60 pages 2 hours read

Shelley Pearsall

Trouble Don't Last

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


Trouble Don’t Last (2002) is a middle grade historical fiction novel by Shelley Pearsall. The 11-year-old protagonist, Samuel, was born into enslavement in Kentucky, and his mother was sold away when he was still a baby. After being raised by two older enslaved people, Harrison and Lilly, Samuel embarks with Harrison on a harrowing, dangerous journey to Canada, where they can be free. The novel explores the hardships of enslavement, the challenges of seeking freedom, and the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Underground Railroad.

This guide refers to the paperback edition published by Yearling in 2003.

Content Warning: Trouble Don’t Last and this guide contain descriptions of enslavement, abuse, death, and the forced separation of families. The source text also includes outdated, racist language, some of which is quoted in this guide.

Plot Summary

Eleven-year-old Samuel was born into enslavement on a plantation in Kentucky. His mother, Hannah, was sold away when he was a baby, and two older enslaved people on the plantation, Harrison and Lilly, raised him. Unbeknownst to Samuel, Harrison is Hannah’s father and Samuel’s grandfather, but he conceals this from Samuel to spare him emotional pain should they ever be separated. Before Hanna was forced to leave her family, Harrison asked her to send him gray yarn if she ever got free. Later, she sends yarn with the words “Chatham, Canada” (her new location), and Harrison decides to run away with Samuel. Lilly is not Harrison’s wife and doesn’t want to leave the plantation, where all her children are buried. At first, Samuel is afraid of running away because it is dangerous and being caught would come with brutal punishments. However, he goes with Harrison. They hide from the plantation owners, the Hacklers, and dogs until rain drives their pursuers away. Samuel and Harrison walk through cornfields and woods until they reach the Ohio River, which is too big to swim across into Ohio.

Harrison makes a bird call, and a boat appears to shuttle them across. The “river man” (the man rowing the boat) also picks up a freedom seeker named Hetty Scott, who has patrollers chasing her. However, on the other side of the river in Kentucky, she refuses to get out of the boat because she does not want to get her dress muddy, so the river man sends her back. The river man instructs Samuel to walk as if he’s doing nothing wrong, to plan ahead before running from patrollers, and to look for weaknesses in patrollers. He takes Samuel and Harrison to a woman named Mrs. Taylor, and they hide at her house until they can travel to the next stop. Mrs. Taylor says that she didn’t want to help freedom seekers and is only doing so to honor her deceased husband’s wishes. She takes them to a church run by Reverend Pry, who writes down their stories. Harrison doesn’t like this because it might cause them to get caught, so he rips the stories up.

A woman named Miz Kettle meets Samuel and Harrison at Reverend Pry’s church and gives them disguises to wear while they walk in the daylight to the next safe location. Her husband, Ham, also gives them a string of fish to carry so that if anyone stops them, they have an excuse to explain why they are out. On the way, a white man stops Harrison and Samuel and steals the fish. This discourages Harrison because he has been looking forward to being able to fish once he gets free, and he was punished for fishing on plantations in the past. He doesn’t want to keep going, but Samuel encourages him, and Ham says they’re almost to the next stop.

The next stop is a house owned by a man named Green Murdock. He lies to them about what food he has so that they pay him more than they should. When Harrison gets sick with pneumonia, Green Murdock says they can’t stay with him anymore. He takes them to a nearby Black neighborhood, and Samuel knocks on doors until someone agrees to help him. Samuel and Harrison stay with Belle and August Henry for a while, and they help nurse Harrison back to health. August works on trains and suggests that Harrison and Samuel could hide in a cargo train car for the next leg of their journey. During his illness, Harrison reveals to Samuel that his mother is free and in Canada, in case Samuel has to continue without him. He also reveals that he is Samuel’s grandfather.

Shortly after Harrison’s health improves, word spreads that patrols are coming to search the Black neighborhood where Harrison and Samuel have been hiding. They leave before the patrols arrive, getting in the cargo train car that August selected. Another freedom seeker named Ordee Lee is hiding in the same car. They ride the train all the way to the southern shores of Lake Erie, which separates Ohio from Canada. Once they arrive, another man helps them out of the train car and takes them to the docks. He says they can roll some barrels onto a ship and then ride the ship into Canada. However, patrols are checking the area, and they stop Samuel, Harrison, and Ordee Lee. The patrollers tie them up, and one goes to fetch the constable to ask what to do.

When the constable and the other patrolman return, Samuel notices that the constable doesn’t seem to want to send anyone back to enslavement and is looking for an excuse not to have to do so. Samuel remembers the river man’s advice to look for weaknesses and formulate a plan before running. He tells the constable that Ordee Lee has their free papers in his pocket. Ordee Lee really does have a piece of paper, but it’s blank and is wrapped around some hairs from the family members he had to leave behind. The constable takes the paper and pretends that it is really an official document, and then he orders the patrols to let Samuel, Harrison, and Ordee Lee go. They get on the boat.

Samuel, Harrison, and Ordee Lee move to Chatham, Canada, where Hannah is. Ordee Lee becomes a blacksmith and is grateful to Samuel for securing his freedom. Harrison is able to fish without anyone taking the fish he catches, and Samuel gets to finally reunite with his mother and live a free life.