Linda Spalding's Governor-General's Award-winning novel, The Purchase (McClelland and Stewart, hardcover $29.99), explores the vast gap that exists between preaching religion and practicing it.
In this case, the focus is on the humanist Quaker faith adhered to by Daniel Dickinson in 1798. A hasty marriage to a young indentured servant in his home following the death of his wife forces him to leave his community. With his young family and his servant girl bride he heads out on the Wilderness Road to re-settle in Virginia where land is free but black people are not.
Daniel's troubles begin well before the pivotal incident from which the book draws its title. It is clear within miles he is poorly equipped practically and by temperament for what is ahead. He compounds his difficulty by going against his faith and trading a good horse for a young slave boy. It is a deal made neither with great conviction nor by discounting his principles. In fact, he claims to be surprised to have gotten into the bidding and is unable to extricate himself.
"If his arm had been lifted by the inner voice that sometimes guided him, he might perhaps be doing God's will," he reasons to himself.
The purchase of young Onesimus launches the Dickinsons on a course of ever-escalating hardship and misery. Every move Daniel makes puts him at odds with a neighbor. Daniel's daughter Mary befriends the young slave, but his son Benjamin eventually betrays him to a lynch mob. Mary also befriends and exploits a slave woman named Bett, but considers herself superior to her step-mother Ruth. In her turn Ruth, a servant since childhood, has a good deal of compassion considering her circumstances, yet looks down on the slaves while developing her own spirituality.
In the face of two murders, Daniel's family wonders if his pacifism has its roots in religious conviction or simple cowardice. His son Isaac defies his father by joining the American army and son Benjamin intimidates his father into giving him land, claiming he will make the family "wealthy as kings." Daniel wonders whether his faith, which has already hindered his survival, must also cost him his family.
Part way through the novel the focus shifts from Daniel to Mary and the slave Bett, both strong women who have the pragmatism that Daniel lacks. Of the Dickinson children Mary is the only one who seems to have been marked by Quakerism but she sometimes wonders if she would not have been better off studying poetry than catechism.
Mary and Bett, with their conflicting experiences, share the raising of Bett's son Bry and he looks to both for guidance until he is reclaimed by a neighbor and put to work in the cotton fields. The relationship between Mary and Bett changes according to the circumstances they confront and the tensions that are generated, but both are compelled to act when the impossible love between Bry and Mary's sister Jemima is tragically revealed.
The Purchase is a hard story beautifully set against a harder landscape. Spalding's ability to portray the crime of slavery through the intimate interactions of a pioneering family is fascinating. Her inspiration came from researching the experiences of her own Quaker ancestors.
Spalding and her husband, writer Michael Ondaatje, are the force behind the literary magazine Brick.
By: Rosalie MacEachern