A twist on the 'Underground' 'Railroad' is focus of Robotham book

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Photo by Cynthia Price

 

by Cynthia Price

 

Nearly everyone is familiar with the famous Underground Railroad which helped get African-American slaves out of the deep south to territory where slavery was illegal.

But in the third fictional book by RC Robotham, also known as Ron, the means of transport is “overwater” and it is not by way of any kind of train.


Indeed, though In Sight of Freedom: A Forgotten Trail on the Underground Railroad is an absolute fabrication, it feels... true. In reality, what Robotham did was a sort of connect-the-dots version of history, all of which is quite plausible. But, he emphasizes, he has yet to find a “smoking gun” that would prove his guesses to be correct.


Robotham, an engaging speaker whose enthusiasm is infectious, tells how he came upon the dots he eventually connected to weave his story.


First, he says, was his discovery of the real history, and fame, of Capt. Jonathan Walker, who lived out the last years of his life in the former “Lake Harbor” area, in Norton Shores.


Walker was called The Man with the Branded Hand, and the well-known poet John Greenleaf even wrote about the well-known Walker. His hand was branded with S S for Slave Stealer, because he was caught attempting to carry slaves away from slavery in his boat.


“I mean you read about his funeral, with something like 4,000 people coming to it, and that big obelisk and the poem,” Robotham says. “So I keep wondering what was he doing here?”


Secondly, the Grand Haven historian Wally Ewing, whom Robotham greatly admires, had a map illustration in one of his books of a route that took people up Michigan’s West Coast.


For the third point, he goes back to his upbringing in Benzie County, a county which includes Beulah and Frankfort and is to the west of Traverse City and Interlochen. “In Benzie County, there happens to be this odd college started in Benzonia in the 1850s to educate people of “all races and colors” called The Benzonia Academy. The founder, William Bailey, was an Oberlin graduate.”
Oberlin College, started in 1833 in Ohio, was the first college in the United States to admit people of all colors, and a home for many abolitionists.


Point 4, for Robotham, was that another Obie (as Oberlin graduates now refer to themselves) named Rev. Smith had started a mission in Northport.


Finally, while exploring Michigan, Robotham discovered a small ghost town between Cheboygan and Mackinaw City named, of all things, Freedom. “Does that make my mind fly!” he says, and In Sight of Freedom is the landing point of that flight.


What it all added up to for Robotham is an extension of the Underground Railroad, which was known to have operated in Michigan, to the Great Lakes. He makes a case for its plausibility by noting that, before the 1850 Slave Fugitive Act which allowed anyone to return a slave (or even a free black person) to his or her master, slaves only had to get as far as the non-slave state of Ohio, but after that, it was necessary to head to Canada.


This information may sound like a spoiler, but In Sight of Freedom still has surprises in store. In it, we see Jacques Bateau grow up and continue his parents’ legacy of moving former slaves to freedom.  Born in 1836, Jacques dreams of working on a ship as he helps his father with a small segment of the transport of African-Americans out of slavery. When his father is murdered, he has his chance. The book is the story of his adventures, and his beliefs.


Robotham has a straightforward, action-oriented style, though he does not ignore the inner workings of his characters. In Sight of Freedom, which has been out since 2015, is his third book, following One-Eyed Jack: The Uncovered Mystery of Clam River, and From the Ashes: the 1891 Muskegon Fire. Both have been the subject of Examiner articles.


Robotham says he grew up without knowing any African-Americans, and it was not until he went to Michigan State University that he began to question much of what he had been told when he was younger. (One Eyed Jack explores this theme in a semi-autobiographical way.) In particular, his father expressed some stereotypes, which he had to leave behind.


He now describes himself as a “pathetic idealist.”


In addition, he is amusingly self-effacing when he talks about his writing. “I tend to write kind of from ‘Aha!’ scribble scribble scribble, repeating that over and over, and then sometime later it gets to the point that I have to sort it out.” He credits the twin editors Jane Humphrey and Janet French for helping him do the bulk of that sorting. In his acknowledgments, he says “Without these people [also crediting his wife Nives], this book could not exist.”


Robotham admits that the end of In Sight of Freedom sets up the possibility of a sequel. But for now, he is working on a memoir that is not intended for publication.

 

 

 

 

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