John Washington, a young black man living in Philadelphia, a Ph.D. in history, packs up at a moment's notice and heads to...



John Washington, a young black man living in Philadelphia, a Ph.D. in history, packs up at a moment's notice and heads to his western Pennsylvania hometown upon learning of the nearing death of ""Old Jack."" A hermetic, backwoods type, Old Jack has taught John important life-lessons after John's father, Moses, died when John was still small. And the death of Old Jack will further unlock a secret which has expanded and unfolded back through generations: an examination of the Washington claws participation in the Underground Railroad and, with it, a whole overview of American slavery. This is what novelist Bradley (South Street, 1975) shoots for here; what he actually hits is chancier. It turns out that John's father, Moses Washington, moonshiner and real-estate speculator and all-around imposing figure, was following in the path of his own grandfather, C.K.--who kept clear a little-known spur of the emancipation route for escaped slaves before the Civil War, the ""middle passage"" that ran up through western Pennsylvania. And all that Moses had learned of C.K.'s bravery in keeping the passage open, as well as Moses' own scandalous knowledge about every white man in the county, has been secreted into a ""folio"" that now falls into John's reconstructing hands. So the information and relationships which John pieces together from this folio make up the novel--and the history does have a Michener-like plenitude and fascination. But this interesting material is delivered in an awfully rickety narrative structure: John recounts everything he has discovered to his white doctor girlfriend. And this contrived format is especially problematic because John is sour, cynical, and sometimes terribly schmaltzy (""But he had not known about the other cold, the cold inside, the glacier in his guts that had been growing and moving, inch by inch, year by year, grinding at him, freezing him""). So: a book of depths when it comes to the subject, but one of flubbed textures in execution; those with a special interest in black history will probably want to overlook the many flaws here and concentrate on the resonant slavery/Underground Railway material.

Pub Date: April 8, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981