by Troon Harrison
illustrated by Francois Thisdale
Red Deer Press, 2018
ISBN 978-0-88995-506-6 (hc)
$24.95, 44 pp, ages 8 – 12
This beautifully illustrated work deals with one chapter in the life of an eccentric nineteenth-century Canadian polymath. Alexander Milton Ross was born in Upper Canada, lived from 1832 to 1897, and over that period was a self-taught naturalist, physician, and active abolitionist. This book deals primarily with his time as an advocate for the underground railway before the Civil War, although the Historical Notes detail some of his later passions and activities (including his position as the nation’s most prominent anti-vaxxer). In the 1850s, after completing his medical studies in New York, the reform-minded Canadian travelled throughout the American south spreading word on plantations about the path to freedom. He did this while pretending to be a naturalist interested in the birds of Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi—thus the ornithologist craftily worked undercover as an abolitionist. Certainly, students will enjoy this exciting story (Ross narrowly escapes lynching on more than one occasion) and the colour illustrations by Thisdale bring the narrative to life.
Classroom Connections: Strangely, Harrison’s bibliography does not include the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Ross, but lists more than a dozen other related items. The Birdman also has a four-page Historical Notes section and a complete timeline of Ross’ lifetime activities. Red Deer Press has not yet crafted a teacher guide to accompany the work but there are many easily-accessible resources on the underground railroad (the Historical Thinking Project from Alberta, for example, has a three-part lesson plan dealing with causes and consequences directed at grade fives). Instructors searching for accessible works to support Black History Month would do well to add this book to their collection.
Review by George Sheppard.
This review is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.