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Review: Linda Spalding’s A Reckoning is a dark, mythopoetic novel

Title
A Reckoning
Author
Linda Spalding
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
McClelland & Stewart
Pages
318
Price
$32

My beef with historical fiction is that it is too often written stylelessly, as barely disguised pedagogy. Linda Spalding's dark, mythopoetic novels about the antebellum American South, loosely based on her own family's history, stand apart for their texture, moral nuance and painstaking, though not fetishistic, attention to language. If you happen to learn a few things while reading them, well, then, that's your problem; Spalding wants to incite questions, not furnish facts or, worse yet, answers.

The latest, A Reckoning, begins in 1855 Virginia, a few decades from where the Governor-General's Literary Award-winning The Purchase left off. Quaker patriarch Daniel Dickinson, whose unintentional buying of a slave in the latter novel set in motion a kind of karmic comeuppance, has recently died, leaving his eldest son, Benjamin, in control of the family farm. A reckless gambler with a proven sadistic streak, Benjamin has expanded his slave holdings, much to the chagrin of his half-brother, John, who lives on the property with his family. John chose his vocation as a circuit-riding preacher, in part, to avoid slavery's taint, yet he's forced to supplement his paltry income by keeping Benjamin's accounts.

Along with Spalding's sombre, earthy prose, the novels share a number of elements: exile, miscegenation and flight to the promised land of Canada. Both begin with a fateful catalyst. Here, it's Alexander Ross, a Canadian abolitionist and doctor-in-training who arrives in the Dickinsons' small community of Jonesville with the dual intention of freeing slaves and solving a family mystery for Eva Nell, a friend from home who came to Canada as a baby with The Purchase's Ma Bett. Ross may be an abolitionist but his idealism has a negative-billing quality to it; for him, emancipation is about "justice rather than virtue; he hated the slaver more than he loved the slave." Regardless of his motive, he's good at it: a day after he passes through, 13 slaves vanish from Jonesville.

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The combination of lost labour and poor weather bring about a precipitous reversal in fortunes for the Dickinsons. For John, outward ruin is exacerbated by inward pain when he learns that Benjamin has sold Emly, a slave with whom he was besotted. With foreclosure looming, John decides the family must join a caravan of townsfolk heading west for the promise of cheap land in Kansas, then stuns them by announcing he's staying behind.

The remainder of the novel alternates between scenes from two parallel epic journeys: the Dickinsons' to Kansas and that of their ex-slave, Bry, to Ontario. There's a strong biblical current to the notion that slavery, the sin of the father now visited on the sons, has cast the family into the wilderness. But the caves, sunken boats and unexpected temptations encountered along the way also have a mythical, even Odyssean feel to them. John thinks of Emly as his "Circe." During the journey, his wife, Lavina, scalds her leg badly with boiling water, resulting in an Odysseus-like scar.

The novel's omnipresent birds, plants, animals, trees and bodies of water – all beautifully rendered – function partly as a lightning rod for the characters' simmering emotionality. As the Dickinsons' fortunes plummet, the natural world literally closes in. Bry, in contrast, sees in the forest a "perfect order," the implication being that the nature that now provides him cover is less inherently hostile than the fellow humans that enslaved him.

As we move through the various characters, Spalding is less interested in the poles of good and evil than in power's fluid chemistry. John's domineering manner with Lavina and his two sons contrasts with his powerlessness around Benjamin, and, in an entirely different way, with Emly. He feels, too, the irony of his role as paterfamilias to his congregation; in his heart he knows he's no leader.

We even see this in John's 12-year-old son, Martin, who, having failed to alert his father to the presence of the abolitionist Ross, secretly blames himself for his family's ruin. Taking an unexpected crossing of paths with Bry as a chance for redemption, he offers to hide the fugitive on the steamboat the family is about to take along the Ohio river. But nascent altruism soon gives way to its flip side, smugness, and even something darker as Martin feels "something he had never felt, a shaky triumphant sense of power, all his." In the end, he makes Bry's journey more difficult by causing him to miss a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Like all great narrative journeys, this one involves self-discovery, especially for Lavina, who finds in her new-found independence from John "a piece of herself she didn't know."

That growing sense of assurance might easily have been milked into a crowd-pleasing proto-feminist moment, but Spalding resists this, knowing, perhaps, that what makes her novel germane to the current moment is how little has changed in race and gender relations, not how much. And so when John eventually returns, Lavina finds herself slipping into an old, familiar role. Where the reins she'd previously held meant freedom, she finds them now "wrapped tightly around her hands like the bonds of captivity."

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Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

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