I was somewhat reluctant to start this novel. Somber stories, stories of deep hopelessness do not generally appeal to me, and how could a story about slavery on the eve of the Civil War be not hopeless?
The story is dark, but ends on a note of joy, a celebration of life, a vision, and that is what makes it beautiful and fascinating, instead of simply a good story. We follow William, an escaped Chesapeake slave who wants to reunite with his wife in Pensylvania and Morrison, his tracker, who wants to find William for reasons of his own. Throughout the book, we are confronted with the dehumanizing force of slavery, a force that made monsters out of white men. Monsters who used the Bible to rationalize their behaviors and superiority.
The prose is simple yet elegant, and emotion permeates every page. Surprisingly though, they are only the characters’ emotions. Whatever passion the author felt about his subject does not intrude. This is not a moralizing tale –although it does put morality into question– there is no underlying bitterness in the telling. Durham does not use his characters to accuse or revile. He only tells the story, and it is through it that we feel the full impact of a despicable time. That is, as far as I’m concerned, the mark of a great talent.
A great book, well worth the read.