Reviews of Flee North by Scott Shane

Flee North

A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery's Borderland

by Scott Shane

Flee North by Scott Shane X
Flee North by Scott Shane
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Sep 2023, 352 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
Buy This Book

About this Book

Book Summary

A riveting account of the extraordinary abolitionist, liberator, and writer Thomas Smallwood, who bought his own freedom, led hundreds out of slavery, and named the underground railroad, from Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, Scott Shane. Flee North tells the story for the first time of an American hero all but lost to history.

Born into slavery, by the 1840s Thomas Smallwood was free, self-educated, and working as a shoemaker a short walk from the U.S. Capitol. He recruited a young white activist, Charles Torrey, and together they began to organize mass escapes from Washington, Baltimore, and surrounding counties to freedom in the north.

They were racing against an implacable enemy: men like Hope Slatter, the region's leading slave trader, part of a lucrative industry that would tear one million enslaved people from their families and sell them to the brutal cotton and sugar plantations of the deep south.

Men, women, and children in imminent danger of being sold south turned to Smallwood, who risked his own freedom to battle what he called "the most inhuman system that ever blackened the pages of history." And he documented the escapes in satirical newspaper columns, mocking the slaveholders, the slave traders and the police who worked for them.

At a time when Americans are rediscovering a tragic and cruel history and struggling anew with the legacy of white supremacy, this Flee North -- the first to tell the extraordinary story of Smallwood -- offers complicated heroes, genuine villains, and a powerful narrative set in cities still plagued by shocking racial inequity today.


Most Inhuman System That Ever Blackened the Pages of History

A memory that would stay with Thomas Smallwood all his long life mixed pride with wry wonderment. As a young boy he was taught to read by the couple who enslaved him, a skill that distinguished him not just from other enslaved children but from most Black adults as well. In their rural community of Bladensburg, just east of the District of Columbia boundary, he became a sort of neighborhood spectacle, asked repeatedly to perform for the friends and neighbors of his owner.

They were amazed at the fact that a black or colored person could learn the Alphabet, yea, learn to spell in two syllables. I appeared to be a walking curiosity in the village where I then lived, and when passing about the village I would be called into houses, and the neighbors collected around to hear me say the Alphabet and to spell baker and cider, to their great surprise, (which were the first two words in the two syllables of Webster's ...

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


BookBrowse Review


Flee North is one of my top books of the year. The amount of research Shane undertook to revive this little-known piece of history must have been monumental. And beyond that, the book is simply a ripping-good yarn, at times reading like an action-adventure tale rather than a history or biography...continued

Full Review Members Only (711 words)

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

The Wall Street Journal
Flee North stands on its both a thrilling portrait of the underground in action and as an inspiring demonstration of the extraordinary personal courage and sacrifice that activists demanded of themselves at a time when slavery's defenders dominated the national government and cynical businessmen like Slatter built mansions on profits derived from selling their fellow human beings.

The Washington Post
Flee North, a gripping story told at a brisk pace in the no-fuss prose of a practiced reporter, is a model of the advantages that journalists can bring to the writing of history… [It] is the kind of story we sorely need at a time when there is no shortage of opportunities for inspiring acts of heroism.

New York Times
The tremendous achievements of the man who coined the term 'underground railroad' are given their full due in the former New York Times journalist Scott Shane's Flee North.

Adam Hochschild, award-winning historian and author of American Midnight and many other books
Scott Shane has unearthed an extraordinary tale. His fast-paced story is not just inspiring, but also offers the satisfying spectacle of seeing exasperated slaveholders who had lost their human property get publicly taunted by one of the brave pair who helped smuggle these men, women, and children to freedom.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
In his riveting new book, Scott Shane for the first time recounts the extraordinary story of Thomas Smallwood, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and worked as a shoemaker in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. As a free man, Smallwood heroically led hundreds of enslaved people out of bondage, then mocked their former owners in sharply written dispatches in the abolitionist press. It was Smallwood, Shane argues convincingly, who had the distinction of naming the 'underground railroad.' Flee North restores to American history one of the most daring African American abolitionists, author of a long-neglected slave narrative, who not only courageously fought slavery but brilliantly satirized it.

Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63
This book is a treasure. Weaving together three unforgettable characters, Scott Shane transforms the origins of the underground railroad from a romantic nickname into full-scale human drama of tears, triumph, and laughter.

Booklist (starred review)
Written in an engaging, dynamic style, Flee North will captivate readers who want to know how people like Smallwood succeeded in duping countless enslavers. The fascinating tale of a swashbuckling abolitionist and his white activist companion will make readers wish for a film adaptation. This book is a tale of triumph in the face of unspeakable adversity. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.

Library Journal (starred review)
An exceptionally well-written book that takes readers into the life and political development of Smallwood. General readers and all types of libraries will need to add this book to their to-be-read lists and collections.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Shane brings to vivid life the exploits of abolitionist Thomas Smallwood in this exhilarating account. [...] This astonishing and propulsive narrative rights a historical wrong by returning Smallwood to prominence. It's an absolute must-read.

Kirkus Reviews
A forgotten chapter in abolitionist history is restored to history in a lively, readable narrative.

Reader Reviews

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book

Enslavement in Canada

Louis XIV's 1685 edict legalizing slavery in the French coloniesThe nonfiction book Flee North recounts how activist and writer Thomas Smallwood encouraged the enslaved individuals he helped escape to relocate to Canada, where slavery was illegal, rather than remaining in the United States, where they might be returned to captivity if caught. Smallwood himself settled in Toronto with his family in 1843 after nearly being apprehended in Baltimore. Canada had only abolished slavery less than a decade before, and only at the behest of Great Britain, who ruled the country at the time.

European colonial powers began the large-scale transport of enslaved people from Africa in the 16th century. While some of those affected were taken to Europe, most were shipped across the Atlantic in horrifying conditions ...

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked Flee North, try these:

  • Let Us Descend jacket

    Let Us Descend

    by Jesmyn Ward

    Published 2023

    About this book

    More by this author

    From Jesmyn Ward—the two-time National Book Award winner, youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, and MacArthur Fellow—comes a haunting masterpiece, sure to be an instant classic, about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War.

  • All That She Carried jacket

    All That She Carried

    by Tiya Miles

    Published 2022

    About this book

    More by this author

    A renowned historian traces the life of a single object handed down through three generations of Black women to craft an extraordinary testament to people who are left out of the archives.

We have 6 read-alikes for Flee North, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Holiday Sale!

Discover exceptional books
for just $3/month.

Find out more

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: The Covenant of Water
    The Covenant of Water
    by Abraham Verghese
    BookBrowse Fiction Award 2023

    Along the Malabar Coast of South India in 1900, a 12-year-old girl ...
  • Book Jacket: In Memoriam
    In Memoriam
    by Alice Winn
    BookBrowse Debut Book Award 2023

    Alice Winn's remarkable debut, In Memoriam, opens in 1914 at ...
  • Book Jacket: The Wager
    The Wager
    by David Grann
    BookBrowse Nonfiction Award 2023

    David Grann is a journalist, a staff writer for The New Yorker and...
  • Book Jacket: Remember Us
    Remember Us
    by Jacqueline Woodson
    BookBrowse YA Book Award 2023

    Remember Us is set largely across a single hazy summer of the 1970s in...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
by Sandra Newman
From critically acclaimed novelist Sandra Newman, a brilliantly relevant retelling of Orwell's 1984 from the point of Smith's lover, Julia.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Above the Salt
    by Katherine Vaz

    A sweeping love story that follows two Portugueses refugees who flee religious violence to build new lives in Civil-War America.

  • Book Jacket

    Alfie and Me
    by Carl Safina

    A moving account of raising, then freeing, an orphaned screech owl. Three starred reviews!

Who Said...

To win without risk is to triumph without glory

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.