Virgil Moody “vowed he would never own slaves, never be like his father” but when he left home “he’d taken Annie [a house slave] from his father’s plantation.” Moody discovered that Annie was pregnant but he comes to think of her and her son Lucas as his family. This family is broken apart when Lucas falls in love with a slave belonging to their neighbour and flees with her. Virgil sets out to find him, enroute encountering people with differing attitudes to slavery. Eventually, he finds himself in Freedom, Indiana, where he meets Tamsey and her family who are trying to escape the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Though Virgil is searching for Lucas, his journey is very much a journey of self-discovery. At the beginning he fails to understand that his actions make him complicit in slavery. He claims to abhor slavery, but he fights on the side of Texas in the Mexican-American War knowing that “Texans were fighting for slavery.” He convinces himself that he saved Annie from his father’s cruelty but he never asked her if she wanted to come with him. He claims that he knows Annie stayed with him because she wanted to “’because she didn’t leave’.” Virgil thinks “of Annie as his wife and Lucas as their son” but “Annie hadn’t been as comfortable with that as he was [because] the consequences for her were far greater than they were for him.” Virgil tells Lucas, “’I always raised you like a son’” but Lucas points out, “’Did you? Wouldn’t you have sent your son to school?’” At one point, Annie asks Virgil to talk to Lucas but Virgil replies, “’He’s your son’” and she responds with “’But he your slave!’” And Virgil never actually frees them!
Gradually, Virgil comes to realize that he could have done more. When Annie and Lucas have to stay in steerage, “suffocated below on straw mats and were fed gruel,” aboard a steamer while he “slept comfortably in his cabin, on clean sheets and in fresh air,” he counts himself “virtuous for having noticed [Annie’s] anger, thinking she would appreciate the difference between his concern and the other passengers’ lack of it. Annie and Lucas were more to him than slaves: wasn’t he a fine chap? . . . But what could he have done? More.” Virgil comes to see his selfishness, to see that he had blindly assumed “that doing what was good for him was good for everyone else concerned.” He admits “He was only generous when it suited him. He transported fugitives only because he thought they might help him find Lucas. And he didn’t even want to find Lucas for Lucas’s sake, but for his own. For forgiveness.”
It is Tamsey who forces Virgil “to admit to himself what he was. A white man in a world that was increasingly determined by the consequences of slavery. It was time for him to stop acting surprised and indignant whenever anyone suggested to him that the reason he hadn’t freed Annie or Lucas was that he had liked it that their relationship was based on ownership, that that was the way he’d been raised, and, hate it though he professed he did, it was the relationship he understood and felt most comfortable with.” Then, when given an opportunity, he sets out to redeem himself.
The concept of freedom is examined in the novel. Virgil tells Lucas, “’You [and your mother] always been free here” but obviously Anne and Lucas don’t feel that way. A man Virgil encounters tells him “’our Northern states are proud of the fact that their constitutions do not allow slavery. No, the workers on these industrious projects are free blacks – a designation that usually signifies a man is free from slavery, but that here has come to mean also a man who works for free. Or for wages so low that he can’t afford to do anything about his situation.” Even freed slaves with “free papers” fear fugitive catchers, especially with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act: “’I show our papers to catchers, you think they leave us alone?’” And Virgil can never be truly free of his past.
Set between May 1848 and November 1850, the novel examines racial turmoil in the United States at that time, a turmoil that erupted in the American Civil War a decade later. But the novel is relevant to today. Virgil’s father taught him that “’Nothing is forgiven . . . Some things are forgotten, but damn few. And nothing is every forgiven’” and Virgil realizes that “his father had been right, that forgiveness meant wiping the record clean and that could never happen.” Slavery cannot be wiped clean and so not truly forgiven but perhaps, as one character says, “’It not too late to seek a better world’”?
There is a trial towards the end of the novel that has a twist I never expected but is apparently based on an actual case involving the author’s great-great-grandparents. It emphasizes that the terms “black” and “white” are in many ways meaningless and only labels which can be used/misused to serve one’s purposes. Can any of us really call ourselves one or the other?
This is an excellent novel which I highly recommend. It has a compelling plot and a complex character who learns much about the world and himself. The book will leave readers asking questions about their own behaviour.
Note: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.