Underground to Canada Summary & Activities

Underground to Canada is about twelve year old Julilly and her courageous escape to freedom. Julilly was born into slavery and had always lived on the Hensen Plantation in Virginia with her Mamma Sally. When Massa Hensen falls ill, Julilly and the others are sold, and she and her mother are separated. Julilly is sent to the Riley Plantation in Mississippi, where she meets a girl her age named Liza. The two girls, along with a few others, make a daring escape towards Canada, where they will be free, along the secret Underground Railway. A historical fiction piece written specifically for young readers, Underground to Canada takes place before the Civil War, and not only depicts the trials and tribulations that enslaved people endured, but the heroic efforts of those who helped them along their road to freedom.

Student Activities for Underground to Canada By Barbara Smucker

Essential Questions for Underground to Canada

  1. What was the Underground Railroad?
  2. What are some of the ways that Julilly exhibited bravery throughout the novel?
  3. What are some of the challenges that Julilly and the others faced?

Underground to Canada Summary

Twelve year old Julilly was born a slave. Along with her beloved mother, she lived on the Hensen Plantation, which, by all accounts, was a “good” place to be. When news hits the plantation that a slave trader is heading their way, and that many will be sold and moved to the South, panic fills Julilly and her mother, Mamma Sally. Ripped from her mother’s arms along with many other children, Julilly is put on a wagon and is taken away. Fear and sadness sweeps over Julilly as she comforts the younger children, and watches as three men that she knew, once strong and tall, become helpless and hopeless as chains are wrapped around their wrists and ankles.

After a long and miserable journey, they arrive in Mississippi, where Julilly and the others are to live on the Riley Plantation, a place that was nothing like Henen’s in Virginia. In her tiny and decrepit cabin, Julilly meets a girl her age named Liza, who has been whipped so badly that she permanently walks hunched over and in pain. A man named Alexander Ross arrives at the plantation, saying that he is there to study birds and needs some slaves to help him. However, Mr. Ross is not who he says he is; he is there to help slaves escape. Along with Liza and two of the men she knew, Lester and Adam, Mr. Ross will help Julilly escape to Canada, where she will be free.

Along the way they discover that there are many “stops” to this secret Underground Railway, and many people risk their lives to help slaves escape. Julilly and the others meet people like Jeb Brown and Levi Coffin who open up their homes for a place to rest, clean up, and eat to replenish their energy. With slave catchers looking for them, several close calls, and much ground to cover, Julilly must be brave and have hope that she will soon be free, and even reunited with her momma. Underground to Canada follows Julilly’s long and harrowing journey towards freedom. It is an important addition to any middle school classroom.

In 2008, an introduction was added by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill. In this introduction, Hill gives readers a brief overview of the Underground Railroad, as well as the ugliness of slavery. Of the horrors of slavery and the offensive language that is used throughout the novel, Hill says, “writers, teachers, and parents do no one a favour by pretending that such things didn’t exist. Much better to acknowledge them, to understand them, and to ensure that our children and grandchildren are better equipped than we are to learn from the monstrous mistakes in our past.” Hill also says that, since this novel is geared towards a young audience, the author holds back from describing the atrocities in detail, but that she does capture the barbaric truth in an appropriate way.

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