The biblical principle of the sins of the father being visited upon the sons is very much at play in Linda Spalding’s follow-up to her 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, The Purchase. That novel tells the story of Spalding’s great-great-great-grandfather, Daniel Dickinson, a committed abolitionist, and his fateful decision to purchase a slave. A Reckoning picks up the story in 1855 in Jonesville, Virginia, a year after Daniel’s death. Two of his sons – the half-brothers and slave owners Benjamin and John – are facing financial ruin and living lives of moral corruption. The day of reckoning has arrived and it’s time for the brothers to pay for their unspeakable misdeeds.
A visit from a Canadian abolitionist encourages the farm’s enslaved workers to attempt escape, and John’s life begins to unravel. Burdened with insurmountable debts, no home, and a shameful secret, John makes a desperate decision to send his family away on a perilous journey to the west with other members of their religious community, putting his 13-year-old son, Martin, in charge. Infuriated by her husband’s decision to abandon his family, Lavina Dickinson finds unexpected independence and strength in herself, becoming one of the novel’s more admirable characters. For Martin, the trip is transformative: “My father is wrong about everything. Dominion is not the point.”
While the Dickinsons head west to settle new land, their former slave, Bry, whom readers will remember from The Purchase, is on the run north to reunite with his family. Bry’s heartbreaking story – and his long, harrowing, and hopeful passage to freedom – forms an important counterbalance to the religious hypocrisy and moral turpitude of John Dickinson, who, despite being given an undeserved second chance, never quite owns up to or atones for his wrongdoings. His myopic understanding of his own reprehensible behaviour right to the end (he insists on viewing himself as “a minister of the Lord”) is repugnant, but to Spalding’s credit, entirely believable.