Reading Group Guide
About the Book
When Dana Shannon discovers a full skeleton, sealed away in a little hidden room in the nineteenth century house her family is restoring, she stumbles onto a mystery that draws her deep into the past. The old bones date back to just before the Civil War, when pro- and anti-slavery factions transformed the territory of Kansas into the battleground known as Bleeding Kansas. Told in chapters that alternate between Dana's detective work in the 1990s and the story of James Weaver and his anti-slavery Quaker family in 1856, Steal Away Home interweaves a contemporary suspense story with an engrossing historical drama. Chosen a Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, "this skillfully rendered book," as The Horn Book observed, "will appeal to a wide audience and serve beautifully for a variety of teaching purposes."
- In 1856, James Weaver's life is changed forever when he meets Lizbet Charles, a one-time slave who now helps others find freedom via the Underground Railroad. More than one hundred years later, how does Lizbet also change the life of Dana Shannon?
- Dana's friend Ahn is a refugee from Vietnam, a country that suffered through an especially long and devastating war. Compare Alm's twentieth-century experience to those of Lizbet Charles's back in the nineteenth-century. What are the important similarities? What are the important differences?
- As Dana explains it, her parents never tell her what to do. They lay out her choices, let her know what they think she should do, and then leave it to her to decide. Did James Weaver's parents have a similar philosophy? What are the pros and cons of being allowed to make your own decisions?
- Talking about her husband, Mrs. Weaver tells her son, "Pa and I are of the same mind on this slavery business. He's doing it his way, I'm doing it mine." What is Mr. Weaver's way of fighting slavery? What is Mrs. Weaver's? Which approach would you have taken?
- According to James's grandfather, "...a Quaker never raises his hand in wrath against another man...Neither does he roll over and play dead, son. Time comes, thee will know what to do." When does James have to decide how to act on his beliefs? What does he do? Why?
- Despite James's concern that his mother was breaking the law once again, Mrs. Weaver agrees to teach Lizbet to read and write. Why do you think it was illegal to teach basic literacy skills to slaves? What threat did educated slaves pose to their owners?
- Solomon Jeffrey, a free black man, could have used force against the slave trader who wanted to illegally capture him, but he didn't. Why? Would you have shown the same restraint if you were in Solomon's predicament?
- Can laws be unjust? In the nineteenth century, abolitionists believed that laws permitting slavery were wrong. But what about today? Are there any current laws that you think should be overturned?
Projects and Research
- Although it's unlikely you'll stumble onto a skeleton, dig deeper into the history of your own home. With the help of your parents or older family members, find out when the building was constructed and why. Learn as much as you can about earlier occupants. Did they leave anything behind after they moved?
- The Religious Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers, continues to attract believers. If possible, invite a member of the Society of Friends to speak to your class or group about their philosophy of pacifism. How do modern day Quakers act on that belief? During such major American wars as World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War, how did Quakers respond?
- Years after Lizbet dies, James remembers her heroism with a small marker. Who are the real-life, but little known, heroes and heroines in your community? Brainstorm ways you can pay tribute to them now.
- The Drinking Gourd, the constellation better known as the Big Dipper, helped guide runaway slaves to what they hoped would be freedom in Canada. Go outside and search the sky one clear night. Take your own long look at the Drinking Gourd.
- Research the life and legacy of John Brown, the abolitionist whose violent tactics attracted James's friend Will and repulsed James's devoutly Quaker father. Do you think John Brown did harm or good to the anti-slavery cause? Why?
- Imagine that you are James, just arrived on the Kansas frontier in 1856. Write letters to your friends back in Boston. Be sure to include a description of your new hometown and your thoughts about the ongoing struggles between pro- and anti-slavery factions.
- The Underground Railroad had many stops throughout the northern United States. Was one of them in your hometown? If your community was established before the Civil War, research its history during that period.
- There are many fine documentaries available about the anti-slavery movement and the coming of the Civil War. Search for them in libraries or video stores. Compare their nonfictional treatment of the era with the fictional account you've just read. Which approach do you prefer? Why?
About the Author
Lois Ruby began working on Steal Away Home, her fifth novel for young readers, when a mental image of a skeleton, sealed away behind a wall, began to haunt her thoughts. Once she had decided that the skeleton belonged to a runaway slave, Ms. Ruby started researching the history of Kansas just before the Civil War. She was soon hooked, and the story began to pour out at a furious pace. A former young-adult librarian, Ms. Ruby now spends most of her time writing and leading creative-writing workshops. She and her husband live in Wichita, Kansas, and are the parents of three grown sons.
Steal Away Home
by Lois Ruby
Steal Away Home
Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020