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One of The New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2023
New York Times Bestseller
Named a best book of 2023 by The New Yorker, Time, NPR, Smithsonian Magazine, and Oprah Daily
The remarkable true story of Ellen and William Craft, who escaped slavery through daring, determination, and disguise, with Ellen passing as a wealthy, disabled White man and William posing as “his” slave.
In 1848, a year of international democratic revolt, a young, enslaved couple, Ellen and William Craft, achieved one of the boldest feats of self-emancipation in American history. Posing as master and slave, while sustained by their love as husband and wife, they made their escape together across more than 1,000 miles, riding out in the open on steamboats, carriages, and trains that took them from bondage in Georgia to the free states of the North.
Along the way, they dodged slave traders, military officers, and even friends of their enslavers, who might have revealed their true identities. The tale of their adventure soon made them celebrities, and generated headlines around the country. Americans could not get enough of this charismatic young couple, who traveled another 1,000 miles criss-crossing New England, drawing thunderous applause as they spoke alongside some of the greatest abolitionist luminaries of the day—among them Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown.
But even then, they were not out of danger. With the passage of an infamous new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, all Americans became accountable for returning refugees like the Crafts to slavery. Then yet another adventure began, as slave hunters came up from Georgia, forcing the Crafts to flee once again—this time from the United States, their lives and thousands more on the line and the stakes never higher.
With three epic journeys compressed into one monumental bid for freedom, Master Slave Husband Wife is an American love story—one that would challenge the nation’s core precepts of life, liberty, and justice for all—one that challenges us even now.
About the Author
Ilyon Woo is the New York Times bestselling author of Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom and The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal,Time, and The New York Times, and she has received support for her research from the Whiting Foundation, and National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Antiquarian Society, among other institutions. She holds a BA in the Humanities from Yale College and a PhD in English from Columbia University.
"It’s an edge-of-your-seat drama that will leave many wondering why the duo’s remarkable story has been so overlooked by history."
— Time, "100 Must-Read Books of 2023"
"A narrative of such courage and resourcefulness it seems too dashing to be true. But it is. . . . The story is so richly dramatic, and Ms. Woo so skilled at spinning it out, that at times it’s a genuine nail-biter."
— Priscilla M. Jensen
“Master Slave Husband Wife is a suspenseful, sensitively rendered account of [Ellen and William Craft’s] four-day journey to the North. . . . Woo tells the story [with] a cinematic eye. She excels at setting scenes, conjuring the sensations experienced by the Crafts at each harrowing point. . . . The vivid details help Woo to convey the Crafts’ attention to every element of their plot."
— W. Caleb McDaniel
“Master Slave Husband Wife tells one of the most important stories of American slavery and freedom. With prose that is suspenseful, brilliantly detailed, historically precise, and simply gorgeous, Woo depicts the Crafts and their historic role in antebellum America stunningly. This is a story that will stay with you for a lifetime.”
— Imani Perry, author of South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation
“Marked by careful research and breathtaking prose, Master Slave Husband Wife complicates and compliments the incredible story of Ellen and William Craft. Woo reminds us that the pursuit of freedom is always worth the risk.”
— Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
“A gripping adventure. . . . suspenseful and wonderfully told. A captivating tale that ably captures the determination and courage of a remarkable couple.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Master Slave Husband Wife, like all of the truly great American stories, spent over a century lying in wait, desperate to be told. Enter Ilyon Woo. Ellen and WIlliam Craft loved each other, but also loved freedom, and knew one was impossible without the other. And so they embarked on one of the most daring feats ever attempted in American history, a breathless story captured with breathless prose, and we readers gasp in amazement and wonder at the tragedy and triumph."
— Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize
“For those of us who already were familiar with Ellen and William Craft, we’re so grateful for this reconsideration of this courageous couple’s story. Ilyon Woo has accomplished a phenomenal feat, presenting previously unpublished archival excavations. Certainly, this is an essential addition to early African American studies—but more than research, Woo offers the Crafts’ travels with such grace, such tenderness. Here is a necessary rendering of Black love, Black resilience, and Black humanity during one of our nation's most fraught times.”
— Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
"In this beautifully written and deeply researched book, Ilyon Woo has brought to life one of the most remarkable instances of a fugitive slave escape. In narrating the fantastic story of William and Ellen Craft's revolt against slavery, she has given us an entre into the exciting yet dangerous world of transatlantic abolitionism and its daring assault on slavery's regime of terror."
— Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition
“Ilyon Woo’s skillfully crafted storytelling brings new insights to what it means to steal oneself from slavery. Her harrowing tale of Ellen and William Craft's flight to freedom is a page turner that immerses the reader in the couple’s thoughtfully planned world of secrets, disguises, and misdirection and the culture of 19th century slave owners, their human property and the abolition movement. It is a beautifully written, thoroughly researched, and compelling story of courage, love, and yearning to be free.”
— Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, author of Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights