Addy's Surprise

Published in 1993; author Connie Porter; illustrators Melodye Rosales, Renee Graef, and Luanne Roberts


Christmas is on its way, and with it, cold weather. The room Addy and her mother live in is drafty and cold, but it's home. They're saving up what little money they can to buy a lamp; the candlelight just isn't enough. Addy's contributing the tips she gets delivering the dresses her mother and Mrs. Ford sew. Addy wishes the rest of her family could be with them, especially at this time of year. She knows her mother misses the others terribly, and wants to give her something special for Christmas. She sees a beautiful red scarf in a secondhand store, just right for her mother, and saves half her tips to buy it, putting the other half in the lamp fund.

One Sunday at church, the minister tells the congregation about boat coming, with a group of newly-freed slaves. He reminds the people how difficult it was for them when they arrived, suddenly free and with hardly anything to their names. Addy and her mother agree that a lamp can wait; they'll give the meager funds to help those with even less. Addy goes to the pier with Sarah Moore to greet the new arrivals, just as Addy herself was greeted a few months before. She helps a family with a baby, carrying the little one to the church. Her heart aches for her baby sister, and hoping that someone can help the rest of her family get to freedom the way Addy helped people today, she donates the money for the scarf to the church's freedman fund.

Little surprises crop up as the holiday approaches. Mrs. Ford invites Addy to stay downstairs in the shop and sew with her mother, instead of being relegated to the cold room above. Addy's thrilled to be able to spend time with her mother. One day a woman storms in with a dress Addy's mother had toiled over, insisting it was made poorly because it doesn't fit her daughter (who seems to have grown since her last fitting). Mrs. Ford stands up for Mrs. Walker, proclaiming her the best seamstress she's ever seen. The woman returns the dress, and Mrs. Ford hems it and takes it in to fit Addy. She lets Addy have the part she cut off the bottom, and Addy makes it into a scarf even more beautiful than the one she couldn't buy.

Christmas morning, Addy gives her mother the scarf, and receives a doll to replace the one she gave Esther. She and her mother head out for the church's Christmas celebration, where they're overwhelmed with the extravagance of everything. Addy takes it all in, hopeful that next Christmas her father, Sam, and Esther can be there to celebrate too.

While watching a children's play, Addy sees a familiar silhouette: it's her father! He was separated from Sam almost immediately after being sold, but he was able to make it to Philadelphia for Christmas. The three Walkers head home, where they find that Mrs. Ford has left a kerosene lamp for a present. Addy's father fixes the window, and they settle down for some of Mrs. Walker's sweet potato pudding. The family isn't complete yet, but it's getting closer.

Looking Back

Christmas during the Civil War was a scant affair for most people. There were few families who hadn't lost fathers, brothers, or sons in the fighting, and many were separated from each other. The war also caused the prices of even necessities to skyrocket, meaning that gift were not only hard to come by, but sometimes food as well. The North wasn't as bad off as the South--most of the fighting was in the South--and more families there had the means to celebrate, but everyone who did celebrated fairly simply. Soldiers on the front lines had even briefer Christmas observances.

The historical section also mentions two other holidays important to African-American culture: Kwanzaa, a celebration that runs from December 26 to January 1 to honor African heritage, and Juneteenth, held on the nineteenth of June to commemorate the date that many slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation.


This book is dedicated to Tia Porter, the author's niece.

It just occurred to me that Addy's mother had to sew by hand. She mentions sewing with a needle and thread by candlelight, and while the sewing machine was invented in 1790, it wasn't widely used right away, and there wasn't an American manufacturer until 1845. The Laura Ingalls Wilder book Little Town on the Prairie mentions them as very recent imports to the Dakota Territory in the 1880s; it's unlikely that a dressmaker would be able to afford one during the war years.

The minister at Addy's church instructs the congregation to read along with a Bible passage. The Bibles are provided, and it's clearly not a liturgical church like I'm used to (I'm Catholic), so I don't know whether that makes sense. I've been to Protestant services with my friends where we read along with the pastor, but literacy rates today are much higher than they were among populations of former slaves. I wonder if would be realistic for ministers to have people read along. Maybe it helped them learn to read.

There's a really touching moment when Addy's father realizes she knows how to read. He's overcome with emotion, proudly telling her he always knew she was smart.

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