Ilyon Woo recalls the visceral reaction she had upon reading the story of two married slaves in the deep South who used their formidable wits and courage to pull off an almost unimaginable escape.
“I just remember being jolted in my chair because I never had encountered any narrative like this before,” says Woo, who is among some 270 authors who will converge on Berkeley this weekend for the ninth annual Bay Area Book Festival featuring writers from 18 states as well as Ghana, Tibet, North Korea and Afghanistan.
Woo, who appears on Sunday afternoon in conversation with Dorothy Lazard, retired head librarian of the Oakland Public Library’s Oakland History Center, was a graduate student in English literature at Columbia University when she learned about William and Ellen Craft’s account of their astonishing bid for freedom.
Ellen, born in 1826 after her owner raped her biracial mother, was so light-skinned that she often was mistaken for being a member of her father’s white family.
When she and William fell in love, they decided to flee to the North using a ruse that enabled them to hide in plain sight: Ellen disguised herself as a wealthy gentleman sporting a top hat, cravat, spectacles and wearing trousers she had sewn, while William played the part of her servant.
In four days, the pair made their way by train, steamboat and horse-drawn carriages from Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Maryland before arriving in Philadelphia, narrowly avoiding detection more than once along the approximately 1,000-mile odyssey.
Woo couldn’t stop thinking about the Crafts, and in 2012 she gradually began delving into their story. Four years later she embarked in earnest on a fact-finding mission, poring over property deeds, court records, warrants, maps, diaries, letters, newspaper stories, as well as the Crafts’ family archives at a South Carolina museum dedicated to African American history — “everything I could get my hands on,” she says.
Her goal was not only to discover what had happened during gaps in the Crafts’ own short narrative of their saga, but immerse readers in those experiences, which Woo accomplished by recounting the sights, sounds and other sensory details that various travelers back then had described in documents.
“I wanted that sense of immediacy,” she says.
In January, her meticulous research was published in the 416-page book, “Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom.”
The book, the second Woo has written, quickly made its way to the New York Times best-seller list and received top marks among critics for her evocative descriptions of the Crafts’ perilous journey.
Woo’s hope is that their resilience will inspire readers and earn the couple recognition for their contributions to the abolitionist movement.
“They challenged the nation to be better — that’s what it means to be an American hero,” she said.
Heroes and anti-heroes of all types can be found in myriad books spotlighted in this weekend’s festival, which highlights more than two dozen genres as well as authors with roots in Native American, Latin American and Asian cultures who don’t yet have a national audience, says Julia Drake, the festival’s director of publicity.
“That is a huge part of the festival, giving voice to … authors (who) are not necessarily in the mainstream,” she says.
The festival’s wide variety of books makes it a draw for all ages, Drake says, adding that although Bay Area residents tend to be well-read, organizers in recent years have been reaching out to people who aren’t.
Attendees will find the event has a welcoming atmosphere, she says. “It just feels like a celebration of books. It doesn’t feel stuffy.”
The Bay Area Book Festival runs from 11 a.m. 9 p.m. May 6 and 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. May 7 at various locations in downtown Berkeley; the information booth is at Center Street and Shattuck Avenue. Most events are free. For the schedule, visit baybookfest.org.
A free outdoor fair with performances, a children’s area and dozens of literary exhibitors is on Sunday in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, 2151 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley.
Ilyon Woo speaks about “Master Slave Husband Wife” at 2 p.m. May 7 in Ballroom 1, Residence Inn by Marriott Berkeley, 2121 Center St.; visit baybookfest.org.