The long arm of coincidence and an overload of what seems very like wish-fulfillment mar this potentially moving story of a runaway slave’s northward odyssey, the successor to Durham’s flawed but deservedly praised first novel Gabriel’s Story (2001).
It consists of two parallel narratives. The primary one follows William “Humboldt’s” flight (in 1854) from the Maryland tidewater plantation where he had remained after his pregnant wife Dover was brought by her mistress north, to Philadelphia. Interpolated italicized chapters and passages chart the progress of Andrew Morrison, a Scottish immigrant and hunter hired by William’s owner to retrieve the latter’s “property.” The story is best in the early going, as Durham’s obviously thorough research and deep empathy with his subject create vivid pictures of Morrison’s haunted past and William’s successive ordeals, including incarceration in a slave compound followed by a bloody rebellion during which he escapes again, rescue by a ship whose compassionate captain refuses the demands of Southern slaveholders, and William’s embattled passage to Philadelphia and reunion with Dover. So far, so good—except when characters like saintly fellow fugitive Lemuel and Northern freedman Redford Prince are permitted to lecture us about such issues as the Fugitive Slave Law and the brotherhood of man. And the novel collapses into ludicrous contrivance when Durham (as unsubtly as can be imagined) links the guilty secret in Morrison’s past with William’s clouded paternity and personal history. One understands that Durham’s point is (as Faulkner made clear again and again in his fiction) the degree to which all our histories intersect and are interdependent. But his story’s thrust is so weighted toward melodramatic oversimplification that one thinks, while reading it, less of earlier literary fiction built on similar themes than of the TV version of Roots.
The sheer power of its core material makes Walk Through Darkness intermittently gripping and affecting, but far too much of its content simply defies credibility. One wonders if it’s actually Durham’s first novel.