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Historical story impressively original, darkly rendered

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/10/2012 (1749 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE Purchase is a literary novel, in the sense it focuses on character, psychology and morality, as much as plot.

But it also has a fine, albeit slowly evolving, plot, wrapped in a darkly rendered gem of an historical story.

Author Linda Spalding is the Toronto-based author of three previous novels and two non-fiction works, and is a recent short list nominee for both a Governor General's award and the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize for this novel. She's married to novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

In the late 1700s newly widowed devout Quaker and ardent abolitionist Daniel Dickinson is cast out of his Pennsylvania community for marrying his indentured servant, Ruth Boyd.

Seeking a prosperous new life, he moves his family of five children and new bride to southern Virginia, where his neighbours are slaveholders.

This is not the antebellum gallant South. This is the cruel, bigoted, backwater South.

Even the church and its ministers preach the gospel of slaves as subhumans, and barbarisms committed against them as the will of God.

Rural farm life on the southern edge of Virginia is drawn in all its gritty, muddy and textured detail. Slavery is pervasive. But the locals, mostly small-time farmers and merchants, though slaveholders, aren't wealthy enough to own many of them.

Still, the squalor, filth and unsanitary conditions in which slaves are housed on the small farms and plantations is graphically rendered. As is the casual brutality -- often doled out as if slaves weren't sentient beings.

Through inadvertence and ineptness, the transplanted Quaker becomes a slaveholder, owner of a boy named Simus (the "purchase" of title) -- a betrayal of Daniel's Quaker beliefs that echoes for ill through the ensuing years, starting with the boy's three-days-dying hanging from a locust tree.

As Daniel's two daughters Mary and Jemima grow, they marry, or live with, men who murdered the slave boy who'd been their childhood friend, always knowing and never forgetting the atrocity committed against a child.

The murder is a moral stain on the family that can't be removed, and in fact spreads down the generations as the decades pass.

The eldest daughter in Mary's life becomes entwined with a slave woman, Bett, whose remedies are the fount of Mary's reputation as the local healer.

Both Bett, and her field-hand son, Bry, are fully realized characters, slaves whose humanity is underlined, but never idealized.

Pretty much all Spalding's principal characters are complex, and cerebral, without being either educated or intellectual. Actions, for good or ill, are reflected in rich inner lives, slaves included.

Spalding shows a command of workaday historical detail. And curiously, and likely reflecting her Canuck roots, early 19th-century Upper Canada is frequently referenced by both black and white characters, initially as the site of a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Americans in the War of 1812, and later as a vaunted safe haven for runaway slaves.

The Purchase is an impressively original story, set in an unlikely time and place. The GG and Rogers Writers' Trust judges were bang on. This novel's dual book-prize nominations are much deserved.

 

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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