Multi-racial historical fiction resonates today


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Book of the Little Axe pulls back a curtain on America’s complicated racial past and the beginning of the American melting pot.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/08/2020 (973 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Book of the Little Axe pulls back a curtain on America’s complicated racial past and the beginning of the American melting pot.

Many of the key characters in D.C. author Lauren Francis-Sharma’s second novel have mixed racial backgrounds — European-Native American, African-European or perhaps African-Native American. Francis-Sharma’s historical novel shuttles readers back and forth across a 30-year timeline from the late 1700s to the early 1800s, from Trinidad to the American West.

Slowly, the intertwined threads of three individuals emerge, uniting into a single story in this character-driven novel. The central character, Rosa Rendón, is the daughter of free Blacks in Trinidad. Even there Rosa always feels out of place in her body, suffering many cruel remarks about her appearance. She looks like her father, Demas Rendón, a descendant of one of the first 100 Africans brought to Trinidad. “Skin like mudcakes” is how one woman describes her at a wedding celebration.

The family’s way of life is threatened when England takes over the island from Spain. With an increase in slavery to support the sugar cane plantations, the family doesn’t know if they will be able to keep either their land or their freedom. “Why is it that the moment there is unrest in this country I can’s be a Trinidadian? I can only be a Negro and my wife only a colored?” her father asks. Still, for him, Trinidad is a land of opportunity.

Francis-Sharma’s devotion to detail gives readers a sense of time and place, particularly in Trinidad, which is her ancestral home. And you easily feel like you are sharing life with Creadon Rempley, another key character. “I walked for a year or maybe more comin outta Rupert’s Land and west over the Rockies, where I ain’t knowed much of the way or whether I was goin or comin.”

Rempley, who describes himself as a half-breed, is somewhat indifferent to his family history. “My mother was an Indian from a Plains tribe I think. My pa was Reardon Rempley, born to an Englishman. Ain’t know his mother. Ain’t much care for his father.”

After a series of adventures and misadventures which took him across North America, Rempley says he learned that “Everybody was suspicious of the other” and that there was a “certain kind of mistreatment for almost every kinda people.”

He hears there is gold in Trinidad, and heads there hoping to make his fortune. He ends up staying with the Rendón family, helping on the farm and in the blacksmith shop.

When danger threatens, Rosa’s father asks Rempley to take her someplace safe. Rempley takes her on a long, dangerous trip across North America to Kullyspell, a post he helped explorer David Thompson build years before in the American West, and teaches her wilderness survival skills.

Rosa winds up living with Edward Rose, a revered war chief in an Apsáalooke tribe. Rose describes himself as “Half black skinned. Half some unknown tribe.”

When Rosa’s son Victor — the weakest of the main characters in the story — reaches the age where boys in the tribe seek a vision which will determine their route to manhood, he sees nothing but bigger sky. The elders think it is because he doesn’t know his real back story, so Rosa takes him back to Kullyspell, where he was born, so that he might learn it.

The characters in this complex but highly enjoyable story are staking out positions for a conflict which still plays out on the news today. At one point Rose tells Rempley “Harm will continue to be done until men like you stop pushing west… Men who look as I look are brought here by men who look as you look.”

Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.

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