Ilyon Woo: Master Slave Husband Wife
"Master Slave Husband Wife" by Ilyon Woo is the true story of two enslaved people from Macon, William and Ellen Craft, who escaped to freedom in 1848. Their escape was not at night or by the Underground Railroad but in plain sight. In this episode, Peter and Orlando break down this remarkable story.
This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia connections. Hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB radio, Peter Biello and Orlando Montoya.
Orlando Montoya: Coming up in this episode.
Peter Biello: I imagine there are some moments in this book where they almost get caught. Right. And there's a lot of tension.
Orlando Montoya: There's like many times that that happens like every step of the way.
Ilyon Woo: I mean, can you imagine when they first escaped slavery? It's only been like a couple of weeks and they're on this crazy abolitionist lecture circuit.
Peter Biello: Like with any good novel, right? This the stakes have to be high, right? And how could you get higher than this, really? Freedom, survival, or safety?
Orlando Montoya: Or death really.
Peter Biello: Or death, yeah. Yeah.
Orlando Montoya: This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia Connections hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB radio. I'm Orlando Montoya.
Peter Biello: And I'm Peter Biello. Thanks for joining us. As we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind the stories mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge.
Orlando Montoya: Hey, Peter, you excited to start a new podcast?
Peter Biello: I am so excited to start this new podcast. How about you?
Orlando Montoya: I just can't believe that I get to read books, talk with authors, and then, you know, come back to you and our listeners and tell you all about it. And I've got a great story to start out with.
Peter Biello: All right. Tell us all about it.
Orlando Montoya: It's called Master Slave Husband Wife by Ilyon Woo. And it's the true story of two enslaved people, William and Ellen Craft, who in 1848, from Macon, they board a train and they escaped to freedom up in the North. And it's just one of those stories. You know, the main characters face long odds and you just wonder how they're going to survive. And I spoke to the author, Ilyon Woo, about about that.
Ilyon Woo: I mean, it's just at every possible turn. It was a — it was a story that even though I knew it was going to happen, I was kind of at the edge of my own seat as I was writing it, because really seems impossible that they're going to make it with all the — really, all the challenges they face on the road.
Peter Biello: Okay. So you said they just got on a train, but how did they do that exactly? How did these two enslaved people make it all the way to the North?
Orlando Montoya: She disguised herself as a man. Ellen, she pretended to be a sickly master going to the north for treatment, and he disguised himself as his enslaved person. So they basically put on costumes, pretended to be other people, got on a train, and so they get on a train and there's all kinds of, you know, subterfuge about, you know, about them pretending to be who they are and using their skills really, to kind of get from the train to the boat up into another train and finally up all the way to the North.
Peter Biello: I imagine there are some moments in this book where they almost get caught, right? And there's a lot of tension.
Orlando Montoya: There's like many times that happens, like every step of the way. But, you know, with their wit, with their paying attention, using their skills. And let's not forget: I want to tell you that Ellen, the enslaved woman, she was a domestic worker in Macon, so she had access to the house so she could observe how masters sound, how they move. And she also had access to — to news. And she was also a seamstress so she could make clothes. And so they — they used their skill, they used their wits and they paid attention and they escaped. It really is a remarkable story.
Peter Biello: How did you find out about the story?
Orlando Montoya: Well, I'm from Savannah and I was a tour guide there for — for many years, also a news producer there. And so it was one of those kind of like hidden stories. That like only like really, really super historical people knew in Savannah. Like, even in Savannah, it's not well known. It was known as Savannah because they passed through Savannah from Macon onto the boat. And then afterwards she founds a school in nearby Bryan County. And so, you know, I found out about this story just sort of by being in that super nerdy historical world in Savannah. And then now the wonderful thing is I get to ask Ilyon Woo, the author, how she found out about the story. And it was actually a book that the two themselves published after they escaped to freedom.
Ilyon Woo: It's a wonderful book. It's called Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, and it's maybe 60-some pages long. It's relatively short. And it is — it has a really rollicking adventure. They describe it almost as an adventure story, almost like a travel narrative. So many different — romance, all these different things at once. But there's a lot that they don't say and they can't say or they won't say because at the time of their writing, Maria, Ellen's mother, is still enslaved by her original enslaver-father's wife. So they have to be careful and they still have other loved ones in bondage. So there's a lot that they don't reveal. They don't — they don't, for example, include the name — names of their enslavers. Actually, William does, but he doesn't include the first names. So there's there are a lot of gaps. They go on this incredible abolitionist lecture circuit to tell their story. And there's a big crisis in Boston. I mean, there's adventure after adventure. But they they actually don't narrate those experiences. There's nothing about the abolitionist lecture tour. I mean, can you imagine when they first escaped slavery? It's only been like a couple of weeks and they're on this crazy abolitionist lecture circuit. They've just — just escaped and they're physically exhausted, I'm sure, like spiritually in every other possible way, depleted. And every night they're going and every night people are asking these pretty probing, very deeply personal questions about their loss and their trauma and their families. And they're all these experiences. It's possible that she just decided that she didn't want to speak these things anymore. She seems to be very good about speaking up when she wants to. Which is why I think that we have to take those silences as another kind of gesture.
Orlando Montoya: So the interesting thing to me here is how Woo takes this short book that they wrote with all of its silences and shortcomings and then turns it into her book, which really has all the adventure of a play or a movie.
Peter Biello: So has it become a play or a movie?
Orlando Montoya: To the best of my knowledge, no. And I can tell you that Woo is not going to be the one to do that. Woo is very kind of adamant about that. She doesn't want any kind of dramatization in her book. She wanted her work to be a work of nonfiction. And you might be aware that, you know, when you start a book of nonfiction, it might say, you know, based on true events, which is basically like, you know, the author telling you that —
Peter Biello: Some of this is made up.
Orlando Montoya: Yeah. You know, beware. A lot of this is going to be made up. But no, her book is is strictly factual. And she'll leave it to other people to to write the movie or play.
Ilyon Woo: I'm sure it could be. I think it could make a fabulous play. I think there's so many different ways to interpret the story, and I hope there'll be other artists and filmmakers and music, you know, musical writers who will jump in and do that. But for me, that was never a possibility. I guess I wanted to honor the Crafts by presenting everything I could factually and not putting myself in there by imagining anything.
Orlando Montoya: About the book's pacing: How did you decide how quickly it should read if, as you mentioned, their story themselves was — was 60 pages that it could have been a short book. But you paced out the the revealing of the information.
Ilyon Woo: Well, it was really important for me to not just focus on the spectacle of their escape, but really to show the full picture, really kind of almost give a panoramic picture of both the before and the after and everything that they risked every single moment of this journey. I mean, that's really when you see how amazing and heroic they are, when you see that at every, any possible moment. I mean, they're hanging above a pit and there's like a string that's suspending them there. And any false move could lead them into an abyss. That was really important to me to be able to do that.
Peter Biello: Talk about an adventure story: "Hanging above a pit?!"
Orlando Montoya: Wow. I mean, when you think about how many enslaved people tried this and didn't escape. You know, we don't even know that, really. But so many people tried and didn't. You know, this is — it's such a such a success story.
Peter Biello: Yeah, well, like with any good novel, right? This — the stakes have to be high, right? And how could you get higher than this? Really? Freedom, survival, safety.
Orlando Montoya: Or death really.
Peter Biello: Or death, yeah. Yeah. Well, so what happens at the end? I mean, they go on this lecture tour after they, they, they escape to the North. But what beyond that, how does it end?
Orlando Montoya: Well, it's not exactly a happy ending. They they do escape to the North. But in 1850, Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act, which means that they're in danger of being recaptured by their former enslavers. So they escape to England. That's where they write their book. They go on an abolitionist tour. They they talk about women's rights. They — you know, suffrage — and the war ends. They come back to Georgia and they settle in Bryan County near Savannah, as I mentioned before. And that's where they start a farm. The farm fails, they start a school, the school fails. And so they eventually have to go to live with their daughter in Charleston. And that's where they die in poverty, as a lot of some of these stories end, they they end in obscurity and poverty in Charleston. She dies in 1891, William, in 1900.
Peter Biello: Wow. So what did you take away from this book overall, Orlando?
Orlando Montoya: So I think the lesson here is to grab life and do something with it. You know, do what you can right now to better yourself, to better others, you know, take risks. You know, as I said, they might fail. They, William and Ellen Craft, failed in the end, you know? In the end, we're all going to die. But we can't — you can't take that. You got to — in every step of their story, they're fully involved in their lives to improve their lives and the lives of others. And that's what I love about this book.
Ilyon Woo: I don't think I can speak for the Crafts because I'm not in their heads, but just based on everything I've known and studied and — and of them, I would say that there are people who dug heartily into life. They're not ones to sort of sit back and and say, "I don't really care." They cared so, so deeply about everything. And I think that kind of passion, when you lead life with that kind of passion, it comes with joy. And they brought joy to so many people around them.
Orlando Montoya: So does that sound like a story you want to read about?
Peter Biello: Yeah, I mean, I want to hear how they brought joy. I want to hear how it inspired you. You know, I want to I want to see that for myself.
Orlando Montoya: Well, I'm glad to bring it to you. I'm glad to bring it to our listeners. And I hope you'll have a good story for me next time.
Peter Biello: I've got some good stuff coming your way, for sure.
Orlando Montoya: All right. That was all about Master Slave Husband Wife by Ilyon Woo.
Peter Biello: Thanks for listening to the Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at GPB.org/NarrativeEdge.
Orlando Montoya: You also can catch us on the Daily GPB News podcast, Georgia Today, for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that, and for all of our podcasts, go to GPB.org/Podcasts.