2023 Newbery Winner: Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson

Freewater, this year’s Newbery Medal winner, is as much an adventure tale as little-known history.

Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson. Little, Brown (James Patterson Presents), 2022, 398 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-15

“There were also those who ran away to the deep swamps and forests of the American South. There, in secret, they created free lives.” Homer and his little sister Ada were two who took the chance and bolted toward the forest in the dead of night. Mama was supposed to be with them, but halfway to the forest she went back for Anna, Homer’s friend. She didn’t return with Anna in tow. She didn’t return at all. If I don’t come back, get to the river, she told the children.

So they do: they get to the river, and with snarling hounds snapping at their heels, they jump in and splash their way to the other side. And there a man comes to meet them, so silently and swiftly that Ada is certain he can fly. He goes by the name of Suleman, a scout, guide, and protector who leads them to Freewater.

The rumors are true: an entire community of formerly enslaved souls lives deep in the Dismal Swamp, protected by scouts like Suleman and getting around by an elaborate system of sky bridges made from vine and rope. Some of them, them, younger ones like Sanzi, have never known bondage and never seen a white person. Ada adapts easily to their ways and rhythms, but Homer is beset by guilt that his Mama didn’t make it. It was because of his insistence, after all, that she went back for Anna, and once caught escaping she’d be watched more closely. While trying to figure out some way to go back for her, Homer doesn’t know that Anna is making her own plans to escape. Those plans will eventually clash in a fiery confrontation.

Freewater is as much a thrilling adventure as a straightforward historical novel, told from a variety of character viewpoints. Most of the details have to be made up, as little is known of the “maroon” communities that existed deep in the swamps of the southern American states, but the author’s imaginative touches are believable. Though the horror of chattel slavery is plain—whippings, family members sold away—the details are appropriate for middle-graders. Most of the action takes place in Freewater, where the inventive inhabitants have used the environment to make a tolerable life for themselves, one that others can join. They don’t seem to have taken any Christian influence with them: expressions of gratitude and petition go to the swamp, not to God. The white people, except for one, are caricatures, but it’s not their story. Freewater may reflect current sensibilities in some ways, but it’s a worthwhile story told well, with a message for everyone: “Keep learning what it means to be free.”

Overall Rating: 3.75

Worldview/moral value: 3.5

Artistic/literary value: 4.25

Read more about our ratings here.                 

Also at Redeemed Reader:

Resource: Black History Month is almost over, but see our picture book and nonfiction lists.

Review: The enslavement of human beings is not peculiar to the U.S., and some form of it continues in the world today. See our review of Born Behind Bars.

Reviews: More swamp tales! The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp and The Wilderking Triology.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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1 Comment

  1. Meredith on February 28, 2023 at 9:50 am

    I loved Freewater very much and learned a great deal from the book. it is one of those adventure stories that might whet a child’s appetite to do further research. The multiple perspectives were very good, too. i loved Nora. She was a nice character to leaven the other white individuals in the story. The characterization was good overall. This book is one of the better Newbery choices in some time, and I was pleasantly surprised.

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