Baker’s third novel (after Once Two Heroes, 2003) is a family saga about three generations of freed African-Americans who work their own land in the English colony of South Carolina.
Jasper Merian has been given his freedom, but is forced to leave his wife and son in Virginia, still enslaved. Before he can hack out part of the Carolinian wilderness as his property, the 29-year-old Merian must do battle with a fearsome creature that haunts the area because it was denied burial. After dealing with the supernatural, the practical Merian acquires a mule and a woman, both necessary for survival. Wife number two bears him a son, Purchase, but is outraged by Merian’s plan to fetch his first wife, Ruth. Fortunately for domestic harmony, his plan fails; Ruth dies a slave, but years later their son Magnus will join Merian at Stonehouses. By now Merian is a prosperous farmer and Purchase a skillful smith who has forged a magical, fortune-telling sword. It will be his outstanding achievement. Soon after he will fall for Mary Josepha, wife of a revivalist preacher, and turn into a lovesick fool, chasing her up North. Later Purchase will ship their small boy Caleum down to Stonehouses. The absentee father creates a big hole in the saga, which offers few of the rewards of the genre as it degenerates into loosely assembled episodes. Slavery flares briefly as an issue when Magnus, Merian’s successor as owner of Stonehouses, is forced to be a temporary slaveowner. The Revolutionary War is handled just as briefly, when the now grown Caleum fights magnificently at Saratoga, where he loses a leg. Recuperating in New York City, he settles down with a waitress, though he has a wife back home. Then, hey presto, he abandons the waitress and returns home, where the ghostly fiend must again be vanquished.
A choppy narrative that fails to dovetail either the family’s story with the historical context or the realistic and supernatural elements.