Underground Angel by Sheryl D. White, Ph.D., touched my heart so many ways that I’m finding it difficult to begin this review. Dr. White deftly takes the historical figure, Laura Smith Haviland, and lovingly creates a novel depicting the life and times of a woman noted for her unwavering dedication to the abolition of slavery. For me, the reading of this novel was a personal journey as well. (Click here to read interview with Dr. White on Author Wednesday).
I grew up in southeastern Michigan, calling Laura Smith Haviland “Aunt Laura,” even though she died more than fifty years before my birth. I knew very little about her except for a statute of her in Adrian, Michigan, heralding her work with the Underground Railroad. Last year when I began pulling together my own great grandfather’s memoir Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier, I learned more about this heroic woman.
Only upon researching her did I discover that everyone called her Aunt Laura because of her dedication to humanity. She worked tirelessly to ensure young women and African Americans received an education. She advocated for the abolition of slavery and became a leader in the Underground Railroad. She also fought for women’s suffrage although she died two decades too soon to see women receive the vote. Her Quaker upbringing created in her the quest to help all those who suffered at the hands of inequality. She worked tirelessly for the Freedmen’s Board in several states, including Kansas, which is how Dr. White became familiar with Aunt Laura’s work in her studies and her work in Haviland, KS, a town named for the tireless Laura Haviland.
I attempted to read Aunt Laura’s autobiography Laura S. Haviland: Woman’s Labor and Lifework, but found the recounting of her life as dull as the title of the book. When Dr. White contacted me after discovering Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier, I was very excited to discover her newly released novel, Underground Angel. This is the story of a woman of God who worked tirelessly under one simple creed: In God’s eyes we are all created equal and deserve equal access and respect as humans simply “being.”
Dr. White points out the absurdity of the notion of slavery and all its inherent cruelties of “owning” another person as property. Aunt Laura’s faith remains strong throughout, even when the laws of the land do not support her conviction that no one may own another.
Through most of the years of the Underground Railroad and Aunt Laura’s association with it, she appeared on countless “Wanted dead or alive” posters with a $3,000 bounty on her head for her “illegal” and “dangerous” activities. The criminalization of Laura Haviland probably aided her in her work and her ability to pass in and out of slave states unnoticed. This highly wanted criminal was less than five feet tall and may have weighed no more than ninety pounds, only after swimming in her Quaker clothing.
Dr. White chronicles Ms. Haviland’s encounters with figures from the history pages, such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Comstock, and Susan B. Anthony. The story of George and Eliza Harris is recounted in this novel as well. These names may not sound familiar, but they are a part of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Mrs. Smyth who helps them escape is none other than “my very own Aunt Laura.”
The novel form brings Aunt Laura’s life and words into focus in the deft hands of Dr. White. The author is a skilled writer and a storyteller with a vision of using the life of Laura Haviland as an example for young Christian children today.
I believe Dr. White has painted a portrait on a much larger canvas. Laura Smith Haviland’s story is an example for all people of all religious persuasions. Dr. White shows us a woman whose faith is so strong she fears nothing except that her fellow men might be diminished by the lack of character and morality in others. She stands strong in her beliefs even when life brings her down roads of unbelievable sorrow. In 1845, in a horrifyingly short time, she lost her husband Charles, her youngest child, her mother, father, and her sister to an epidemic sweeping Michigan.
She carried onward with the faith she would see her loved ones one day again. She fought the prejudice of the time against her as a single mother of seven children, and then she began her work in helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada.
Dr. White showed the irony that Aunt Laura herself must have felt when she went from being a criminal breaking the laws of the slave states, to watching slave owners become the ones breaking the law after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Underground Angel also depicts the work Aunt Laura did during and after the war as she continued in her fight to see that all people received equal treatment under God’s law that guided her every breathing moment.
I thank Sheryl White for writing this beautiful novel of faith, love, and equality. She’s given us a hero for which we all should strive to emulate.
Note: I found during the reading of Underground Angel that I am related by marriage to Laura Smith Haviland, a relationship of which I’m extremely proud. Laura and Charles Haviland had eight children: Harvey, Daniel, Esther, Anna, Joseph, Jane, Almira, and Lavina (the baby who died in 1845). My great grandfather, Harmon Camburn, whose memoir I published as Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier, grew up in Adrian, Michigan, and had many older brothers and sisters, three of whom married three of Aunt Laura’s children. Daniel Haviland married my great, great aunt Mary Jane Camburn. Esther Haviland married my great, great uncle Almond Camburn, and Anna Haviland married my great, great uncle Levi Camburn. Levi is referenced in Underground Angel as Aunt Laura’s son-in-law, who had to be convinced that the cruelty of slave owners could not be tolerated. When Aunt Laura died in 1898, her body was brought home to Adrian and rested for viewings in the home of my great grandfather. After reading Underground Angel, I feel even prouder and more entitled to call her by the loving name of Aunt Laura.
To purchase Underground Angel:
Please visit Dr. White’s website: Underground Angel