A historical novel set in the slavery era interweaves the stories of three men as they navigate the brutal social landscape of the time.
In 1832, Brady Scott is piloting a steamboat through dangerous Mississippi River shallows as an employment test when a miscalculation triggers tragedy. The engines are fired to power over a sandbar, which causes an explosion that kills multiple passengers, including Brady’s mother. The white pilot blames the black man in charge of the boiler team, Sandford Brown, for the disaster, making it his mission to track him down and obtain justice. Unemployable for his part in the catastrophe, Brady eventually becomes an apprentice at the St. Louis Observer under Elijah Lovejoy, whose paper lends a “new moral voice” to the area. The white abolitionist’s unpopular views make him a target and he moves the paper in 1834 to Alton, Illinois, believing a free state will prove more liberated. But three attempts to ship a new printing press result in the machine’s destruction, even when Brady accompanies it on the journey. The final assault on the press sees Lovejoy fatally shot. Witnessing Lovejoy’s unceasing moral convictions in the face of threats to his paper and life causes Brady to re-examine his own racist past and whether Sandford’s role in the steamboat blast deserved such intense blame. When Brady discovers Sandford is now working in Cleveland, the former pilot can finally take decisive revenge or offer total forgiveness. Cornelius (The Baker’s Daughter, 2018) describes his work as “historical character fiction” in the afterword, with the absorbing story heavily drawing on the published autobiographies of slave William Wells Brown (the basis for Sandford) and real-life abolitionist Lovejoy. Brady’s arc is a bit more contrived, with the character starting out as an outwardly racist teenager who unjustly blames Sandford for the steamboat accident, resulting in his irrational hatred of the man for most of the book. The author’s extensive research on the operation of steamboats is exemplary, but the action scenes involving steering the vessels will likely only excite nautical fans. Still, Cornelius skillfully highlights the complexities of America’s stratified society during the slavery era in this uneven but satisfying novel.
An engrossing tale about the treacherous racial politics before the Civil War.