Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin
Fifteen-year-old Willow is a resourceful, intelligent young girl who spends her days reading, writing, and taking care of her horse Mayapple. But unfortunately, Willow lives in 1848 Maryland. And Willow is a slave. Though Willow’s life is relatively easy compared to the lives of other slaves in her community, she yearns to go to school and learn to write. Meanwhile, Cato, a headstrong teenager lives a free, but still oppressed life, in Haven, Pennsylvania. Against his father’s wishes, Cato gets involved with smuggling slaves to freedom, and on his first naive attempt, he gets into more trouble than he expected. When Willow and Cato finally meet, their lives and everything they thought they believed about freedom and prejudice are completely changed forever.
With this unique novel Tonya Cherie Hegamin explores life as a slave on a plantation with a “kind” owner–the hypocrisy, the lies, and the secrets that remain hidden. She explores what it means to be not only a slave, but a female slave. What do family obligations mean when you know you are related to your master? What does “home” mean when your family helped build the plantation where you live enslaved? What does “escape” even mean when there is nothing and no one to escape to?
Even while bringing up all these fascinating questions, Hegamin’s writing is lyrical and poignant, but most importantly it’s incredibly compelling. I connected with Willow from the very first few pages and did not want to put this book down.
Though Cato’s voice is not as strong as Willow’s and the romance between the two characters–though wonderful and believable–often felt besides the point, this novel is heartfelt, thought-provoking, and so, so good.