Lea Wait

Seaward Born

Back to Novels for Young People

Buy now from:

Simon & Schuster
Margaret K. McElderry Books (hardcover)
ISBN 068984719X   or
Aladdin Books (paperback)
ISBN 0689848609
Also available as e-book

Thirteen-year-old Michael knows he is lucky. Few slaves in 1805 Charleston are where they want to be; Michael works on the docks in Charleston Harbor, close to the seas he longs to sail. Life seems good. But when his protective mistress dies, Michael’s world changes. His friend Jim encourages him to “steal himself”; to run. Michael is torn. Mama always taught him, “to get along, you go along.” But Papa wanted him to be free. “You see a possibility, boy, you take it. A fish you pull in as a free man tastes ten times sweeter than a fish you catch for a master.” Now Mama and Papa are dead, and Michael must decide alone. How Michael makes his decision to flee seaward to freedom is the heart of this moving and dramatic story set in an America where slavery is a way of life in the South, and the journey to freedom one of immense danger.

-Bank Street College “one of best children’s books of 2003”
-2004 International Reading Association Teachers’ Choice Booklist
-Student Choice Award nominations in Florida, Maine, South Carolina, Pennsylvania
-Gold Crown Award nominee

Kirkus Reviews: “An excellent illumination of conditions and behavior not explored often enough in children’s literature.”

Teachers and Librarians:

Lexile: 730L     Accelerated Reader Points:  5.0

Historical Events in Seaward Born:

The events in Seaward Born begin in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1805, just months after a devastating hurricane (similar to the 21st century’s Katrina) which destroyed much of the town. In 1805 South Carolina is balanced between the plantation rice culture, which is dying, and the cotton culture, which is rising. Both depend on slaves, most of whom have come from Gambia. 

Michael, a young slave whose parents were both killed in the storm, is owned by Mrs. Lautrec, who lives in town; her son owns a rice plantation. As the book begins, Mrs. Lautrec agrees to rent Michael out to work on a lighter (a small boat that unloads and loads large ships in shallow Charleston Harbor and brings shipments to and from the docks.) (Common core standard: the setting of Seaward Born, it’s time and place, is the reason for the plot. Michael’s personal decisions are forced because of economic decisions by others.)  

St. Michael's Church, Charleston, South Carolina

Michael loves working on the sea, and asks perhaps too many questions about where ships can go – north – to freedom. When Mrs. Lautrec dies and he is inherited by her son, who sells Michael’s friends to the Alabama territory (a bad place for slaves to go because they are clearing the land – hard labor,) he has to decide whether to risk his life and “steal himself,” or stay, and risk being sold. (Common Core element: problems and solutions; consequences of personal decisions) He chooses to run, and, with help, he and a friend hide on a ship headed for Boston. 

The ship sails, but is boarded by British sailors, who find his friend and impress him. Michael (now Noah) is revealed, and his future is uncertain, but skills he has learned from his mother, who was a cook, help him, and despite sailors who want to turn him in, he stays on board until they reach Boston. In Boston he’s helped by the free black community (Common Core standard: interdependence of household; changes in communication and transportation) who, with help from an abolitionist white captain, get him to a ship headed further north: to Wiscasset, Maine. 

In Maine he gets a job as a cook in a tavern, where he meets Abbie and Seth (from Stopping to Home) and gets comfortable … but his southern accent gives him away, and he has to flee from slave catchers again, this time to Nova Scotia.  

Notes:  Lea Wait’s book Stopping to Home tells the story of Abbie and Seth, from Abbie’s point of view. As they are minor characters in Seaward Born, Michael/Noah is a minor character in Stopping to Home. An interesting point of view exercise would be to compare and contrast the appropriate chapters in the two books, which show two sides of the story when the three meet in Wiscasset.     

 Michael/Noah’s mother’s recipe for Shrimp Pie is listed in the “Cooking from the Books” section of the website, here.   


Why did Michael change his name? If you were going to choose a new name, what name would you choose?  Why?

Many African Americans in Charleston had come from (or their parents or grandparents had come from) Gambia, in Africa?  What did they bring from their Gambian heritage that became part of the culture of South Carolina? Did your family come to the United States from another area of the world? If so, do you celebrate that country or tradition in any way? (contributions of different groups to North America)  

Slaves worked for their masters and did what they were told, without being paid. But the masters had responsibility for their slaves. What did masters provide for slaves?

In Seaward Born Michael/Noah lived in Charleston, Boston, and in the Maine seaport of Wiscasset. Compare and contrast each of these places. What did the people in each place do to earn a living? What was the relationship between African Americans and whites in each community? 

Michael’s mama wanted him to do as he was told. His papa wanted him to be free. Why do you think they each gave him different advice? Was one right and one wrong? Can you think of something you would like to do that might involve great risk … but, if you were successful, would result in great rewards? How would your parents feel about your attempting it?

At first Michael can’t decide whether to run away or stay in Charleston. Why should he run? Why should he stay?

Michael has to leave many of his friends as his journey continues. What do you think happened to Cudjoe? To Jim? To Sarah? To Beck? To Abbie and Seth?

Draw a picture to illustrate one of the new words you learned from reading Seaward Born

The toy boat Michael/Noah carries in his pocket is a symbol. What is it a symbol of? Why does he carry it with him?

Chapter 14 is the story Michael’s mother told him of her voyage from Africa to America on a slave ship and his own flight to freedom in a barrel. Give three examples of sensory details in the descriptions of their journeys. (Common Core Standard.)

New vocabulary words in Seaward Born:

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