Monday, October 12, 2015

Guest post: The story behind Freedom's Price, by Michaela MacColl

Today Michaela MacColl is stopping by with a post about the history behind her new middle-grade novel, Freedom's Price, whose heroine is Eliza Scott.  Eliza's father, Dred Scott, is well known to American history, but I had previously been unfamiliar with the story of his children and their lives in St. Louis in the late 1840s.  Hope you'll find her post enlightening as well.


The Story Behind Freedom's Price
Michaela MacColl

Thanks so much for having me as a guest at Reading the Past. I’m delighted to be here and to talk about my new book, Freedom’s Price (Calkins Creek, 2015).

Freedom’s Price is about Eliza Scott, the daughter of the famous Dred Scott. Dred was a slave whose owner took him out of a slave state into a free territory. Later they moved back to St. Louis, where slavery was legal. To protect his children, Dred sued for his freedom. It took ten years for his case to reach the Supreme Court. Their decision, one of the Court’s most shameful, was that as a man of African descent, Dred was not and could not ever be a citizen. The case helped tip the United States into civil war. But what always interested me was the human story behind the court case. Dred and his wife were trying to protect their kids. Plain and simple. (They lost the case, but they were soon freed. It turns out that their owner’s widow had married an abolitionist who was very embarrassed to be the new owner of the nation’s most notorious slaves.)

Since Freedom’s Price is a middle grade novel, I had to choose a sliver of time to contain my story. In 1849, the Scotts have been waiting for almost three years for their case to be heard. They are forced to live in the St. Louis Jail and go out during the day to earn money for their owners. And if it’s a bad year for the Scotts, it’s even worse for the city of St. Louis. The case is delayed yet again by the worst cholera epidemic to ever hit St. Louis. Almost 10% of the city’s population would succumb to the disease. A nun who treated the victims recalled, “We saw large, strong-bodied men suddenly struck and expire in a few hours, and before we could remove one corpse, a second, a third, and a fourth were ready.”

While the city was reeling from epidemic, there was a terrible fire. It began on a paddleboat moored at the port in the Mississippi River. The fire spread from one boat to another – destroying 32 ships. Then the fire hopped to land and took out over 400 buildings.

Ruins of the Great St. Louis Fire, 17-18 May 1849.
Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly, 1849 (public domain)

In the middle of all this chaos and pain, I tell the story of Eliza. She’s 12 years old and her mother has always whispered in her ear at night that Eliza is a free person. But she must never say so. Although her parents are illiterate, they send her to an illegal school that floats in the federally controlled Mississippi River so she can learn to read. But a literate slave is illegal in St. Louis. Eliza chooses to live with other slaves in a slaveowner’s home rather than stay in the jail. This choice, as well as several others, will land her in trouble. If you want a hint about what happens look closely at the cover of Freedom’s Price (which is based on this print by Nathaniel Currier which ran in every newspaper in the nation) shows some foolhardy souls in a rowboat trying to escape the fire.

Great Fire at St. Louis, Mo., Thursday night, May 17th, 1849.
Lithograph by N. Currier, 1849. (LoC/public domain)

Of course I needed an ending that would resonate with younger readers. Luckily for me, the Scotts briefly win the court case in the winter of 1850 – so I end the story there. My afterword explains that the Scotts would have to wait another 7 years for the case to be finally resolved, and not in their favor.

I had a blast writing this novel and I hope you enjoy reading it! Please visit my website at and let me know what you think.


Michaela MacColl has published several historical fiction novels. Prisoners in the Palace received a starred review from School Library Journal and was selected as an Indie Next Choice. Promise the Night received starred reviews and was selected for the ALA Amelia Bloomer List, IRA's Notable Books for a Global Society, and Bank Street College's Best Books of 2012. Her series of literary mysteries (Nobody’s Secret, Always Emily and The Revelation of Louisa May) have received numerous starred reviews and have featured on the Bank Street Colleges Best Books, YALSA Best and VOYA Best lists as well as being selected as Junior Library Guild selections. She has degrees in multi-disciplinary history from Vassar College and Yale University. Rory’s Promise and Freedom's Price are part of the Hidden Histories series published by Calkins Creek books. She and her family live in Connecticut.

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