One of the best works of historical fiction I have read in a while and all the better because its based on the author’s great-great grandparents own story, a reassuring factor while reading, because so many obstacles get in the way of the two main protagonists coming together, the young Irish immigrant Henry O’Toole and Sarah, the black slave he first encounters on the road in a storm, who treats his injured hand.
The story is mostly set in 1840’s Virginia on Jubilee plantation. In the front of the book is a sketch of the property, showing the house, the slave huts, the cotton fields, the whipping tree, the kitchen gardens and kitchen house. There is also a map of the region inside the cover, showing where various important locations to the story are, giving it a strong sense of reality, a reminder that these are real locations, that continue to exist today.
“I remind myself that I’m Henry Taylor now. The further south I go, the less likely they’ll know me for Irish. With fewer immigrants down this way, our accents don’t count so much as Irish, Scottish or Swedish. We’re just foreign, which suits me fine. But I keep the Taylor. O’Toole is asking for trouble.”
Henry is making his living as a blacksmith, after the disappointment of arriving in New York and struggling to find work due to discrimination by employers against the Irish – Irish Need Not Apply.
His story begins in the fields of Ireland around the time of the potato famine and it is the memory of the cruelty of the English landlords that contributes to his sympathy towards the plight of the slaves, though blind to his own privilege. As he arrives on the plantation where Sarah works as a house slave, his ignorance of the South and their ways threatens to put her and those around her in danger.
The other main character is Maple, also a slave, but sister to the Master’s wife, they have the same father, but she became separated from her mother, husband and daughter when her sister married, forced to move with her. Maple is full of anger and desperate for news of her family. She resents the presence of the blacksmith and would like nothing better than to wipe the smile off Sarah’s face.
“I want to tell him to leave her alone. Leave all of us alone. Just ’cause that girl don’t know how to hold herself more precious don’t mean he ought to take advantage, dipping in and out like drinking at the well. He ain’t no different to the rest of them.”
Short Chapters, Three Characters, Fast Paced
The novel is written in short chapters, reminiscent of the style of Bernice McFadden and the issues raised by a mixed race couple reminded me also of Octavia Butler’s excellent novel Kindred.
There is a subtle rhythm in the narrative, where hopes are raised and dashed simultaneously, for Henry, Sarah and Maple. Henry wants to be close to Sarah while Maple wants to rescue her daughter, who lives on another plantation. Their actions in pursuit of their sole desire make it all the more difficult to achieve. It’s like a universal force that acts on them all at the same time, as their objectives and the means they use to attain them intersect, hinder and/or help them.
“There’s two ways to keep a child when you’re held a slave. You can hold her precious, right close to your heart, pouring all your love into her because you know you could lose her any day. Or you can hold her loose, not loving too deep or caring too much or getting too close, knowing that you could lose her any day. Two sides of the same fear.”
It’s a compelling read, with great characters and you really are left wanting to know more, wishing to know more about the lives of these three characters and those whom they are connected to. It’s a book that evokes a very visual response, I felt at times as if I were watching the scenes unfold and can imagine how much more tense it would have been to see this on screen.
Read Soul Lit
I read this along with Didi from Brown Girl Reading in the Read Soul Lit Feb Read Along Group, which is one of her initiatives for Black History Month in the US. I will reading a few more novels this month to acknowledge that as well, reviews to come of a Toni Morrison novel and Colson Whitehead.
About the Author
Tammye Huf is an American author now living in the UK. Her debut novel A More Perfect Union was inspired by the true story of her great-great grandparents, an exploration of identity, sacrifice, belonging, race and love. It was featured on the Jo Whiley Radio 2 Book Club.
Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines and she was named third-place winner of the London Magazine Short Story Prize in 2018 for ‘Prisoner’.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
Black History Month – 26 Black Americans You Don’t Know But Should