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IN THE UPPER COUNTRY by Kai Thomas Kirkus Star


by Kai Thomas

Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 2023
ISBN: 978-0-593-48950-5
Publisher: Viking

A killing in 19th-century Canada sparks a chain of revelations in this fine debut novel.

It’s the summer of 1859 in a town in southern Canada called Dunmore, “populated by refugees of slavery.” Lensinda Martin is a housekeeper, a newspaper reporter, and a young Black woman with healing knowledge who is asked to help a White Ohioan shot by one of the two women he’s been hunting under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act. Sinda arrives too late to save him, but she interviews Cash, the shooter, in jail, seeking a backstory that will bolster the woman's legal case. Instead, Cash asks her: “Will you barter with me? A tale for a tale?” So begins a beguiling exchange of personal stories that will draw surprising links between Sinda and Cash while dipping into slave narratives that highlight historical relations between Blacks and Native Americans, especially in the War of 1812. In one such tale, a young slave in Virginia named Chiron is led to “the underlands, a Negro village of warriors” built entirely from underground tunnels and chambers. Chiron will meet a Native American named John whose journal will provide some of these stories and whose Black wife is young Cash. Other Native Americans will capture Cash and sell her into slavery in Kentucky. Two of her children will be fierce warriors in the 1812 war. Returning later to the underlands, Chiron will hear a story from its ruler, King Cullin, that is crucial to his family. Time in this novel meanders between past and present like a forest path, and the narratives drift back and forth across the U.S.–Canada border. The harshly real and the fantastic mingle in ways that recall Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. What’s most impressive is Thomas’ imaginative power; sure-handed, often lyrical prose; and strong, complex, resilient women.

An exceptional work that mines a rich historical vein.