces and communicates their worldview. They are prepared to continue enslaving, or to begin enslaving, any Black person. This is potentially educational for readers who aren’t already aware of the historical link between racial slurs and physical violence. Journey makes this connection abundantly clear. The racist characters speak entirely differently from the abolitionists. However, readers who are already aware of the era’s physical and verbal violence may simply be overwhelmed by its intensity. In the scenes that give respite from the violence, readers can immerse themselves in the scene on the farm: “the water jug down on the wagon floor,” potatoes, squash, apple butter, ham from the last hog. It’s a landscape that demands hard work and is never empty of memories and risk. Journey shines here. This novel raises important questions about identity and freedom. We often think of freedom as a description of what we truly already are, have, and deserve—and, in that symbolic sense, as something we can never lose. Other times, some of us need to physically fight those who try to take our freedom away. In Journey, both are true.





​Independent Book Review is a private company that reviews many, many books. These reviews and tons of others are available at





"Heroism on the harrowing path of the underground Railroad"

The first volume began in 1814 and followed the life of a free-born Black farmer, James Woodman, who has a family and owns land in Pennsylvania. James confronts and fights racism, and he feels strongly about remaining on his family farm, but he is persecuted.

Meanwhile, throughout the mid-1800s, slavery is increasing politically contested between American states, with attempted compromises in legislation "as if there could be two sides to this hellish argument," and with people siding for and against Abraham Lincoln. An individual may move or escape to a free state, but even then the political problems remain inescapable for them, since slave states demand the return of "fugitive slaves", and slave hunters kidnap and kill Black people without much attention to what any state law says about any particular individual.

This second volume opens with James teaching freed people to read and write at Fort Malden in Ontario. The northward trip had taken him a month. He traveled with a White girl who was raised by Quakers: though it was dangerous for them to be seen together, they defended each other. James stayed in Canada several years until receiving a letter informing him of a family illness. It's 1865 when he goes home to Adams County, Pennsylvania, in the Gettysburg area, where he'd once co-founded the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society, a room in a mill that still "held so much history and hope."

The farm has its own sense of time: "You did what needed to be done by watching the sky, feeling the air, measuring rainfall and a million other signs that only those who live within nature could read." A farmer feels he is of the farm, a part of it as much as the soil and the sun." On another level, incendiary political events drive their own kind of narrative. People experience time in that way, too.

The novel spans a tumultuous decade. The doors at the back of the church suddenly flew open with a bang," and there's the messenger "holding a newspaper aloft," announcing the secession of South Carolina in 1860, contributing to sparking the Civil War.  

In this fictional tale of people who escape to freedom, what stands out is the length of the journey. When someone is on the run through farmland and woods, it's hard for them to know where they are going. They navigate by using the constellations. "Jonathan knew," for example, "that if continued uphill and kept the Drinking Gourd off his shoulder they should come out near the road at the top." The novel asks us to imagine what happens if one is accompanying a child, or if one is wounded and can't seek medical assistance because of who they are or what they've done.

Also, the Underground Railroad is more of a battle than a ride. If someone is taking this route, they must categorize everyone they meet as friend or mortal enemy. They may have to shoot someone. Or ten people. At least in this tale, enemies tend to identify themselves as such, and it is helpful that they do so, but then the traveler has to decide what to do with them.

It's not that violence is inherently desirable for the action or adrenaline. It's that it seems inevitable to protect the young and defenseless and the quiet, gentle aspects of farm life. People who volunteer themselves or their homes for the Underground Railroad risk their lives and property. Holding a baby gives sudden clarity: "He knew why The Road was so important. He knew why fighting for freedom for his people was worth it." Family will always be cherished. That means people on the Underground Railroad have to stop would-be kidnappers and murderers and not feel a lot of grief or guilt over how they do it. "There is no reasoning with people like that," but only asking oneself which is the prudent course of action: fight or flight?

AS in the first book slave hunters use the "n-word". The white people never say this in a casual way; it is always signals their belief in a rigid social hierarchy and a readiness for extreme violence.

The second volume of Journey organically brings up important events from this decade in U.S. history. Brill imagines what it might have been like to live then, not as someone wha has had the luxury to observe and reflect but as someone who has to fight for survival. This is a complex and emphatic imagining of how one fiction family endured the war and helped change the outcome for others.