Callie Wilcomb is a 12 year old enslaved girl who lives in Virginia in the 1860s. At the time, Virginia no longer had to abide by the rules of slavery and there seemed to be hope for her family. When they learned of three enslaved people who escaped and found protection at Fort Monroe, a Union outpost not far from where they lived, Callie’s father decided it was time for his family to be free. With the Civil War going on all around them, Callie and her family make a risky yet life-changing decision to go after their freedom. Based on true accounts and real locations of the Civil War, Calico Girl is a poignant, hopeful, and sometimes heartbreaking story of one family’s journey to be free.
It was April of 1861, and the Civil War had just begun. Callie Wilcomb could hear her step-mother’s sobbing in the cabin all the way in the big house on Belle Hill Farm, where she took care of Suse, Mister Henry’s and Mistress Catherine’s daughter. Mister Henry was selling the last of his slaves, including Callie’s 15 year old step-brother, Joseph. When Callie’s mother died at childbirth, her father Hampton married Mama Ruth, a kind woman who treated Callie as her own. Joseph was her brother, not by blood, but at heart, and now he was going away. Mistress Catherine was her father's half sister. She was wholly white, and Papa’s mother was enslaved; they shared the same father. Hampton was born enslaved, but was promised never to be sold and that he’d become a free man at a certain age. As her father explained, this promise applied to Callie and her little brother Charlie as well, but not to Mama Ruth or Joseph because they were not his blood.
Soon after Joseph was sold, Mister Henry left to go fight for the Confederate Army. Suse was devastated and Mistress Catherine retreated in the house for a long time, afraid of what is happening beyond the walls of her home. Hampton wanted to do what he could to fight against the Confederates. Even though he knew Ruth wouldn’t like it, he headed out towards Fortress Monroe, a Union Army outpost on the other side of the James River. Along the way, Hampton runs into Raleigh, the son of his dear friend James Townsend, an enslaved man who lived on the next farm over. Raleigh explains to him that he, his father, and two other men were sent to do some building for the Confederates. Refusing to help the enemy, they turned themselves over to the Union Army at Fortress Monroe. They were met with kindness, food, shelter, and the promise of protection. Hampton returned home immediately to tell the news to his wife.
Hampton and Ruth discussed their options for hours upon hours. They had worries, doubts, and fear of trusting the white Union soldiers. But what other choice did they have? That night, Hampton set out to Fortress Monroe to see what it was really like there, promising to return soon for his family. As he got closer to his destination, he overheard two men on horseback discussing the runaway slaves. What Raleigh said was true: the Union Army was protecting them! As he approached the river, Hampton saw a soldier struggling on his raft; he fell in the water and did not resurface. Even though it was risky, Hampton jumped in and saved the drowning man, bringing him to shore. Soldiers arrived and brought Hampton and the man to the fort.
A few days later, Hampton returned home to get his family. With him was Lieutenant Mathew Jessup, the young man Hampton saved from drowning. The family packed up some belongings, and Mama Ruth gave Callie some calico cloth, promising to make her a beautiful dress in the near future. Callie, Mama Ruth, and a very ill Little Charlie joined the men on their horses back to Fortress Monroe, where they will all be free.
Later that day, they arrived at Fort Monroe, a place that Callie thought looks like a castle with thick walls made of stone. So much was going on around them: soldiers marching, horses carrying soldiers, and mules pulling wagons of goods and supplies. As Mama Ruth and Papa took Little Charlie to the hospital, Lieutenant Jessup told Callie about the school house and that she can go visit, something that made her happy. There, Callie met Mrs. Peake, her new teacher and someone who Callie already admired and wanted to be like.
Three days later, Little Charlie was too tired to fight anymore, and died. Worried that his disease could spread quickly, the doctor said he should be buried immediately. As the utter sadness engulfed the family, Callie told Papa, “at least he died free.” Callie gave Mama Ruth the calico cloth to wrap her little brother in, as well as the corn husk doll Joseph had given her; she didn’t want Little Charlie to feel alone. Days passed and Callie could not stop crying or get out of bed until Mrs. Peake came to visit and made her feel a lot better. When Callie awoke from a long, restful sleep, she found the beautiful dress that Mama Ruth had made her: her deep blue, calico dress. Callie felt like a new girl, ready for her brand-new self.
Time went by, and Callie continued to learn and help Mrs. Peake, eager to be just like her. One day, Mrs Peake’s neighbor’s came by the school. The white man and white woman were friendly, and seemed happy to be there; it was clear Mrs. Peake knew them well and trusted them. They told Callie that they had heard what a bright student she was, and how she wanted to be a teacher. They wanted to send her to a school in Massachusetts to get a good education where she could become an educator and teach other Black girls and boys, making a bigger difference than she could ever imagine. Mama Ruth and Papa were thrilled for her, and Callie could not wait for all of the opportunities that were in store for her in the future.
Calico Girl takes on the difficult subject of slavery with empathy, emotion, and heartfelt story telling. A wonderful book to be taught in groups, or as a part of a history unit, children and teachers alike will embrace Callie’s story and learn about the difficult times African Americans faced during the Civil War Era.