The work is unrelenting and arduous; they have no experience building a homestead or farming. When Daniel unintentionally purchases a slave boy, Onesimus, his abolitionist beliefs slowly evaporate in the face of economic necessity and the need to protect him, or so he rationalizes.
With mesmerizing prose echoing the bleak environment, Spalding demonstrates how one snip of a people’s moral fabric can cause their values to unravel. The many biblical allusions enhance the telling. “The institution is as old as time,” Daniel sorrowfully informs his daughter, Mary, when she questions him about slavery. Observing his example and its tragic aftereffects, Mary and her siblings grow up to form their own sense of right and wrong.
A harrowing and moving saga with stunning evocations of day-to-day life, herbal medicine, and the meaning of freedom in early America.
This review first appeared in Booklist's July 2013 issue. The Purchase was published by Pantheon in August ($25.95, hb, 320pp). The Canadian publisher is McClelland & Stewart (Can $29.99, hb, 368pp).
Some added comments:
- The Purchase won Canada's Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction in 2012. The author was born in Kansas and has lived in Canada since 1982. She's married to fellow Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje.
- The novel is based on people and situations from Spalding's family history (her maiden name is Dickinson).
- I'd recommend The Purchase to literary fiction readers who enjoy character-centered novels and can appreciate the authentically bleak atmosphere and tone. The Goodreads reviews and ratings are all over the place. It's beautifully written – I quite enjoyed it – but it's not for everyone.