"Mama gave her last breath just as I took my first."
That simple sentence both opens Sharon Lovejoy's YA novel and defines the life of its main character, twelve-year-old, unnamed "Girl."
Although Pa and my big brothers never said they blamed me for her death, I always felt it achin inside me, like the rotten tooth our blacksmith plied out of my mouth. Why else would a pa and his boys let a little girl come into the world and live for twelve years without givin her a name?
My brothers and Pa always looked through me, as though I weren't but a thin sheet of mica between them and the world. Sometimes I had to step outside to see my shadow afore I knowed for sure that there were a real person inside me.
Girl lives with her brothers and her bad-tempered pa, "born tired and raised lazy," on the small farm that was her grandfather's in the blue-hazy ridges of eastern Virgina in 1858. After the death of that grandfather, her mother's father and "the onliest piece of softness in the family," Girl has become housekeeper and servant to the remaining menfolk, tending the garden, cooking, cleaning and staying clear of their casual abuse as best she can, lest she be "kicked like one of the huntin hounds."
Still, Girl hasn't given in. She is sustained by memories of her grandpa and all he taught her about wild and garden plants, stars, and animals, plus daily conversations with the mother she only knows from her grandpa's stories.
Until Zenobia, the skinny and half-starved girl her own age but with skin "the color of dark clover honey" appears at the door, and the combination of folk wisdom and common sense Girl uses to stay alive is overridden by her tender heart. Girl gives Zenobia the crust of cornbread she picked off her brother's plate for her own breakfast, and some dried apples from their stores.
Just then come heavy steps on the porch: Girl's pa. She hustles Zenobia into the cellar to hide just in time. Her pa demands his shotgun and powder, plus "victuals"—he is setting out to hunt an escaped slave, a girl with a bounty on her head. The very girl hiding silent in the darkness beneath the oak floor.
Girl and Zenobia make a run for it, first separately and then together, walking the creek at night so the hounds can't smell their trail, heading for the town where the "strange Quaker folk" live, a stop on the Underground Railway. The two run into all manner of dangers on the way, from deadly copperhead snakes to equally deadly and much more cruel slave-catchers.
Their story is beautifully told, a seamless evocation of time, place and culture, from the language and the bits of folk wisdom that open each chapter, to Girl's descriptions of the plants she loves, the stars in the night sky, and the calling of the birds, including the "yellow lark" (meadowlark) whose song she whistles to perfection.
Running Out of Night is a hero's journey, a gripping tale of both great beauty and great peril, and the two girls, one white, one black, are transformed by their desperate flight in ways that ring true both for their time and today's world. The issues that this novel wrestles with—racism, violence, poverty, ignorance and greed—are also all-too-relevant to our time.
I'm not going to give away the twists and turns of this compelling tale, or the ending to Girl and Zenobia's journey. You'll have to read Running Out of Night to find out. You'll be glad you did.
Sharon Lovejoy is the award-winning, bestselling author of nonfiction books about nature and gardening for children and adults. Running Out of Night is her debut novel. It draws on her ancestral roots in Virginia, and her lifelong interest in nature, herbs, ethnobotany and early American arts and crafts. Her other books include the children's gardening classics Sunflower Houses and Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots, which have introduced hundreds of thousands of children to nature. She lives on California's Central Coast and on a little green island in Maine. Visit her website and her blog.
Check out our interview with the author of Running Out of Night.
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