It had been five years since Sam Chase had visited his grandparents in Philadelphia. Since then, he had lived only in Baltimore. It was strange how so short a distance could highlight such a difference between temperaments in the north and south. In the south, folks respect a man’s right to search for his runaway property. In the north, folks (well, certain folks), give you the stink eye for doing so. Why, Sam’s own grandparents looked uncomfortable when Sam mentioned that his friend Wesley was in town looking for his father’s runaway slave. ‘Course, Sam knew his grandparents were Quakers, and staunch abolitionists at that, but the law clearly states that runaway slaves must be turned over to their masters. Sam wasn’t about to go against the law. So when Wesley and the local constable come looking for the runaway, Orlando, on Sam’s Grandpa’s farm, Sam eagerly shows them around. But, despite the constable’s incessant searching, there are no slaves to be found.
Then, the next night, Sam runs into Orlando. Suddenly, Sam is faced with a choice: does he hide Orlando so he can get to Canada and be free, at the risk of breaking the law; or obey the law and hand Orlando back to his master. See? You’d never have to deal with these type of issues back in Baltimore.
Looking for Orlando isn’t really an original story. There are plenty of stories about a southerner travelling north and changing his views on slavery. However, what I found really interesting was the way Browin set up the characters. On the abolitionist side, Sam’s grandparents are staunchly against slavery. This sets up conflict for Sam, because though he is not a slave-owner himself, he respects another’s rights to their “property”. He has never talked with a slave or seen their struggles firsthand, thus it is his ignorance that guides him to condone slavery. Yet, lest the reader think ignorance is the only reason for slavery to exist, the book also has characters (represented by the constable) who are adamantly pro-slavery. They know the arguments against it, they know the cruelty slaves face, yet they still advocate for it out of bigotry, greed, or plain apathy. This book may be geared toward a slightly younger audience, but Browin did not take that as an excuse to be lazy. She still uses nuance in drawing her characters, while still emphasizing the evils of the slave trade.
This book also delves into the faith of Sam’s grandparents. Quakers believe that all people are imbued with the Spirit of God, which pushed them to become abolitionists. Yet, the book also reveals the downside to a lack of hierarchy. During a prayer, Sam’s grandfather prays that all would have the strength to fight for the freedom of all, whatever the cost. However, immediately after, one of the other elders prays that Christians would strictly follow the laws of the land, for God has instituted the government for our guidance. To me, this highlights an issue among churches which depend solely upon the Holy Spirit (or, even, upon Scripture alone): how can Christians know whether they are correctly interpreting it? Ultimately, this issue was of little consequence to the overall plot (and wasn’t even really addressed), but it provided an interesting thinking point.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this book. Again, this book is nothing special. Its biggest weakness is its normality, its ‘sameness’, but it is still solid. It has satisfying prose, interesting characters, a pointed message, and it is not a difficult read (unlike Dostoyevsky or Hugo, which I’ve been reading recently). If you are looking for something a little lighter (prose-wise, not necessarily in its themes), then check out Looking for Orlando. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Published on 4 August, 2016. Last updated on