Feb 19, 2014


by Tonya C. Hegamin

In 1848, an educated slave girl faces an inconceivable choice — between bondage and freedom, family and love.

On one side of the Mason-Dixon Line lives fifteen-year-old Willow, her master’s favorite servant. She’s been taught to read and has learned to write. She believes her master is good to her and fears the rebel slave runaways. On the other side of the line is seventeen-year-old Cato, a black man, free born. It’s his personal mission to sneak as many fugitive slaves to freedom as he can. Willow’s and Cato’s lives are about to intersect, with life-changing consequences for both of them. Tonya Cherie Hegamin’s moving coming-of-age story is a poignant meditation on the many ways a person can be enslaved, and the force of will needed to be truly emancipated.

About the Author

Tonya Cherie Hegamin is an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York, Medgar Evers College where she teaches Fiction Writing, Children’s Literature and Composition. Her NYPL 2010 Ezra Jack Keats award winning picture book, Most Loved in All the World also won the Christopher award and her young adult novels, M+O 4EVR and Pemba’s Song have also won national awards. Her historical young adult novel, Willow, is published by Candlewick Press (Feb 2014). Ms. Hegamin has written creative text for the national after-school program, Rocket Learning, focusing on conveying moral values and promoting educational equity for young readers. She has worked with thousands of young people as a crisis counselor, creative expression group leader, rights advocate and sexual health educator since 1998.  Her academic research interests include how artist educators influence innovative learning techniques and effective methods of teaching  holistically through literature.


September 11, 1848
Knotwild Plantation, Maryland
Dear Mama
I know you rest in heven in gods cradle arms. Here, I am cradle by the twisted bow of yor healing tree, one you name me for and birth me under fifteen years ago today at the bank of this sweet river. The sun shine itself down on the mountains like it cradle there too, in so much comfort it turn the whole sky pink. It get harder to find such comfort in this world without you, Mama. And since Granmam pass last year, make it harder still. Now I only get held soft by this old tree.
Mama, I dremt it once that you was right here in this tree telling me my mind is my nest and the thoughts my eggs. How very P- E- C- U- L- I- A- R. That mean strange. Mama, you the bird who built this nest and lay these eggs I think.
Granmam used to say that this here tree be the last of many to be holding up the banks of this river. Chop a willow branch, she say, then boil down the bark to ease all pains. She always say I pay more attention to her medcine recipes than her food recipes.
Mama, I know you miss living here on the prettyest and most prosprous piece of land in all Frederick County maybe even all Maryland, specially since we got me the onlyest colurd girl who can read and write and ride a horse like shes the wind.
Granmam would wash my mouth to humble me. . . .
No matter how good this type of free, no black girl meant to be so much of herself they say.
I hope Rev dont miss this bit of grafite pencil and copybook I found in his old schoolboy box in the attik. I was getting ink stains in my nails and fingers and it do cost to replenish Rev’s supply. Papa wouldve seen red to know.
Granmam would be shame to see the shabby state Rev house in. To tell truth, now with her gone I read bold as I please even whilst doing the chores specially when Rev Jeff be gone almost six month straight! There be nothing in me to help it. The stories, they drunken me. I mus try an be more careful — that be why now I only write way out here. Papa dont mind me takeing Mayapple out so early, long as I bring back willow bark and herbs for his sleeping tea, jus like you used to. He miss you so, he barely breathe your name.
Dearest mama, goodby for now. I only remember your face full, so full of light.
We are such stuff
as dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Prospero says in Mr. Shakespeare’s Tempest. I memorize the most beautiful bits I read, tho sometimes the words be slick and stick to my tongue like okra, just how they come slow as molassas out the pen.
Your most loving daughter

Carefully, I wrapped the copybook and pencil together in a bit of thick cloth and placed them in a worn leather pouch. I always sat down low in the riverbank when I wrote so nobody could see me plainly, down where the roots of the huge tree jutted out of the earth then plunged back in like crooked fingers testing the soil.
I breathed in deep the fresh, musky air of early autumn, watched my breath plume back out of me, disappearing into the mist of the crisp morning. The chill was sharp and my lungs tightened, racked with cough. I adjusted my knitted shawl and tried to recall if I’d ever had any other birthdays with such an early frost, but the memories turned my heart to missing Granmam and mama again. A breeze lifted a few of the lifeless leaves from mama’s tree; they scattered and floated clumsily along with the river current. The tree bowed to the edge of the river in such a polite way that it looked as though the tree were asking the river for a waltz. . . . I almost took out my copybook again to write down that pretty thought, but I knew I needed to go.
I moved some leaves and twigs from my hiding nook inside the tree trunk, where I always kept my writing tools. I covered them up again and climbed up the sloping bank, brushing my hands on the back of my riding clothes — a patched and repatched pair of Papa’s pants cinched with rope, worn under a plain old smock. I looked over at mama’s grave again; a large mound of faded whitewashed stones marked it. Mason and Dixon had left a granite marker showing the difference betwixt the Maryland and Pennsylvania sides, not too far off. I could see it gleaming white, but never went close. Can’t say it looked much different over there than over here. I wondered if I’d feel any different if I stepped over mama’s grave and sunk my big toe deep into that free soil. . . . The thought gave me another chill, but this one went from inside my head down to my heart.