A Reckoning by Linda Spalding

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by Edith Cody-Rice

By any measure, Linda Spalding has written a very good book. I would count it as one of my favourite novels of 2017. A Reckoning is the story of the unraveling and redemption of a family in slave owning Virginia in 1855. These are not the slave owners of the grand mansions of the south. These are middling farmers with a small band of slaves who work their land, cook, clean and make their lives for them and with them.

It is also a story of what happens when an evil society unravels: one that does not look evil to the whites, as slave owning was a given, but that is evil in the treatment of humans as property to be disposed at will. When those slaves are gone, escaped or manumitted, the farm and the family collapses.

The story is based on a few facts that Linda Spalding, Kansas raised Canadian resident,  knew about her grandfather’s grandfather, a Quaker abolitionist who became a slave owner in 1798. In the story the Quaker who established the farm has died, but his sons who inherited the land have purchased slaves.

The characters, particularly a main protagonist, preacher John Dickinson, are complex. At the same time as he preaches austerity, hard work, and propriety to his parishioners, he betrays those values in his secret life. His outcome and the collapse of the family and farm are a result of circumstance, but also of bad decisions taken by his half brother and himself, who work the land together and John’s secret passion. John, now nearly destitute, opts to have his family join a wagon train to the west

We look into the minds of the preacher John, his wife Lavina, his son Martin who owns a pet bear and his slaves Bry and Mama Bette. From the outside we see the other characters: the eldest son Patton, the half brother Benjamin and his young wife Matilda, the other slaves.

The horrors of slavery are particularly concentrated in the gelding of a young slave who has the audacity to make love to a white woman. That this can be sanctioned by any law points out the total helplessness of these people who were owned like cattle.

The language is finely crafted and vivid, bringing to life the arduous life they all lived and the landscape and difficulties of the voyage west. It also traces the escape of slaves to Canada where the underground railway ended  in Ontario. A fine book and a fitting companion to Ms. Spalding’s Governor General’s prize winning novel The Purchase