Young Henry Bell’s master insists that “he’ll take an ax to the finger of any slave who touches a book.” But before his father was sold away, he told his son that “book learning” would provide the way out of slavery.
When Master Simon starts school, Henry is sent along to walk him to and from the schoolhouse. Henry finishes his work as quickly is possible so he can climb the nearby sycamore tree and hear Miss Hattie read to her lucky students. Henry learns quickly, even from a distance, carving the letters into the tree’s branches.
While delivering Master Simon’s assignments when he falls ill, Miss Hattie catches Henry trying to sneak a discarded book out of the garbage. “‘I don’t believe in slavery or in keeping people ignorant,’” she tells Henry. “‘If you’re willing to take such a big risk, then I am too.’” And the learning begins in earnest. “‘In all my years of teaching, I’ve never had a student as determined to learn as you,’” she tells the eager Henry. Even when their lessons come to a sudden end, Henry is determined he will keep learning, no matter what. “I got it in my head ain’t nothing going to stop me.”
The “Author’s Note” explains that literate slaves could “write their own passes to leave the plantation and escape to freedom in the North.” As clever as young Henry is, one can only hope that escape and freedom are in his future beyond the final page.
Up the Learning Tree proves to be a memorable, inspiring story about the desperate desire to learn; it’s also quite the reminder that even in the 21st century, new forms of slavery keep too many children trapped in ignorant darkness.
Published: 2003, 2009 (paperback re-issue)