(Motes Books, 2013)

Swing Low, Sweet Harriet book cover

What People Are Saying . . .


Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s Swing Low, Sweet Harriet

is an exciting tale of Civil War espionage.

In Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, her new historical novel for young readers, Knoxville writer Rhonda Hicks Rucker tells a suspenseful story of Civil War espionage and the inspiring struggle for freedom waged by African Americans—both those whose names we know, like Harriet Tubman, and many more unsung heroes.

As Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s Swing Low, Sweet Harriet opens, it’s been three years since thirteen-year-old Ben last saw his mother. That’s when she was sold to another plantation on the Combahee River in South Carolina. His sister, Milly, and his brother, Thomas, barely remember her. But Ben will never forget her anguished last words to him: “Promise to remember me to the little ones!”

It’s 1863 in this historical novel for young readers, and Ben and his family are slaves on a rice plantation during the Civil War. Ben works in the fields, Milly works in the plantation house, and Thomas carries water to the workers. They all live in the cabin of “Big Mama,” who cares for a number of motherless children. On Sundays they gather for church meetings in the slave quarter with Brother James, Big Joe, Uncle Minus, and the others. They sing spirituals and pray, but they also share news about troop movements, runaway slaves, and rumors of emancipation.

At one of these gatherings they meet the famous Harriet Tubman, who is known as “Moses” because of the number of slaves she has helped to escape via the Underground Railroad. Tubman is in South Carolina as a spy for the Union Army and seeks the locations of torpedoes placed in the river by Confederate troops to discourage Union gunboats. Ben and his friend Will know the river well and have a healthy respect for its hazards, especially alligators and cottonmouths. They have the information Moses wants, but they aren’t sure it’s safe to tell. The decision they make could be a matter of life and death—and it could change all their lives forever.

Rucker’s enthralling and suspenseful storytelling skills bring to vivid life this important period in American history. Rucker includes an epilogue describing the historical facts of the inspiration for Ben’s story—the dramatic June 1863 rescue of more than 700 slaves from Combahee River plantations by Union troops, including African-American soldiers from the Second South Carolina Colored Volunteers out of Beaufort, South Carolina. She also lists resources for students interested in exploring Civil War history.

Swing Low, Sweet Harriet captures the tremendous courage required to defy the plantation system and the inspiring struggle for freedom waged by African Americans—both those whose names we know, like Harriet Tubman, and the many more unsung heroes represented by young Ben. Middle-school readers will find much to identify with in Ben’s longing to escape the brutality of slavery, his loyalty to his family, and his desire to do something important in the fight for freedom.

Tina LoTufo
Chapter 16 (The virtual Tennessee Center for the Book, an independent affiliate of the Library of Congress's National Center for the Book)
November 19, 2013

Swing Low, Sweet Harriet -
A Children's Book Any Adult Will Savor

Rhonda Rucker's fine debut novel, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, is a pageturner with a gripping story line, smooth narrative, beckoning character development and plenty of suspense. A historical novel written as an introduction for middleschoolers and older students, any adult reader also will find this book more than engaging.

Through the eyes of Ben, an enslaved boy, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman's foray leading Union troops up South Carolina's Combahee River in 1863 and freeing over 700 enslaved people in under a week.

Both blacks and whites on the Lowndes plantation have heard of a woman called Moses freeing slaves and leading them to safety and freedom. When Moses starts showing up at meetings, some of the Lowndes slaves are curious to know more, while others think it's safer to keep their distance. The war is now all around since Union soldiers have captured the South Carolina coast, so can a stranger be trusted? Still, no one, including Ben, can ignore her message: "Be ready. Freedom is at hand." But wise Uncle Minus, the 88-year-old sage of the slave cabins, says things are different now. Though Ben doesn't know Moses' true identity of Harriet Tubman, he does know a dangerous secret about the local Confederate soldiers that he wants to tell her. Then Ben's sister, who works in the Big House, learns another important secret: the plantation owners have learned about Moses and are laying plans to keep her from moving about the area and spreading her new ideas. What the plantation owners don't know is that there will soon be a raid that will attempt to liberate Ben and all of his family and friends.

Ben's scouting for strange devices laid in the river by the Confederates and daring outing to warn Moses when she visits a nearby plantation get him caught and lashed but he keeps his silence. Families broken by human sales, long back-breaking hours picking cotton, cruel overseers, the hopelessness of slavery Rucker etches in vivid mounting style in her book.

This historical fiction is closer to history than fiction. In addition to using Tubman's well documented action along the Combahee, the book pays close attention to the account of Minus Hamilton – the story's uncle Minus – 88 at the time of his liberation, whose story of Tubman's raid on the Lowndes Plantation was recorded by Union Colonel Thomas Higginson, commander of a black regiment which had a major role in the Combahee action.

There is too little fiction in Underground Railroad literature and Swing Low, Sweet Harriet joins David Durham's Walk Through Darkness in starting to fill a still thin shelf. As soon as the children you buy this for finish reading it, enjoy it yourself.

Rhonda Rucker, MD, is a Grammy-nominated musician who with her husband Sparky travels extensively in North America and abroad presenting music of the Underground Railroad, abolitionism and civil rights. They are recognized as among the foremost artists of the genre ever. Their album Treasures and Tears was a nominee for the W. C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording. She is a frequent author of articles and a contributing author of The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.

Peter Michael
Underground Railroad Free Press
November 2013
Volume 8, Number 45

There are many heroes from American history, and although young Ben from the Lowndes plantation is purely fiction, he is a hero just the same.

In author Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s latest middle grade novel, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, a young slave named Ben has a big responsibility.  He stumbles upon rebel soldiers hiding big smooth things called torpedoes in the Combahee River.  He wants to tell what he has heard, but since he never had permission to wander so far from his plantation in the first place, there’s no one he can safely tell.

His secret might have been lost forever if not for the mysterious woman (whose name is rumored to be “Moses”) who shows up on the Lowndes plantation. She claims to work for the Union Army and she asks lots of questions, like whether anyone has seen any rebel soldiers. Ben wants to tell, but he hesitates because he has been told that white people can’t be trusted…even whites from the Union Army.

When Ben’s owner and a rebel colonel discuss the fact that they know about Moses, Ben decides to find her and tell her all he knows before it’s too late. But finding her means leaving the plantation, an act that has already earned him a bloody lash once before.

Swing Low, Sweet Harriet is a poignant read about slavery, the Civil War, and striking a blow for one’s liberty. Ms. Rucker’s prose is wistful yet markedly hopeful, and her characters’ voices and actions ring true to their ages and the times in which they live.

Ben’s bravery, his dogged determination to investigate his surroundings, and his deep love for a mother he hasn’t seen in years all make for a well-rounded, well-liked character that anyone would root for.

The description of the slaves being rescued from the plantation is quite unforgettable. I won’t spoil it by telling you everything, but be ready for chickens squawking, pigs squealing, and a sea of ex-slaves running willy-nilly toward the freedom boats to escape their bonds.

This is an excellent resource for both independent reading and supplemental reading in American History or Citizenship. It can also serve as a conversation-starter for discussions on slavery, the 13th Amendment, and lifestyles then and now.

Rita Lorraine
Picture Book Depot (a children's book review site)

History brought to life:
Maryville woman Rhonda Hicks Rucker pens novel on Harriet Tubman

Rhonda Hicks Rucker’s latest project, a historical fiction novel set in the Civil War South, is her first novel, but certainly not her first go-round as storyteller.

Rucker has been touring as a blues/folk performer for more than 20 years with her husband James “Sparky” Rucker. She plays piano, blues harmonica, clawhammer banjo and rhythmic bones as they tour the country telling stories of the American folk tradition.

But the whole idea of writing the book was a little frightening, she admitted. She started out doing it as a picture book for young children but somewhere midstream decided it would be better as a novel for middle school-age children.

A new audience

“I shelved it and did other things because I had never written a book before,” Rucker said. “The whole idea of it was just scary to me.”

But this musician/entertainer/storyteller ultimately made a connection with the right editor who told her to send a few chapters of the book. Rucker sat down to complete the whole thing and did as she was asked. The result, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, is the story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and her plot to help slaves in the Sea Islands of South Carolina back in 1863. The book is based on a real event during Tubman’s work with the Union Army. It’s a story that few people know and one Sparky first heard about as he was touring in Savannah, Ga.

“Sparky started looking into it and found out it’s real,” Rucker said. “It’s in a lot of books and in her biography and in newspapers. We have been telling it on stage now for years.”

The setting is on a Southern plantation in South Carolina as the war heats up. Slaves have run away and been beaten almost to death. Then one day a mysterious woman arrives to talk secretly with the slaves. She is met with both distrust and hope as talk begins of blacks being able to join the Union forces.

There is a legend among the Gullah people that they originally wrote the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as “Swing Low, Sweet Harriet,” Rucker said, as a way to honor Tubman. Their’s was a combination of tribal language and English.

Little boy, big results

In this work of historical fiction, one small boy, the main character Ben, plays a pivotal role in the success of the raid on Combahee River in June 1863. The historic event is brought to life through Rucker’s powerful storytelling voice. It’s written for middle school students, but we can all learn something about our places in history.

“She freed twice the number of slaves here as she did during her work on the Underground Railroad,” Rucker said. “She deserves attention. She was just an everyday person who saw a need and did the right thing.”

Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland around 1820. During a 10-year span, she made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. There was a hefty reward offered by the South for her capture. She died in 1913.

Rucker, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., is familiar to some in Blount County because she practiced medicine here for five years. But, she said, music had the stronger pull. She has enjoyed sharing stories through music all these years and looking back to the past. “What really got me interested in history was family history,” she said. “It was more of me looking at the big picture of what was going on and tying that to my own family.”

Sparky’s family tree, which includes slaves, has been a source of intrigue as Rucker came to hear the oral stories they have passed down from generation to generation.

Irons in the fire

It has been hard to promote this novel, Rucker said, because she and Sparky are constantly on the road with their music. They have performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Their music continues to include a variety of blues songs, slave songs, Appalachian music, spirituals, ballads and some of their own original compositions. They have done a number of educational programs for schools, colleges and libraries.

Now that Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, has been released, Rucker has a second novel she hopes to get published. This one is also historical fiction. It’s focus is the Birmingham Children’s March. It occurred in May of 1963 during the Civil Rights Movement.

“High school kids were the heroes in that one,” Rucker said. “That is a good message. That you are never too old to make a difference, that you are never too young to change the course of history.”

Melanie Tucker
The Daily Times, Maryville, TN

Author Interview from the Blog of Ann Schwarz (November 11, 2013)


Swing Low, Sweet Harriet by Rhonda Rucker

This wonderful historical novel, by author Rhonda Rucker, is told from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old slave boy named Ben. It is geared toward middle-grade readers, and offers a unique narrative point of view for juvenile fiction that isn't explored enough.

Ann: Hi Rhonda. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog about your wonderful debut novel, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet. Many people know about Harriet Tubman’s work with the Underground Railroad, but I’d never heard about her involvement as a spy for the Union army. How did you learn about this particular part of Harriet Tubman’s life?

Rhonda: Thanks so much for having me, Ann! My husband and I are musicians and storytellers, so we travel around the country and occasionally overseas for performances. About twenty years ago, my husband was doing a solo performance in Savannah, Georgia. (At the time, I had a day job in our hometown.) After the concert, Asa Gordon, a historian and scholar, told my husband about Tubman's role as a spy and scout during the Civil War. After verifying it, my husband began telling the story on stage. The slaves in that region of the country were Gullah, retaining much of their African tribal customs and heritage. According to their legend, they wrote the song we've all heard, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." However, they say they originally wrote it as "Swing Low, Sweet Harriet" as a way of honoring Harriet Tubman.

Ann: Your work as a storyteller and musician with your husband sounds really fascinating. I’m surprised you could narrow down the scope of the story you wanted to tell with that kind of background in folklore music. Had you ever written any historical fiction before tackling this novel? What went into researching it? Were you familiar with this area of South Carolina?

Rhonda: This is the first novel I have ever written. I had originally written it as a picture book. Somewhere along the way, I realized this story was better suited for older children. I shelved the idea, thinking I would write it as a novel someday. In June 2011, I went to a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators event in Lexington, Kentucky and told an editor about the Harriet Tubman story. She loved the idea and asked to see the first chapter by October. She provided the motivation I needed. For the next several months, I focused on the novel, initially spending many hours researching the story. I used both primary and secondary sources. In many ways, researching is easier nowadays since some documents can be found on the Web. Sarah Bradford interviewed Harriet Tubman and wrote two biographies of her in the 1880s, and I found those online. I also found newspaper articles written after the raid. My husband's copy of the Official Records of the Civil War was helpful. Some of my sources are listed at the back of the book. During our travels, my husband and I stopped a couple of times to view the area of the raid. Seeing the river and the terrain helped me visualize the story.

Ann: Wow! So going to workshops and SCBWI events really paid off in this case. Have you read other historical novels told from a slave’s perspective that is geared toward this age group? Did you find it challenging to tell a story from this perspective and a boy’s at that?

Rhonda: I've read other children's historical fiction from that time period, but I can't remember ever reading one from a slave's perspective. I think it's always challenging to write from a child's point of view. However, I enjoyed my childhood, and I love using my imagination to put myself in a child's shoes. I also like to empower children and make them realize that they can have a real and important role in changing the world.

Ann: I agree. I think it is a very important privilege of writing for children that we can use this art form to empower and inspire them. How long did it take to write this novel and find a publisher for it? What advice would you offer to other writers struggling to complete or publish their own first novel?

Rhonda: I think I first began writing the story as a picture book in 2010. I sent it to a few publishers then before realizing it would be better told as a middle-grade book. I began working on the novel in June 2011. I finished the first draft before I sent the first chapter to the editor in October 2011. I did that because I had heard that novelists often throw out their first two or three chapters after realizing they have started the story too soon. I wanted to make sure the chapter I sent to the editor was really my first chapter. By the time I sent her the final copy, two years had passed, and I had done several revisions. I know I was incredibly lucky to have my first novel published. I still can't believe I ran into an editor who was interested in the story as much as I was. In writing historical fiction, it's important to do meticulous research. Just as important, though, is coming up with a compelling plot to capture the reader. I think it's helpful to do both those things before beginning to write the novel. Once you've decided on a plot and you have a good sense of the historical events and time period, you can start writing. More research will inevitably be needed as you write.

Ann: You took your time with this first book to get it right and it certainly paid off. It is a beautifully written story. What new work do we have to look forward to from you in the future? Will you publish with the same publisher?

Rhonda: I am currently working on another historical novel—a YA book based on the Birmingham Children's March in 1963. I started this one two years ago, and it's already undergone multiple major revisions. I'm currently looking for an agent who would be interested in this book as well as future ones.

Ann: Thank you so much for being a guest on my blog, Rhonda.

Rhonda: Thanks to you, Ann!

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