Her son’s lynching during a 1910 streetcar strike takes a Philadelphia woman on a painful journey through her enslaved past.
As she sits by the hospital bedside of her dying son, Edward, Spring talks with the ghost of her sister Tempe, his birth mother. “I’m taking him home,” Tempe says, and she wants Spring to “lead him home” by telling Edward his family’s story. With the help of a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and personal testimonies she has collected, Spring begins with the story of Ella, a free woman kidnapped from Philadelphia in 1843 to lift the “curse” that keeps enslaved women on the Walker plantation barren. On the plantation, Ella develops an intimate, fraught relationship with Agnes, whose mother has been preventing pregnancies rather than see more children born enslaved. Nonetheless, Ella and Agnes both get pregnant; stymied in an attempt to escape, Ella drowns herself on the morning Spring and Tempe are born. The power of these scenes is muffled by several murky plot developments that flag a debut author’s imperfect control of her material. Battle-Felton emulates Beloved by mingling a stark depiction of slavery’s cruelty with a folkloric portrait of African American culture, then adding an angry ghost, but she lacks Toni Morrison’s mastery of the complex narrative. However, the novel comes to a strong finish after an apocalyptic denouement on the Walker plantation at the end of the Civil War. Spring heads North with Tempe’s infant and is inspired to begin her scrapbook by fellow refugees’ stories of loved ones lost in the postwar chaos. In Philadelphia, she bitterly confront the limits of African American freedom in post-bellum society, limits also underscored in interpolated scenes showing how Edward got entangled in the strike. A lyrical vision of family reunion brings the novel to a moving conclusion.
Flawed but impressively ambitious and keening with emotion.