Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of The Purchase by Linda Spalding
This novel appears on two 2012 award lists: the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. I’m not certain why. The reviews I’ve read tend to be overwhelmingly positive, but I soon tired of it and struggled to finish.
The book begins in Pennsylvania at the end of the eighteenth century. Daniel Dickinson and his young family are exiled from their Quaker community when, after his wife’s death, he hastily marries a 15-year-old indentured servant girl. They end up in south Virginia but Daniel is in no way prepared to build a new life for his family in the wilderness. To add to his problems, he purchases a young slave boy despite his abolitionist beliefs. This event is a catalyst for a long series of tragic events in the lives of family members and neighbours over multiple generations. The long-term effects of that purchase on Daniel’s children are detailed.
A major theme is that of freedom, specifically whether anyone really has freedom. The black slaves are the obvious examples of people lacking freedom, but almost everyone is enslaved somehow because of religious beliefs or prevailing societal expectations. For example, Daniel’s Quaker pacifism leaves him unable to defend himself and others against violent neighbours.
One of the problems I had with the book is the character of Daniel. The motivation of much of his behaviour is not sufficiently explained. Why, for example, does he quickly marry Ruth when he seems to have no reason to do so, especially since that decision results in his family being shunned and banished? Though Daniel is an abolitionist and “his moral nature was unchanged,” at the auction he “felt his right arm go up as if pulled by a string” when a slave boy is being sold? Then, when his son is dying, he stops enroute to the doctor’s to reclaim a horse? Daniel’s treatment of Ruth seems unChristian as is his unforgiving attitude to his children, especially considering how he was treated by his own father.
And Daniel is not the only problem character. Mary and Bett are supposedly the best of friends, yet Mary takes credit for Bett’s healing skills and doesn’t give her freedom? Mary knows she needs Bett to help her with ill patients, yet she still goes to home visits by herself when she could easily have made an excuse for bringing Bett with her? Jemima adopts a way of life that will serve only to alienate her from everyone, including her family?
I found the book a harrowing read. Daniel encounters failure after failure. He betrays his moral code, albeit inadvertently, and it seems that he is continuously punished for his sin and so is his family. I guess I have difficulty with the Biblical admonishment “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.”
I will continue to scan reviews to see if anyone satisfactorily addresses my concerns and enlightens me to the merits of the book; thus far I remain unconvinced. I am not, however, motivated to re-read the book; in fact, it is a purchase I wish I had not made.