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The Purchase by Linda Spalding

The Purchase by Linda Spalding Nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writer’s Trust Award The Purchase by Linda Spalding is one of the best books I have ever read. There was not a moment that my attention was not completely captured by her words and her story. There were times when I had to close the book, take a breath, and go on – not wanting it to end, but wanting to know what would happen next.

Linda Spalding has created characters that become real to the reader, based on her own ancestors, and set them in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, a time of slavery and war between Canada and the United States. There have been many, many novels written about slavery, and many of them excellent, but I’m not sure that there is another that captures the brutally of that experience, and yet is so sensitively written. It is slavery that is at the heart of this novel, and we read about what it must have been like to live in that world, for both slaves and owners - most especially for Daniel Dickenson and the slave he inadvertently purchases.

Daniel leaves his Quaker community after marrying his housemaid – his solution to caring for his children when he is suddenly widowed. Shunned by his family and his neighbours Daniel heads south. His intention is to become a farmer where land is cheap. I found Daniel to be an idealistic man, but a man who has neither imagination nor true compassion for those around him. A man who claims to have a deep belief in a good God but who cannot find it in his heart to forgive his own family members when they transgress – although he has a deep sympathy for the slaves and cannot in good conscience own another human being, he somehow never is able to actually do them any good. As much as Daniel’s plight is the beginning of the story, and always at it’s centre, I could not bring myself to care as much about him, as I did about his young second wife, Ruth, his children and his unfortunate slaves.

Daniel has taken his grieving children so far away from their family and all they had known to a place barren of comfort. His young wife is but a child, raised in an orphanage she is, at first, hardly able to care for herself let alone five children. Ruth plays a secondary part in the novel, to her step-daughter, Mary, the eldest of Daniel’s children, but she ultimately becomes the most capable of them all, and if not for her they might all have perished.

The lonely Mary befriends the young slave purchased by Daniel, their friendship, a love as pure as only the love of children can be. But the reader knows that no matter how innocent or idealistic, there can be no future in a friendship between those with white skin and those with black in Virginia at this time. There may have been slaves that were well treated by their owners, some living almost like family, but there could be no love.

At it’s simplest The Purchase is a work of historical fiction, but no matter how much history Linda Spalding has crammed into this novel it never feels that anything but the characters and their plight are of the most importance. The relationships established at the beginning of the novel will continue to haunt their descendants as we follow them through future generations.

The Purchase has been nominated for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award to be announced 13 November – the day before you will read this. It is my choice regardless of the selection of the jury.

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