Name of Book: Journey to the Bottomless Pit
Author: Elizabeth Mitchell
Illustrator: Kelynn Alder
ISBN: 0439826403 (paperback)
Audience: 6-8th grade
Summary: This is a fictionalized history of Stephen Bishop, a Kentucky slave in 1838 who at the age of 17 began to guide tours through Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The story describes how he discovers many of the features of the caves that are still visited today, including a river and blind cavefish. Starting with the proven facts of his life, the author imagines how Stephen would feel as his slavery days continue. His fame as a knowledgeable guide was recognized throughout the world. He even drew the first map of the cave for a book published by his owner. Stephen Bishop died at age 36, one year after being set free.
Literary elements at work in the story: This fictionalized 3rd person historical memoir takes place in pre-civil war Kentucky. Stephen Bishop is depicted as a young, contented slave with minor characters who respect him as a person. The story journeys through his life from age 17 until his death. The discoveries that he makes in the caves are illustrated by pencil drawings, throughout the book. This enables readers to see the discoveries along side of him. Other stories for this age group about persons overcoming slavery are Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, and Freedom River by Gloria Whelan.
(How) does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? This story is an inspiring story of a brave and determined young man, who made a noteworthy contribution to the world, despite being enslaved. A very vital and essential point to expose children to is that in spite of slavery, people were able to make contributions to humankind. These enslaved people didn’t have wealth or power, but they managed to survive and sometimes thrive through unexplainable hurdles.
Scripture: Colossians 4:1; 1 Corinthians 7:20-24; Ephesians 6:5-9; The story of Moses -throughout the books of Exodus & Deuteronomy
Theology: The early converts to Christianity in Ancient Rome faced many difficulties. The first converts were usually the poor and slaves as they had a great deal to gain from the Christians being successful. The dangers faced by the Christians in Rome meant that they had to meet in secret. They usually used underground tombs as these were literally out of sight. Rome had a large number of poor people within its population and Christianity continued to grow. In AD 313, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and for the first time, they were allowed to openly worship.
Paul was not opposed to the freedom of slaves if the opportunity arose but believed that God had called people to different stations in life and they were to live out the Christian life in the situation in which they were called. Masters were to treat their slaves well because they both had the same master in heaven with which there is no partiality.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Slaves were not always treated well or paid for their work. Stephen seems to make a choice to not only be obedient, but also to have a positive attitude. Why do you think he chose to try his best, even when he surely would have preferred to be free?
- Stephen’s excitement for adventure allowed him to have an extraordinary life for a slave. What Biblestory does this remarkable life remind you of? Why?
- One of the places that was found in Mammoth Cave was an underground church. Where in the Bible have you heard of a church underground? Why would the people need to have their church meet there?
- One of the hardest parts of our daily lives is being obedient. In what part of your life do you struggle with obedience?
- According to the author’s version of this story, Stephen was content with his life as an explorer/ guide. Why did he have more freedom than the other slaves that his master owned? Where did he experience this the most? What gives you contentment in your life? Remember that God can be that contentment for you!
- Please discuss with your students that the interpretation of slaves at that time was they were thought of as simple property, and that Steven and many others whose stories were not documented showed a remarkable spirit and trust in the Lord. They triumphed over being enslaved many ways, and they personified humanity despite being enslaved.