December 14, 2018

The Birdman

Written by Troon Harrison
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-506-6
48 pp.
Ages 8+
October 2018

While The Birdman is an illustrated biography, more picture book than non-fiction text, similar to several I've reviewed in the last few weeks, the illustrations of François Thisdale, an artist of inimitable skill, blends the realistic with the ethereal and elevates Troon Harrison's story of abolitionist and birder Alexander Milton Ross (1832-1897) from storybook to art book.

From his birth in the town of Belleville, Upper Canada and through his childhood, Alexander Milton Ross was brought up to appreciate and love the outdoors. He probably would have been a naturalist if not for an incident in which his parents gave food and shelter to a group of escaping slaves and the young boy was shocked to learn of the tragedies of their lives while admiring their courage and determination to seek freedom.
Alexander never forgot the suffering he saw in the eyes of those former slaves. He though about how a bird could fly free but a person could be bought and sold, beaten and whipped.
From The Birdman by Troon Harrison, illus. by François Thisdale
Following his mother's belief that "The most worthy ambition is to alleviate people's suffering", Alexander studied to become a doctor, while meeting abolitionists and reading Uncle Tom's Cabin which turned him onto helping slaves reach freedom.  When he finished his medical studies, he travelled to Virginia and Tennessee where he met with slaves secretly to help them on their journeys, including providing them with items needed and teaching them a bird call as a signal to find help. When he became a wanted man for his work, he escaped to Canada, still helping a woman whose slave owner intended to marry her off, and learning firsthand the true terror of escape.
From The Birdman by Troon Harrison, illus. by François Thisdale
But Alexander Milton Ross would not diverted from his mission to help slaves escape to Canada. Now undercover as an ornithologist interested in the collection and classification of birds, Alexander got permission from wealthy plantation owners in states like Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky to roam their lands, giving him the opportunity to secretly talk to the field slaves about the Underground Railroad and provide them with the information needed to flee to safety. He soon became known to all as the Birdman.

Troon Harrison tells multiple anecdotes of Alexander's helping slaves escape as well as the tale of his own imprisonment–he was released when an escaping slave returned claiming that he hadn't escaped but was only late in returning because of a sprained ankle–all supporting Alexander Milton Ross's mother belief that it was important "to leave the world some better than you found it."

Alexander Milton Ross's story is a tense read because of the circumstances of those he intended to help and the danger in which he placed himself. I suspect there are more and more stories from which Troon Harrison could have drawn but, by focusing on the man's beginnings and his love of the natural world to help him achieve much in aid of escaping slaves, his story is well told. And for those who want to learn more about the man, Troon Harrison provides an extensive historical note, timeline and bibliography to help. (I also recommend Caroline Pignat's Governor General award-winning novel in verse The Gospel Truth (Red Deer Press, 2015) in which Alexander Milton Ross plays an integral role.)

Troon Harrison weaves these events about Alexander Milton Ross's life into a compelling narrative of a compassionate man of action while François Thisdale's artwork gives the story depth. Look for the birds on almost every double-spread illustration of an outdoor scene. There's the oriole and the brown thrasher, the bluebird and the killdeer, and many more. They are all flying free or untethered, offering hope of a heaven in a new land where freedom might be found. In a fusion of drawing and painting and digital imagery, François Thisdale melds the natural world with historical realism and enhances the text of Troon Harrison by acknowledging the efforts of abolitionist Alexander Milton Ross while reminding young readers that sometimes courage is needed for worthwhile change to happen.
From The Birdman by Troon Harrison, illus. by François Thisdale

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