An immigrant escapes the Irish potato famine only to find fresh horrors in America in this debut novel.
During the winter of 1848, Lord Hargrove Bromwell of Clonaugh, Ireland, is losing his fortune to the potato blight. He decides to oust his tenant farmers, paying their ways to America rather than keeping them on land they can’t afford. Twelve-year-old Sarah Laughlin and her mother, Anna, sail for Baltimoretowne in the United States, where Sarah’s grandfather Andrew Browne awaits them. Sadly, Anna doesn’t survive the ship’s unsanitary conditions, and Sarah meets Andrew with her new friends, Joseph and Mrs. Connor, who helped her through the rough trans-Atlantic journey. Soon after arriving, she’s offered kitchen work at the Kensington Plantation, where Andrew also works. There, she meets Matilde, a slave her own age. Sarah can’t understand why slaves don’t earn wages or how they can be considered someone’s property. She secretly teaches Matilde to read, flouting the law. Later, she overhears her grandfather speaking with abolitionists about helping escaped slaves from Richmond, Virginia, travel north. Sarah’s desire to help Matilde and other slaves escape quickly builds into an irresistible force. The characters in Tilghman’s debut spring lushly from the author’s excellent research. In Ireland, for example, Sarah’s people live in a one-room earthen hut, and their losses in the potato famine are a “trail of death” that “eliminated her family like a slow-burning cook fire.” Exquisite passages also appear elsewhere, as when Andrew tells Sarah that “the heartache about your ma will sometimes feel like the ocean...so big we can’t feel the end of it.” The fact that Sarah and Matilde’s burgeoning sisterhood is made possible by slavery deepens the narrative’s tragic mien. Yet Tilghman also finds the sacred whenever possible, as when she says that the other slaves gave Matilde “a home inside herself, a place of rest and peace, free from the constraints of plantation life.” The overall message, that one doesn’t leave horrors behind but absorbs them, is a marvelous one.
A supremely rewarding historical-fiction debut.