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Book Reviews

The Purchase

by Linda Spalding

The past sometimes seems like a beautiful place, but it is a damn good thing we don’t live there anymore. Linda Spalding’s new novel begins in Pennsylvania in 1798, when Daniel Dickinson and his young family are exiled from their native Quaker community, and goes on to chronicle Daniel’s attempt to master his pride in a new landscape. His stewardship is made tortuously vulnerable by circumstance and his endless capacity, despite all his humanity, for failure.

The book’s title refers to a pivotal incident in the narrative. Confronted by his unfitness for life in exile, and the strangeness of the south Virginia land he finds himself in, Daniel breaks with his beliefs and buys a slave boy named Simus. As the story progresses, Daniel’s eldest daughter, Mary, gradually takes centre stage, her life becoming intertwined with that of a slave woman, Bett. Though Bett is resolute in the conviction of her innate humanity, and though her friendship with Mary allows her certain freedoms, her enslavement resounds as a raw but tragically banal injustice.

The novel is shot through with religion – much of it focused on the struggle between Quaker humanism and the moral wilderness of the American South at the turn of the 19th century – and Spalding’s biblically rich prose is in heartbreaking harmony with her theme of freedom. What could it possibly mean to be free, the novel asks, if one’s life is so ferociously overdetermined, whether by God or the prevailing social order?

Spalding offers a powerful perspective on pains and oppressions that are specific to a time and place, though it reverberates into the present in uncomfortable ways. The immediacy and sense of recognition percolating through The Purchase makes this reader wonder just how long a shadow history casts on the present day.