A displaced Pennsylvanian acquires a slave, with disastrous consequences, in Spalding’s (Who Named the Knife, 2007, etc.) brooding latest.
Daniel Dickinson has been cast out of his rigid community because he retained an unmarried servant girl after his wife’s death in childbirth; it’s typical of Daniel’s right-minded but shortsighted thinking that he feels he can’t return orphaned Ruth Boyd to the almshouse. Instead, he marries her and takes Ruth and his five children to Virginia—an odd choice for an anti-slavery Quaker in the winter of 1798. Attending an auction to buy equipment for his new farm, Daniel feels “his right arm go up as if pulled by a string” to bid on an enslaved boy; he is forced to honor a pledge he can’t afford by hostile Virginians who dislike this outsider. Repaying the balance on his debt for Simus keeps Daniel’s family in straitened circumstances for years. It already simmers with tension: 13-year-old Mary despises her Methodist stepmother, only two years older than she, and Ruth is bewildered by her aloof husband. Matters only get worse after Simus becomes intimate with Bett, “house girl” to the neighboring Fox family. When Bett becomes pregnant—probably by her master, who accuses Simus—the result is a lynching and a baby boy who will provoke deadly conflict between the two clans in the future. Spalding captures the grim particulars of slave life with unflinching yet restrained detail, and she gives each of her flinty characters sharply defined personalities and motivations as the story unfolds over several decades. Betrayal of principles and loved ones is a constant theme, yet there is also redemption: Uneducated, unassertive Ruth finally offers a vision of compassionate religion that stuns her dismissive husband, and Mary’s battered friendship with Bett survives exploitation and flight to end with a moving reunion.
Too slow-paced and dark for the casual reader, but a serious, probing look at the interaction of character and environment during a seminal period in American history.