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Book Review: The Purchase

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Each year Canada's Council for the Arts awards the Governor General's Literary Awards to the best books of the year. The winning novel for 2012, The Purchase, chronicles what happens when a Quaker man in Virginia "accidentally" buys a slave. The author, Linda Spalding, born and raised in Kansas, has lived in Canada for 30 years. Our book reviewer, Betsy Kepes has this review.

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Betsy Kepes
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In Linda Spalding’s novel, The Purchase, there is nothing romantic about a journey west to pioneer new land. In 1798, Daniel Dickenson must leave his Quaker community after he marries Ruth, a fifteen-year-old orphan and an unholy Methodist. Spalding writes, “There were other wagons leaving Pennsylvania and going south and west, but none were so laden with woe as the one that carried the five children and the widower and his new bride.”

Daniel is completely unprepared for life as a pioneer. When he goes to an auction to buy farm equipment he is shocked to see slaves for sale. After a young boy is led to the stage, Daniel’s arm goes up, Spalding writes, “as if pulled by a string.” It requires all his money, and one of his horses, to pay the too-high price for Simus. The Quaker abolitionist and pacifist becomes the owner of a slave.

Daniel’s decision to buy Simus causes a cascade of tragedies. In simple and elegant prose Spalding takes the Dickenson family through years of grinding work and poverty on their raw Virginia farm, their lives entwined with those of Simus and Bett, a young slave girl who “can heal a stone”. With no school in the community, Daniel’s oldest child, Mary, teaches her brothers. Here’s Spalding:

At first [Mary] tried to teach the Catechism. Does he who has found grace have reason to fear? The questions and responses were taught to all Quaker children at an early age. But Isaac and Benjamin became restless, and, after all, what use were such questions in Lee County, Virginia, where people were hung in trees? Better to go back to the Aeneid, which catalogued a darker, truer world.

The Purchase reads quickly in a style that somehow seems old-fashioned and modern at the same time. In 350 pages over a decade goes by and Daniel’s grown children see more slaves brought in to their community, people who are forced to work planting and harvesting cotton. The characters who are black or female have little control over their lives. The young wife, Ruth, who cannot read, must give all her earnings from selling butter to Daniel. When Mary falls in love with a neighbor man, Bett says to her, “He is a man who will decide your life…It is what husbands do.”

News of the War of 1812 makes its way to Virginia and Daniel, who has never owned a gun, forbids his sons to join up. One son is bribed with the gift of a flour mill but the other son, Isaac, disobeys his father and goes off to war. When he returns he has tales of the north, of Upper Canada, where escaped slaves fought against the Americans. “You should get yourself up there, boy,” he says to the son of slaves who work for Daniel. “You should run off and join up with that regiment.”

At the end of the book, it is other slaves who slip away from the small community in Virginia to begin their journey north to freedom. As one woman begins the long and dangerous trek she has a plan to make the trip easier. Spalding writes: “When she woke in the afternoon, after a long morning sleep, she would search ground and trees and bushes for edibles and give herself one pleasant memory each day, since regret would slow her pace.”

The Purchase is a novel filled with regret, yet its pages are also filled with the will to live and love.

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