A former slave ventures into cotton country to participate in the Underground Railroad.
Playing piano in a minstrel show is an unlikely job for Benjamin January, born into bondage but now a free man of color who trained as a surgeon in France. But the owner of the All-American Zoological Society’s Traveling Circus and Exhibition of Philosophical Curiosities pays January a weekly salary of $10 to send home to his wife and son in New Orleans. When January and his friend Hannibal Sefton, a recovering opium addict who quotes Latin and plays fiddle in the band, receive an urgent call to travel up the Mississippi to Vicksburg, January must pose as the slave of his white companion and look to him for protection. In the Mississippi Valley of 1839, a prime cotton hand sells for $1,500, and January could easily be tricked or even kidnapped into slavery. He’s willing to take that chance, however, to give medical help to Rex Ballou, a black barber wounded while trying to rescue runaway slaves following the Drinking Gourd—that is, the Big Dipper—to freedom. Ballou works with Ezekias Drummond, a white preacher who’s an outspoken critic of abolition by day and a conductor on the Underground Railroad by night. He and his two sons are harboring several fugitives in an old ice house and hoping to move them upriver with the help of Jubal Cain, the assumed name of a founding member of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society posing as a slave dealer. But Cain publicly denounces Drummond and is arrested when the preacher is found stabbed to death in a cabin belonging to the subjugated wife of a wealthy planter. January risks not just his freedom, but his life to find the killer in a world in which white men treat their women little better than their slaves.
Hambly (Crimson Angel, 2014, etc.) juxtaposes heroism with hypocrisy and altruism with cruelty in her compelling sixth installment.