In the 1800's, a girl lived on a small farm in the southern part of the U.S. This girl had no name, her mother was dead, and her father and brothers treated her cruelly. Her father and brothers just called her "Girl," no name required.
Then one day, something happens that changes her life. A young girl comes to her farm, alone. This new girl has dark skin, very dark skin. This new girl is a runaway slave; she has run from her master and is probably heading for Canada, where she would be free. Her name is Zenobia, and the nameless girl first meets Zenobia when she comes to the doorstep of the nameless girl's cottage.
Zenobia actually is a slave, and the nameless girl is treated just like one. Soon, Zenobia and the nameless girl are on the run, because soon, the slave catchers will be after Zenobia, and the nameless girl's father will come looking for her.
Zenobia decides to give the nameless girl a name. She hears her whistling and thinks that she sounds just like a bird, so she calls her Lark, after the bird. This is very special for Lark. Receiving a name is like being welcomed into the world; for the first time, Lark feels like she has an identity. Lark is breaking the law to help Zenobia, where almost anyone else (like her father) would turn her in for the reward. The two girls quickly become like sisters, family.
They've been running a few days, and they climb a tree and stay there for the night. Lark and Zenobia are hiding in the tree when they hear Lark's father's voice call out:
"Where's the redhead girl? And where's my runaway slave girl?"
High up in the tree they are able to stay undetected, but the fact that Lark's father is looking for them is something to worry about. He had two hounds, who will find them in no time, except they apparently, thankfully, cannot smell up trees.
Later on, they meet Brightwell, another runaway slave. He runs with them, and in their journey they meet new people, both kind and cruel, encounter trouble and tragedy, and become lifelong friends. Lark's and Zenobia's journey on the Underground Railroad shows that there is so much more to a person than the color of their skin. It shows that the worst of times can bring out the best in people.
Zenobia and Lark stay together throughout their journey. Lark won't let anything separate them, not even the fact that her own father was hunting them down. So while this book is full of tragedy and trouble, there's something else in this story: loyalty to the people you love.
Daddy's afterthoughts: Julia kind of back-pedaled into it, but yes, this novel is a historical tie-in to the history of the Underground Railroad. This makes it more than just a fictitious lark (no pun intended), but a nice way to introduce the history via an engaging story about two heroic young women, though the history itself (names, places, dates, figures) is low-key and in the background - this does not read like a history textbook! The focus is on the actions and escapades of these two youngsters. The book is narrated in dialect; Lark is the first-person narrator of this book, and the sound of her voice comes though clearly in the altered spellings (-in instead of -ing, for example), word choices, and grammar ("Me and Zenobia set down..."). For some parents, I know this might present a problem, especially for younger readers whose parents might prefer exemplars of more polished "standard" English. But give it a try! Dialogue too is infused with the local color of the time and place, and parents will perhaps be happy to hear that the dreaded and hated "n-word" is not used anywhere in the book - not something you get with Huck Finn and the like. Perfect for grades 4 through 8.