Underground to Canada Novel Study Introduction

Today we begin our study of the novel Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker. It is a fictional account of runaway slaves trying to escape to freedom. Although the main characters and their journey are made up, they are closely based on real locations and situations faced by actual runaway slaves, and there are some real people and places used in the novel to make it as realistic as possible.

You may find a .pdf copy of the novel online here.

You may find readings of many of the chapters on Youtube here

The language in the book is quite realistic and can be difficult for some readers, especially because of the use of a terribly racist word that was used at the time.

The forward to the 1999 edition is written by Lawrence Hill, and he does a good job of discussing the use of the word:

The word is used deliberately and for good reasons in the book, but it should never be used in conversation today. For that reason, when we read the book together, that word will be omitted.


Why was that word used at that time in history? What did the word mean? What did having that label say about the people it was used upon?

Why was the word used in this book? What effect does it have to include a word like that? Do you think it should have been left out of the book?

As we read chapter 1, I want you to consider the following topics:

  1. The main character, Julilly
  2. Mammy Sally
  3. The Henson Plantation

For each, I want you to write
a. Observations: What do you know? Find details from the book that describe each person or place.

b. Critical Thinking: What do you think? Give me your own thoughts & opinions about each.

c. Extending Understanding: What do you wonder? What kind of questions do you have about or for each person or place? What else would you like to know? What don’t you understand? What other information would you like to have?

Tell Mr. Robson what's on your mind!