Anthony Burns Critical Context - Essay

Virginia Hamilton

Critical Context

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

The story of Anthony Burns strives to represent the meaning of freedom to young people who may take it for granted. Hamilton noted in her afterword that she “experienced an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction at having at last set free through the word one man’s struggle for liberty.” Known historically as the last fugitive to be returned by a Boston court under the Fugitive Slave Law, Burns is depicted as a real human with fears, dreams, and limitations. He represents the victims of the slave system in his defeat but all humans in his triumph of spirit even before his eventual freedom of body. Thus, his biography enables young readers, in particular, to put a face of reality on historical moments.

This book depicts the major participants in the drama of Burns’s case as persons of their own time, slave and free, who yet share their common humanity with every age and its biases, traditions, and need for law and order, even when the law seems intent on denying human rights in favor of legal rights. Hamilton’s own maternal grandfather was an escaped slave, and her ability to carry her readers through the account of another, more famous escaped slave gains increased emotional validity, without rancor or recrimination, by letting the events and characters speak for themselves in a powerful narrative relevant to the continuing struggle for civil rights for all oppressed people.