A Virginia family suffers poverty and sorrow as slavery tears their world apart.
Taking up the lives of the Dickinson family from her last historical novel, Spalding (The Purchase, 2013, etc.) follows the misfortunes of patriarch Daniel’s sons: Benjamin, a dissolute spendthrift; and his half brother, John, born to Daniel’s second wife, “a small, sure-footed orphan” he married out of pity. Benjamin, who inherited Daniel’s money, cotton fields, and slaves, has plunged the family into debt; John, a Methodist preacher barely eking out a living for his wife and four children, tries valiantly to save both families from penury. “We must be thankful for adversity,” John preaches as he travels through the remote countryside. His life stands as a grim example. Despite his religious faith, though, John is an angry man whose own sons, headstrong Patton and quieter, introspective Martin, become victims of his rage. He bans the adolescent Patton from the house, sending him alone into the wilderness to secure land in the Kansas Territory; and when the family’s fortunes plummet, he sends his wife, daughters, and Martin to make the perilous trek west, without him. The pivotal event of the novel is the arrival of a stranger: he says he is studying birds, but in fact, he is an abolitionist come to persuade the family’s slaves to abscond to Canada. He has brought “a compass and a knife and a map” for each of them, and despite much fear, the next day many slaves have left, including Bry, whose futile escape attempt as a child had dire consequences: he was castrated. Now in his 50s, he yearns to go to Canada to find his mother. Spalding portrays in bleak, gritty detail the hardships of daily life in the 1850s. Tenderness is rare and cherished: John’s toward the slave Emly, whom Benjamin heartlessly sells; Martin’s toward a bear cub he rescues when Patton shoots the mother; and Bry’s toward a Native American woman who protects him. As the characters struggle to survive, they discover that redemption is elusive and forgiveness, hard-won.
An engrossing, deftly crafted narrative.