The Freedom of Jenny – Julie Burtinshaw

“The Freedom of Jenny” tells a story of Canadian history that I had never heard before.  Jenny is a black slave girl in Missouri, the daughter of two slaves, Hannah and Howard Estes, Jenny grows up dreaming of freedom.  She works beside her mother in the house of a white family.  Her father works for the opportunity to buy the family’s freedom and move to the free state of California.  Freedom in California appears to be something ephemeral and Jenny’s family moves again this time to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.  At times a sad story, The Freedom of Jenny  is told predominately through the hopeful eyes of a young Jenny.

Julie Burtinshaw based the story on the diary of Sylvia Stark which is held in the Salt Spring Island archives.  While reading it, I was conscious of it being a white woman’s retelling of a black woman’s story.  I wonder if it is faithful to voice of the freed slave woman.  Julie Burtinshaw has carefully written a story which skirts the experiences of the aboriginal people of the lands in question.  She has left in musings from Jenny about the nature of the aboriginal people and some expressions of respect for the way of life and knowledge of the aboriginal inhabitants encountered by the slave family in their journey.  These hints  about the aboriginal people and their stories leave openings for the reader to imagine this other point of view of the experience told in the novel.  Not an opening given to the white slave owner by the way.

This engaging novel would suit discussions on history, slavery, freedom, British Columbia, California, American Civil War, Canadian history.



Filed under children's lit, curriculum, education, library, literacy

10 responses to “The Freedom of Jenny – Julie Burtinshaw

  1. Debbie Pushor

    You’re raising some very good questions and wonders, Susan. Why is this a topic within Canadian history that has been little explored? What are the implications of this for us as educators? What conversations might you have with students about this? How might this lead to an exploration of broader social/political/economic contexts?

    Who is Burtinshaw in writing this story? What is her credibility as a white woman writing a black woman’s story? Looking to her author’s notes and to the research she has done for the writing of this piece of historical fiction is a good beginning place to explore these questions. I don’t think one can read the novel without this corresponding exploration.

    How does this telling sit alongside tellings of the same place, the same period, the same encounters from an Aboriginal perspective? Important to ask, Susan. Do you know of any such work that could be used in a classroom alongside “The Freedom of Jenny”?

  2. I wonder about the context of Saskatchewan and what influence that has on the stories of Canada with which I am familiar. I know some of the stories of the settlement of Saskatchewan – the cold long winters, the hardship of the Doukebours, the Mennonites and Ukrainians, the conflicts between aboriginal and Metis peoples and British or settler peoples. However, in Saskatchewan’s early settlement history late 1800’s and early 1900’s, very little is told of the Chinese immigrants and I don’t think there were American black immigrants. The early settler population in Saskatchewan tended to be European. I wonder how “Ticket to Curlew” would be as a companion, same time period in Alberta from a European settler experience. I’ve also been thinking about something I read last summer which tells the story of a First Nations community in Ontario over a slightly longer period, “Good for Nothing” or “Battle Cry at Batoche” from Saskatchewan.

  3. I would like to respond to some of the questions raised in this discussion. There is little written about this part of our history, but a good companion book for younger children is: A Ride for Martha” by Sue Ann Alderson and Ann Blades. Publisher: Groundwood. 1993.

    Re: the comment: “I was conscious of it being a white woman’s retelling of a black woman’s story.”

    I did my best to tell this story — an important story — from the point of view of a woman telling a woman’s story. Underneath the different hues of our skin, all of our blood runs red.

    As an author, I often write from points of view other than my own — a teenage boy might be one example. This is what authors do — and we hope the results will be genuine and believable.

    The most important aspect of telling Jenny’s story is that it has now become public knowledge — no longer hidden, erased from our shared history. As one of the comments read: “…a good beginning place to explore these questions.”

    I have conducted many readings and workshops in schools and at festivals, and have always had such a positive response from the students I’ve talked to. By this, I mean that we have had incredible discussions about immigration, the biases in written history, the importance of not losing our own stories and the responsibility we all have to learn about our past in order to not repeat the mistakes of the future.

    This story is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to tell from so many different perspectives, as was pointed out. Somebody, someday will write these stories too, and little by little, our history will be unveiled.

    I appreciate the discussion around this book and thank you for the opportunity to join in.

  4. Thanks so much for dropping in on the conversation, Julie. I am honoured to have you pop in. I hope it didn’t sound as if I thought your telling was untrust-worthy, that was not my intention, I simply thought about your position as relative to my own. Many teachers are white middle-class suburbanites. It can be easy to reflect our own values and experiences in our book selection and not notice our biases. I believe that stories and drama can help us as people to expand our experience base and broaden our understanding. I certainly believe alternative perspective taking is possible and positive. Authors strive to take on the voices of others. The Freedom of Jenny does have a distinctive voice. As I worked through the novels I had chosen for this class on Young Adult and Children’s Literature, I hoped to explore different perspectives and tellings of history. I appreciate your offering of the Freedom of Jenny and the opportunity it provides to look at Canadian history from a less told side of the story.

    I do believe that we are the same under the colour of our skin but I also believe the colour of our skin influences the way in which we are received in the world and the chances, opportunities, and relationships we have within it. I am a white woman and it can make a huge difference in my experiences and relationships. I can understand a male perspective but I can not live it. I can understand my Aboriginal friends’ experiences but my history is different and colours my perceptions. As adept as I may be at taking on a role, I can not know it as clearly I know myself. Truthfully, I am not a very imaginative woman, so perhaps it is more easily done than I can experience. I would assume you had many readings and editorial criticism prior to the publishing of your work, did you have readers from a variety of backgrounds give you feedback?

  5. Hello Susan,
    Thanks for such a thoughtful response!

    When I wrote “Jenny,” I knew that there would be some negative commentary because I was writing outside of my culture, but I decided to forge ahead because I knew it had been done before, and done well — for example, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. I spent close to a year researching the story, and you guessed it — the book went through many, many edits.

    In some ways, it was an easy book to write, because the characters took over — (which is a wonderful thing for a writer). In particular, Howard (the father) had his own incredibly strong voice from the very beginning. He did and said things that often caught me off guard, and so became very real to me.

    Still, I was nervous and before the final edit, I asked BC writer Wade Compton (, if he would be kind enough to read the manuscript. Here is a bit about Wade, directly off his website:

    “Wayde Compton is a Vancouver writer whose books include 49th Parallel Psalm, Performance Bond and Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. He and Jason de Couto perform turntable-based sound poetry as a duo called The Contact Zone Crew. Compton is also a co-founding member of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, an organization dedicated to preserving the public memory of Vancouver’s original black community. (See HAMP’s blog here.) He is also one of the publishers of Commodore Books. Wayde Compton teaches in Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program, where he is a creative writing instructor in The Writer’s Studio; he also teaches English composition and literature at Coquitlam College. He is the Writer-in-Residence at SFU for 2007-08.”

    Wade read the manuscript (for which I am forever grateful) and gave me the thumbs-up. I was thrilled, as you can imagine and went to the next stage — publishing with confidence.

    Wade, of course, was only one of many people who offered me helpful feedback.

    This kind of feedback is invaluable to me. Even books that are not historical fiction undergo intense scrutiny and many re-writes.

    Although I can attest that we writers spend large chunks of time alone buried in first drafts, in the end, writing a novel is a collaborative effort.

    Sorry this is such a long post…but it is a great discussion.

  6. Thanks for the picture of the writing process, particularly the editing piece. It always surprises me when authors talk about the strength of a character as an entity outside of themselves. I heard Madeline L’Engle speak about some of the characters in her books in the same way. I would love to find a story to tell which takes a life of its own in that way. I can’t wait to read more of your work.

    • Janan

      can you talk about the main character Jenny? i really really need to know.. thank you for your help =)

      • Janan,

        It has been quite a long time since I read the book so I can’t really help you in any specific way. When I analyze a character I tend to use four attributes: appearance, thoughts and feelings, conversation and actions. If you are wanting to do a description or analysis of the character, these attributes are a good place to start. Write down what you believe describes Jenny in the four attributes, then look for evidence in the book to support your thoughts.

        Good luck.

      • Janan

        thank you very much ❤

  7. Pingback: Rule of Three « Jacket Whys

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