“Thee shall cause scandal by keeping the servant girl in thy house,” his father admonished. “Thee must find a proper mother for thy orphans.”
“Ruth Boyd is also an orphan,” Daniel had replied. It was a listless argument nonetheless. He had taken her from the almshouse on a bond of indenture and did not feel he could return her. He said simply, “I cannot take her back there.” He thought of the way she had run out to his wagon wearing a torn plaid dress and boots so old they were split at the sides. Her cape was unmended, her felt hat unclean.
Not only does Daniel not evict Ruth the servant, he marries her, which immediately provokes shunning from the community. Having made that choice, he has no alternative but to begin his physical journey, packing new wife, five children and whatever he can on a wagon and heading west for Virginia, where land is readily available.
Even before departing, however, his stonemason father foreshadows the second, “moral”, journey that Daniel will be undertaking. Virginia is “a land of slavery” and there is no paid labour to be had. Daniel will not only be entering a physical world that he knows not, he will be entering a moral one that is completely at odds with how he has been raised.
Those parallel journeys are the underlying threads of Linda Spalding’s The Purchase which won this year’s Governor-General’s award for English fiction. She is a talented writer and treats both with equal respect — the first 25 pages of the book at taken up with a detailed description of the terrain as the Dickinsons head west and also establish the underlying tension between the new “wife” Ruth (age 16) and the effective new “mother” of the family, daughter Mary (age 13). It is a respect for detail and description that will continue throughout the volume.
The moral journey becomes real shortly after the family’s arrival in Jonestown — not really a town, just a settlement named after the first arrival, the German Jonas Frederick, who preferred to be known as Frederick Jones. Daniel goes looking to hire help and discovers his new reality from a neighbor: “…the only choice in this here country is to buy yoursef a nigra, rare though they may be.”
Daniel is an abolitionist and wants no part of that; he will have to simply proceed on his own. And he has to start quickly: he not only needs assorted tools to begin work, a spill crossing a river on the way has meant the loss of all the family’s food and supplies. He heads to a nearby community where an auction is scheduled — but before those items come up for bid, there is the auction of the dead owner’s slaves.
After a few of those are sold off, to Daniel’s disgust, a mother and her son are brought to the stage.
Daniel sat through the auctioning of the boy’s mother, then, and he hated the men as they yelled up their bids but he told himself they would now get to the useful tools when a boy the size of Isaac [Daniel’s middle son] climbed up on the stage without prodding. He was surely older than nine but no more than thirteen and he got up on the stage as if daring the men below to challenge his right to stand above them. From that height he stood looking down at the pink and white faces below as if he hoped to lock eyes with the one person in the crowd who dared to take charge of his fate — although if this fate can be charged to anything, thought Daniel, it can only be to God as He speaks through each one of us. It occurred to him then to pray for the boy but he did not know where to begin. Instead, he went on trying to organize his understanding of God’s plan and he felt his right arm go up as if pulled by a string.
Daniel tries to retract his bid, but that is not allowed. Minutes later, the abolitionist Quaker is not only a slave owner, he has had to give up both his money and favorite horse in payment for the boy.
For those who are not aware from publicity for The Purchase, now would seem an appropriate time to reveal that Daniel Dickinson is an ancestor of author Linda Spalding, five generations back. While the book is most definitely a novel, it is also a venture into family history, centred around the question “what must it have been like?” She reveals in her acknowledgements that she has retraced the journey and spent much time on site — and scoured all available records from the era.
Raised in a self-isolated community of Quakers, Daniel is ill-prepared for both his physical and moral journeys. On both fronts, he frequently displays the kind of damaging shortcomings that inevitably produces, best illustrated by the spontaneous raising of his hand at that slave auction. Spalding’s book is a “small” one in the sense that it concentrates on the story of one family in a small community — yet everything that family does as the children grow up and mature can never escape the contradiction that they are abolitionist slave owners in a community where slavery is the norm. The “big” story keeps intruding on the “small” one.
I will confess that I am not a fan of either memoirs or ancestral histories and even a reluctant reader of historical fiction — which means that I found The Purchase to be a very frustrating novel. Spalding is true to the facts that she was able to unearth, which means that the novel contains many gaps just as Daniel would have experienced them — as much as I salute the authorial integrity that that involves, I frequently yearned for an omniscient narrator who would fill some of them in. And while I certainly appreciated her ability to provide detailed description of both frontier surroundings and moral dilemmas, by mid-novel I found it wearing rather than rewarding — I wasn’t engaged in the author’s own journey so the precise exploration of events along the way was a barrier, not a revelation.
I can understand why some readers and prize juries would take to this book. I’ll admit it simply did not fit what I look for in a novel.