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A slave seizes her chance to be free, taking two of her three children with her, and finds that freedom for an African-American woman in the 1850's is not without trials and temptations -- in this smooth and sincere, yet overly placid, fictional debut from memoirist Cary (Black Ice, 1991). When Virginia Pryor's master takes her along to warm his bed as he takes up the post of ambassador to Nicaragua, she wastes no time in making her move. During a short stop in Philadelphia she contacts the local Vigilance Committee and with their aid boldly escapes in broad daylight -- an event marred only by her knowledge that she leaves her favorite boy still in bondage in Virginia. Changing her name to Mercer Gray, she goes into hiding among the Quick family, a prosperous if contentious Philadelphia clan dominated by patriarch Manny, greedy and bilious though weakened by a stroke. Mercer starts a new life with her children, but her case gains notoriety when her ex-owner brings charges against all who took part in her flight, especially a prominent white abolitionist, who is jailed before being brought to court. In response, Mercer does a lecture tour of New England to stir public sentiment in her favor, proving herself an inspired speaker. Not even her oratorical skills, however, can save her from a pro-slavery mob at her last stop in Pennsylvania, where she has to be rescued by Tyree, the smitten but ill-married Quick family scion, who brings her back to Philadelphia for a night of single, wishful passion. Mercer and her children then head north to Canada, but Tyree, head of the family after Manny dies, sends with them a measure of his love: the remains of the Quick fortune, just enough to purchase Mercer's son's freedom. The history here has depth, but characters for the most part don't, and dramatic touches are rarely potent enough to give pause. Well-intentioned, then, if not noteworthy.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Knopf