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Linda Spalding’s haunting spin on the plantation novel

Linda Spalding in 2003

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The Purchase
Linda Spalding
McClelland & Stewart

The Purchase, an eerily compelling novel by Linda Spalding, has been nominated for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. Inspired by Spalding's own family, and set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the work charts the life of a Quaker who is forced out of his devout Pennsylvania community and resettles on the Virginia frontier. In Virginia, the land is virtually free, but the black people are not. With The Purchase, Spalding places a contemporary spin on the traditional novel of the antebellum South: Frontier adventure meets plantation romance meets slave narrative – and to haunting effect.

This unusual form also describes Toni Morrison's 2008 novel A Mercy, in which a Dutch immigrant in the English colonies disregards his conscience to purchase a black slave. So it goes with Daniel Dickinson, the Quaker hero of Spalding's story. Daniel, a widower, is shunned by his congregation after he quickly remarries. His new wife is the family's servant girl, a Methodist who, at 15, is not much older than his daughter. The family make the perilous journey to Virginia, where Daniel plans to build a home and start life anew.

He promises to maintain the values and practices of his Quaker faith, especially its abolitionist principles. But Daniel has never worked with his hands, much less driven a plow or erected a house. At an auction, he winds up purchasing a young black boy, and this moral compromise leads to an endless cycle of debt and brutality, where even efforts at decency go wildly awry.

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Spalding invites us to roam Daniel's inner world. We share his grief for his lost wife; his rough love for his children. We enter into his silent prayers – the speechless wonder of his faith. And yet still we see him as he really is: greedy, desperate and dangerously self-delusional. He lies, constantly, to himself, especially about the acquisition of slaves, justifying every act of expedience as a temporary necessity.

Daniel's moral failure parallels the sin of America's Founding Fathers, who affirm the presence of slavery in a New World meant to be characterized by equality and freedom. This unseemly drama plays out in the relationships between characters of various classes, castes and genders. Daniel's daughter Mary feels superior to his poor, illiterate wife. Ruth, the young wife, disdains Onesimus, the slave, because he is black. Mary develops a sisterly bond with Bett, a young slave woman, yet she does not hesitate to pocket the money she earns selling Bett's herbal remedies. The novel makes especially explicit the way white culture has exploited black labour, talents and ideas, a practice that echoes into the present day.

Spalding gives us a sense of a rolling frontier landscape: the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, gurgling streams and forests teeming with game. It is a world of abundance that amplifies the cruel, cramped existence of Onesimus, Bett and Bry, Bett's son. I'm not sure that Spalding communicates the terror and rage the blacks feel toward their captors. Still, Bett, especially, is a powerful presence. Her character as a respected healer is reminiscent of Vyry, the heroine of Jubilee, the sweeping plantation romance by Margaret Walker. Stories of the unfolding Indian Wars further enrich this tapestry.

Spalding's omniscient narrator ferries us through time, accruing characters, sidling us in and out of their perspectives. Her descriptive passages are simple lists of images and elements that create their own mesmerizing lyricism. Her metaphors can be awkward: It is one thing to compare the way the slaves are treated to the way animals are treated; it is another to compare slaves to animals. She deepens meaning with literary allusions to Virgil and the Bible; this works well, but leads, I think, to a melodramatic climax involving a thwarted interracial love. The most famous slave literature, on the other hand, tends to dramatize the way slavery hinders black people from loving themselves. Still, the novel is memorable. It reads like a disturbing dream imbued with the power of myth.

Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.

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