Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Reckoning by Linda Spalding, a literary exploration of antebellum America and slavery's consequences

Spalding’s timely, historically sensitive sequel to The Purchase (2013), a literary saga which also confidently stands alone, explores the ramifications of slavery on the next generation of the Dickinson family.

An abolitionist’s arrival on their southwestern Virginia farm in 1855 sparks the dissolution of their longtime way of life. Some enslaved men escape. Without their labor, the crops fail and money grows tight, fomenting conflict between circuit-riding preacher John and his cruel half-brother, Benjamin, who owns their land and slaves.

The narrative then turns adventurous as it follows several people, including John’s wife, Lavina, 13-year-old son, Martin, and an escaped slave, Bry, as their journeys away from Jonesville unite and diverge.

The characters are full-fledged individuals whose mind-sets reflect their time and place. John is enamored of their African American housekeeper and imagines she loves him in return, while Lavina is an intriguing mix of independence and feminine conformity.

For John’s family, it’s also noteworthy that the unspoiled American landscape, spectacularly described in its glory and dangers, offers a spirituality and freedom absent from his controlling form of religion.

Linda Spalding's A Reckoning was published on March 13th by Pantheon in the US. The Canadian publisher is McClelland & Stewart.  I reviewed it for Booklist's March 15th issue, after having reviewed the initial novel, The Purchase, back in 2013.  The Purchase had won Canada's Governor General's Literary Award in 2012, and I actually think A Reckoning is the better of the two.

Other notes:

- For readers who enjoy literary sagas, the characters are based on people from the author's family history (her family name is Dickinson).

- The novel's dialogue isn't given in quotation marks, which may turn off some readers. That said, this isn't uncommon for literary fiction, and I didn't have trouble distinguishing who said what.


  1. I find these stories very disturbing but it is history and this one seems very well told.

    1. It is. The subject (and setting, too) is being explored by many American authors these days, but it is difficult to read about.