Two young slaves in Mississippi escape their ruthless owner with proof he committed a crime in this debut historical novel.
Ben Douglas, the owner of the Mary Dale plantation, arranges for the sale of his property and the manumission of his slaves upon his demise. But after Ben dies, Col. James Pritchard fraudulently claims to be a cousin of Ben’s late wife and takes possession of the property, slaves and all, in 1851. Will Douglas, a teenage slave who had been with Ben since he was 13 years old, finds the will—he can read and write—and realizes his knowledge of Pritchard’s misdeed puts his life in danger. Will escapes with his best friend, Tom, and the two make their way by boat to St. Louis with a considerable pile of cash purloined from the plantation and legal documents that prove Ben’s intentions. Pritchard dispatches his henchman to track them down, and everywhere Will and Tom go is vigilantly policed by slave hunters, perilous circumstances powerfully depicted by Steinmann. Will makes the acquaintance of Abraham Bireman, an attorney, who handles his legal case while making arrangements for the slaves to flee their pursuers. Meanwhile, Will’s lifelong companion, Teeny, is given by Pritchard to a lawyer, Richard Walther, who intends to make her his “fancy girl” and produce a child with her. Teeny is horrified by his coarse advances but wants to keep the child that is the result of them. Bireman arranges for her to escape north, donning a disguise that makes her look 20 years older. In this gripping tale, the author poignantly captures the volatility of a country cleaved over the issue of slavery. As a reverend warns Will and Tom: “Be careful…this country is coming apart. The closer it gets to splitting in half, the crazier people are going to act.” Will and Teeny are memorable protagonists—both resourceful and brave and drawn with artful empathy. In addition, Steinmann provides a picture of the abolitionist movement that is as historically authentic as it is thrillingly dramatic.
A suspenseful and moving look at the moral plight of American slaves.