Slave Narratives: Six Novels Explore a Painful Legacy

The six novels offered here are all solid, and in two cases—Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings and Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines—they are exceptional.

Slavery, the wound that has scarred American history for three centuries, has also been addressed in print by such illustrious authors as William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner) and Toni Morrison (Beloved). New writers are also considering this distressing topic. The six novels offered here are all solid, and in two cases—Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings and Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines—they are exceptional. Five of the authors present tales of escaped slaves and their hunters, while O’Connor delivers a multifaceted meditation on the institution itself and its effect on those in its service.

Deception is a central theme: slavery allowed blacks to exist as long as they hid or denied who they were. As readers will see in these stories, the very act of ownership, granting a person power over another, corrupts and destroys all involved.

Deón, Natashia. Grace. Counterpoint. Jun. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781619027206. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781619027725. F

grace.jpg4416This tale of horrific happenings spreads across two generations of a slave family, mother and daughter, in Alabama and Georgia. In 1847, Naomi is wrongfully accused of murder. She is pursued and dies while delivering light-skinned baby Josey, fathered by a white man. As a young woman, Josey is raped by a white man who comes back to take her again, but this time has to deal with Naomi, who has returned as a ghost to protect her child. By the end of the novel, Josey is safe, yet despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the same troubled relationships continue between blacks and whites in the South. There are moments of love in this harsh, affecting first novel, but the story mostly conveys the taking of personal freedom and human dignity. The presence of the apparition is fanciful, but it works well in bringing resolution to an imbalanced set of happenings. VERDICT A complicated read but worth the effort.

Grissom, Kathleen. Glory Over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House. S. & S. Apr. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9781476748443. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476748467. F

In 1830 Philadelphia, artist Jamie Pyke passes as white, even though he is an escaped slave, the product of the plantation master’s brutal rape of his mother. When a young black man has taken on as a servant is kidnapped and sold into slavery, Jamie returns to North Carolina to find and free him. Soon, slave hunters are seeking him as well as the boy. In this powerful narrative, Grissom relates harrowing truths about the slave experience by telling a gripping tale filled with vivid characters. The most memorable and admirable of them all is Sukey, a house slave who lost her tongue—her master cut it out—because she cried out when her husband and children were sold and taken away from her. And then there is Jamie, who for years has lived a lie concealing a part of himself—his blackness—that he loathes. VERDICT Grissom (The Kitchen House) is a superior storyteller who remarks notably on the consequences of an institution that made beasts of some while making liars of others. [See Prepub Alert, 10/12/15.]

King, Wallace. Edenland. Lake Union: Amazon. May 2016. 496p. ISBN 9781503934948. pap. $14.95. F

Both on the run, Bledsoe, a slave, and Alice, an Irish indentured servant, are fleeing from North Carolina to Virginia, swamp to city, in this adventure tale cum love story set in the 1860s. While similarly free spirits, the pair are otherwise a bit of an odd couple; he book learned and she illiterate but versed in the skills of survival in a way he is not. They find temporary shelter in a hidden place called Edenland, where they fall in love. But armies are on the march, and soon the couple are separated, seemingly forever. Then fate, and their intricate histories, reunites them. In between, Bledsoe is enlisted as accomplice—and mask—for a Yankee spy and Alice becomes the play toy of a pampered Southern belle. There is an exuberant, almost ramshackle quality to the adventures in which this engaging duo become entangled, and their love story is charming. VERDICt It’s difficult to imagine what fiction lover and/or aficionado of history wouldn’t enjoy this latest from King (The True Life Story of Isobel Roundtree; Maybelleen).

Morgan, Robert. Chasing the North Star. Algonquin. Apr. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781565126275. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616205959. F

In 1850, Jonah ­Williams escapes from a South Carolina mansion after being whipped for the offense of being literate. Sought by bounty hunters, Jonah crosses paths with another slave, Angel, and though he’d like to abandon her, she won’t let him go. She sees him as her ticket to freedom, but she also loves Jonah and considers herself his perfect counterbalance: Jonah is educated but ignorant of life outside of books, while Angel is worldly wise and free. And she maintains her independence—which is one of the wonderful things about this story—no matter the indignities she endures, including prostitution, poverty, and rape. Adventures happen. The couple meet intriguing people. And time after time, Jonah walks away from Angel only to find, further down the road, that there she is again. Gradually, love takes shape. VERDICT Morgan (Gap Creek) has mined U.S. history to tell a picaresque story that succeeds at being both poetic and action filled.

redstarO’Connor, Stephen. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings. Viking. Apr. 2016. 610p. ISBN 9780525429968. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780698410336 F

thomasjefferson.jpg4416O’Connor (writing, Sarah Lawrence; two collections of short fiction) began writing the story while concurrently conducting historical research. The novel, which centers on the complicated and conflicted relationship of apostle of liberty Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress Sally Hemings, emerged in fragments—the author wrote across genres and about parts of his subjects’ real or imagined lives. The result is a jarring exploration of big themes rooted in the contrary behaviors of ordinary people, presented as a kaleidoscope show juxtaposing straightforward narration with fictionalized memoir, fabulist outpourings, bald listings of historical fact, reflections on the poetry of colors, all moving from past to present and back again. In energetic prose, O’Connor probes how a person’s hold over another pollutes them both and examines the inherent conflict in relationships among people involved in an institution as morally repugnant as slavery. VERDICT The sweep of narrative, quality of writing, intensity of feeling, and boldness of thought make this debut novel a strong candidate for major awards. [See Prepub Alert, 10/26/15.]

redstarWinters, Ben. Underground Airlines. Little, Brown. Jul. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780316261241. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316261234. F

In this alternative history, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated en route to his inauguration. His death leads legislators to come together with one last proposal to keep the Union intact. It works, and today the status of slavery is decided state by state. In the Hard Four states, “peebs” (Persons Bound to Labor) are legally enchained, working 12 hours on and eight off. If a peeb escapes, the federal government is enjoined to find and return him to his owners. Victor works undercover for the U.S. Marshals, tracking down other black men. Now he’s hunting a peeb named Jackdaw. Something’s wrong, though, and he can’t figure out what. Fast paced and filled with menace, the story has an ambience that makes it special. In Victor’s supposedly “free” world, everywhere there are traps for people of color—free doesn’t mean equal and definitely doesn’t mean safe. What’s startling is that Victor’s experiences could well happen in the contemporary world. VERDICT Explosive, well plotted, and impossible to put down, this alt-hist by the Edgar Award–winning author of the “Last Policeman” trilogy will attract readers of all genres. [See Prepub Alert, 1/25/16.]

David Keymer (PhD, history, Yale Univ.) retired as chief of student affairs at California State University, Stanislaus in 2001 and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) in 2004. He has reviewed for LJ since 1981, mostly fiction and history but also arts and letters, social sciences, and biographies. In his spare time, he directs, acts in plays, and writes

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