Wednesday, March 08, 2023

In the Upper Country reveals aspects of Black and Indigenous histories on both sides of the Canadian border

In 1859, in an all-Black town in Canada West (now called Ontario), a hub for the Underground Railroad, a female journalist agrees to interview an old woman who was imprisoned after killing a white slave catcher on her trail. Their conversation reveals much in the way of unexpected history.

A writer for The Coloured Canadian, Lensinda “Sinda” Martin doesn’t know what to make of the woman, who speaks in riddles, or her perplexing situation. The old woman and her companion, a young seamstress named Emma, had been hiding at a farmer’s cabin when a white man and his Indian partner showed up, claiming the pair were fugitive slaves from Lincoln County, Kentucky. Strangely, the woman was seen talking to the Indian and somehow convinced him to back off.

Profoundly frustrated (“Would I ever get anything of value from this woman?” she wonders), Sinda proposes a “tale for a tale,” bartering her own stories for the woman’s revelations about the past. These tales involve love, family, painful separation, and multiple quests for freedom—and the drastic lengths people will go to obtain it.

Stretching from 1795 Montreal through the pivotal War of 1812 to the characters’ present day, this debut novel paves a previously uncharted path through North America, uncovering deep affinities between Black and Indigenous peoples, who shared the pain of bondage and “quietly celebrated each escape; it mattered not whence they fled.”

The writing isn’t uniformly fluid. Some pages move speedily, while others require careful, slow perusal in order to make connections with earlier events. Many of the secondary characters—including Sinda’s employer and landlady, an abolitionist speaker; the seamstress Emma; and Sinda’s father, Dred, who can “talk Indian”—are intriguing enough to potentially carry their own novel.

While In the Upper Country isn’t an effortless read, it makes an original and valuable contribution to the historical fiction genre.

Kai Thomas's In the Upper Country was published by Viking in January; I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review.

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