Hello Reader, meet History: reflections on reading THE PURCHASE

the purchase

When I watch CNN I have a tendency to yell or curse (or both) at the TV; so, I usually only watch it when I have a monotonous task to get through. This weekend, I had a stack of ironing in front of me and turned on CNN to pass the time. I found myself in the middle of a panel discussion on Paula Dean’s admission of using the N word, and various opinions on whether the word should ever be used by anyone given its historical context of slavery. A lot of dumb comments were passed around the studio. The next segment was about Obama’s trip to Robben Island, and how he and his family were so moved to see the place that kept Nelson Mandela incarcerated for 18 years. Both these news items came on the heels of me finishing The Purchase, a Governor General’s  award-winning novel by Linda Spalding. It’s about an abolitionist Quaker named Daniel Dickinson who moves to Virginia after his wife’s sudden death in 1799, only to find himself a slave owner within months of his arrival. It’s a great book – I highly recommend it for pleasure and as a teaching book. But it (paired with the above news) brought out a lot of BIG feelings in me, and so my library letter was more about how the reader comes up against historical atrocities and what we tend to do about it.  Here’s the letter:

June 30, 2013

Dear Reader,

If you are anything like me, you often run an inner monologue while reading.  It usually goes something like this: “What? Why would you do that? Don’t you realize she’s only using you? What would your mother say if she knew you sold that heirloom?”

But when I read books like The Purchase by Linda Spalding, a very different monologue is produced and it is much more serious. When a novel deals with certain moral and social issues like slavery, genocide, historical atrocities, I begin to judge characters based on their views. Most often it is so easy to do. Authors tend to create evil characters as slave owners or Nazis or dictators.

So when this book opened with a self-proclaimed abolitionist named Daniel Dickinson emerging from huge personal tragedy and lead me through the events that occur after he buys a young boy as a slave, it pulled me in two directions. I hated his actions while I felt sorry for his delusion that he was doing a good (if not the right) thing. The rest of the characters interact with Onesimus, the slave in question, in very different ways – from outward cruelty, to pity, to turning him into a favourite pet, to treating him as property. And I kept wondering how the characters could justify their treatment of him because even when he was treated kindly, he was still not free.

And it made me think: who would I have been? How would I have treated him?

We often respond to history with the idea that had we been there, everything would have been different. We would have changed things, we would have been the beacon of hope, the enlightened prophet, the Schindler, the underground railroad. Forgetting of course that had we been there our entire outlook would have necessarily been different – been shaped by that environment.

When I hear of atrocities occurring around the globe, my first (and selfish) thought is that I’m glad I am not in the fray; the second thought is that the people who are in the fray, the people willing to die for what is right and just are often the unsung heroes because they usually do die.

So, it was a sad moment when I finished The Purchase and realized that had I been there and lived that, I more than likely would not have felt the way I feel here and now. And even if I did feel the way I feel now, I would probably have been a sheep following the sheep for my self-preservation. And that’s a very sad reflection, but I think it is partially what a good author intends from his/her readers.



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