Milton Meltzer Barbara Ritchie - Essay

Barbara Ritchie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Adolescents and young adult readers of "Underground Man" may perceive that they have already experienced young Josh Bowen's America of the 1830's, through participating (if only via TV newscasts) in the social and civic disorders of the 1960's. In writing an absorbing story of a young Yank's adventures as a "nigger stealer" for the Underground Railroad, Milton Meltzer has written a contemporary novel. The cultural, political, moral and ethical issues that troubled young Joshua Bowen are those troubling today's youth. We hear them say so.

The familiar generation gap is dramatized in the opening chapters. It is not the expected brouhaha between a rebellious kid and his mean old man. Nowhere in the novel does Meltzer deal in stereotypes or resort to cliché situations….

After serving a term in a Kentucky jail for "nigger stealing" Josh returns to New England and becomes an effective and popular speaker at Abolitionist rallies—but, once again, he finds that what he is doing does not fit what he is. He goes back to his "criminal" activity along the Ohio.

For a second time, Josh lands in a Kentucky jail; the jailer tells him that this time "it will take a whole army of nigger stealers to get you outa here." At first glance, this seems a most dismaying finale. But to turn the page and read the short Afterword is to learn the historic necessity for the "unhappy" ending. The author based his novel on the fragmentary, forgotten memoirs of a young man of another name, who was indeed set free—after 17 long years—by "nigger stealers" wearing the uniform of the Union Army.

Meltzer, historian of the Civil War era, moves through those times, and among those people, with authority and ease. There is satisfaction in "Underground Man" for those who read for "story" and an extra measure for the thoughtful who read between the lines. A fine novel.

Barbara Ritchie, in her review of "Underground Man," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 18, 1973, p. 12.