Many of us are attempting to finally do things we left neglected in 2012.
For me, that means perusing a big list of enticing yet unopened books.
At the top of my stack for January was the Governor General’s Award winner The Purchase, by Linda Spalding. As I suspected it turned out to be one of the best books of last year.
The Purchase is inspired by a historical character from Spalding’s own family. Her distant ancestor, Daniel Dickinson, was a devout Quaker living in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. After being made a widower by the birth of his fifth child, Daniel quickly re-marries a 15-year-old Methodist.
Unfortunately, this is an unforgiveable act for a Quaker, and his community shuns him.
Daniel loads his children and new wife into a wagon and heads for Virginia, a state where the land is all but free. The problem is that black people are not. As a Quaker, and therefore a staunch abolitionist, Daniel is warned against trying to live in a place where slavery is allowed.
Daniel is sure that he can avoid slavery. Yet, soon enough, he attends a slave auction, and whether mistakenly or not, purchases a young boy.
This one decision is a disastrous turning point in Daniel’s life. He vows that he will treat the slave fairly, and will eventually set him free. But Daniel finds this isn’t an easy promise to keep when living amongst a society of slaves and slave owners.
Spalding explores a perplexing question: how do people end up making decisions that are so counter to their own moral ideals?
Tragedy and misery follow the purchase of the slave. Spalding shows how truly difficult it is to keep one wrong decision from bubbling over and seeping into the rest of your life — and the lives of those around you.
Of course, no one today agrees with keeping slaves, but still we are often tempted by choices counter to our own moral compass. Over the holidays a relative confided in me that he is considering going up north to work in the oil patch. He also said this choice would compromise his family life and environmental ideals. “But it’ll just be for a short time,” he told me. “Until I get back on my feet.” After reading The Purchase I am less certain that he’ll be able to successfully separate this work from the rest of his life.
Though set in the United States, The Purchase is written from a profoundly Canadian perspective. It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the differences between our two countries — but Spalding shows that founding a country on the backs of slaves is one of those decisions which profoundly affects a society for centuries to come.
The Purchase is an illuminating, thoughtful and beautifully-written story. Feel free to send your suggestions for the best book of 2012, and I’ll add them to my list.
Heather Allen is a reader and writer living in Penticton.