Connect with us

Culture

Book Review: ‘One Big Open Sky,’ by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Published

on

ONE BIG OPEN SKY, by Lesa Cline-Ransome


From a history book released in paperback in 1992, during my freshman year of college, I learned about the thousands of Black people who left the South in the late 19th century to move to the West, pursuing freedoms promised by the Homestead Act of 1862. The feminist Nell Irvin Painter’s “Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction,” originally published in 1977, was one of the first detailed studies of this mass movement by an African American historian.

There is a passage in Painter’s 1992 introduction that stands out as a disclaimer: “Unlike many other histories of Reconstruction, this book does not focus on Washington or the state capitals of the South. My central figures are not officeholders or men able to influence policy directly. (I say men because women, while they participated in the Exodus, were not voters during Reconstruction and do not appear as actors or speakers in the sources.)”

Lesa Cline-Ransome’s historical novel in verse, “One Big Open Sky,” is determined to fill in these archival silences. It tells the story of one Black family’s perilous covered-wagon journey from Mississippi to Nebraska through the voices of three resourceful and resilient female characters: the 11-year-old Lettie; her pregnant mother, Sylvia; and a young teacher, Philomena, whom they meet along the way.

Driving the wagon, and the decision to gamble everything on the chance of a better life (“We can’t live free/on someone else’s land/picking someone else’s crop!”), is Lettie’s father, Thomas. Her two younger brothers, Elijah and Silas, have had a hard time, as has her mother, adjusting to the idea of leaving the only community they’ve ever known: “Soon as Daddy finished talking/Elijah started fiddling/with his boot laces/ … When we coming back?/he asked Daddy/from moving I mean/I saw Momma’s eyes fill up/Ain’t no coming back once we leave ’lijah/Daddy told him/So why we leaving then?/Silas asked.”

Though it spans just nine months in 1879, Cline-Ransome’s lyrical tale reminds us that this often forgotten Black resettlement, which predated the Great Migration (the subject of her award-winning “Finding Langston” trilogy) by roughly three decades, was epic in its political ambitions and actual execution. The movement — in both senses of the word — is vividly captured by the book’s narrative flow.

“One Big Open Sky” mainly presents the alternating points of view of mother and daughter, until Philomena joins them. Their differences in age, anxieties and aspirations are so vast that their stories, even as they converge, remain distinct and enable us to understand the debates and desires that motivate them, as well as the Black male leaders galvanizing them and the white communities discriminating against them.

Cline-Ransome’s evocative writing — a mix of richly textured description and vibrant dialogue — makes the impact of the family’s betrayals by the federal government and their fellow Exodusters all the more harrowing.

Prioritizing Lettie’s wide-eyed perspective highlights their vulnerability, and foreshadows the harsh conditions and violent conflicts they will navigate on their trek, which begins by crossing the Mississippi River via flatboat, with their wagon and two mules, Titus and Charly: “Titus is always scared/of one thing/or the next/So Daddy had me/stand next to him/on the ride over/ … As the currents/pulled us one way/the men steering the boat/pulled us another.”

Lettie chronicles their daily hardships in straightforward, heartbreakingly eloquent detail: “Too hot today/to sit in the wagon where it heated up/so much/Momma said/she felt like she was a hot biscuit/ … We all had to walk now/to save Charly and Titus/from pulling extra/ … I held Momma’s hand tight/slippery with her sweat/With our other hands/we waved away/the mosquitoes that followed/in black clouds above us/like they were traveling west too/We couldn’t talk/or we’d swallow/them whole.”

More often than not, however, despite painful losses, Lettie is optimistic about the unknown, with its endless possibilities. “From where we sat/we could see the lantern/lighting up the cabin,” she muses as they near their destination, “and imagine/the warmth inside/our new home/in the West/in Nebraska/with a fire in the hearth/and beds stacked with quilts.”

We know that the warmth Black families found in Nebraska during this period, and elsewhere throughout their various migrations over the next century, was no guarantee of full citizenship or racial equality. That battle continues today.

In Lettie’s, Sylvia’s and Philomena’s stories, enhanced by Cline-Ransome’s meticulous research (and the historical context provided by her author’s note), we learn about the limits of such movements, and about the Black people — and Black women in particular — who upended their lives down South to get one step and generation closer to the American dream.

“One Big Open Sky” shows us that the road there was dangerous, even as democracy loomed on the horizon.

ONE BIG OPEN SKY | By Lesa Cline-Ransome | (Ages 8 to 12) | Holiday House | 304 pp. | $18.99

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *