A nuanced historical novel that pits the bonds of family and friendship against the horrors of slavery.
In 1858, field hand Thomas lives on the Ellis plantation in Mississippi with his wife, Mary, and their daughter, 11-year-old Angel. They find comfort in small things, such as fishing, blackberries and worship with their fellow slaves. Then Thomas starts having symbolic dreams featuring a mysterious “Spirit Man”; meanwhile, his friend Lias’ son is sold to finance Mistress Ellis’ trip to New Orleans. Lias, heartbroken over the loss of his son, runs away, and Thomas and Mary worry that Angel will be sold next. After Lias is gone, the plantation’s overseer, Fitch, repeatedly rapes Lias’ wife—and when Lias is caught and returned, Fitch gives him the worst whipping that Thomas has ever seen. Fitch then kills a slave from a neighboring plantation, and Master Ellis trades Angel to pay the debt for Fitch’s actions. Although Angel’s new master is significantly gentler than Master Ellis, Mary remains inconsolable. When tragedy strikes, it’s worse than Thomas could have ever foreseen, and its reverberations are massive. Ryan’s powerful story will command readers’ attention. The Ellis plantation and the people who live there are viscerally, hauntingly real, thanks to the author’s creative choices; for example, when Thomas describes the despicable Master Ellis, he observes that he “was a big man with squinty eyes and lips like they be thin from him pressing them together all the time. I don’t believe he got room for a kind word to squeeze between them snake lips of his.” Writing in dialect can be difficult to do successfully, but by choosing to write from Thomas’ perspective, Ryan reaps the benefits of using nonstandard sentence construction without condescending to his characters. However, the world of the Ellis plantation is so engrossing that Thomas’ dreams sometimes feel like unnecessary distractions, and delineating fewer of them might have sped up the plot.
A forceful indictment of American slavery, full of lyrical beauty and shattering loss.