Saturday, June 15, 2024

All We Were Promised portrays three Black women's friendship and hopes for freedom in 1830s Philadelphia

Lattimore’s debut exudes originality in its characters, plot situations, and especially in its well-chosen setting of 1830s Philadelphia, “the self-proclaimed cradle of liberty,” a landmark American city whose grand ideals of freedom and brotherly love fall short for its Black residents. The opening scene makes plain this philosophical struggle. As Charlotte Walker and Nell Gardner attend a speech by prominent abolitionist Robert Purvis in Washington Square Park, white men’s resentment agitates a violent mob.

The young women’s worlds rarely intersect; their friendship is an exception. Nell’s family are well-to-do Black elites who have been free for generations, while Charlotte had escaped a Maryland plantation with her father four years earlier, a fact she keeps hidden. Charlotte is forced to serve as housemaid to her ambitious father while he passes for white and establishes an upscale woodworking business.

Charlotte gradually opens Nell’s eyes to the hypocritical limitations of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society that Nell belongs to, since it hesitates to take action to help runaway slaves, even as these needs become immediate. Charlotte had left her younger friend Evie behind when she fled Maryland, and when Evie arrives in Philadelphia with her enslaver, the self-absorbed Missus Kate, Charlotte risks having her cover blown.

The viewpoint nimbly switches among the three lead characters, and pre-Civil War Philadelphia arises fully formed on the page with its diverse residential neighborhoods, public spaces, and a moral edifice whose structure is continually tested. The storyline keeps readers guessing on how everyone’s relationships will evolve under the weight of secrets: not just the women’s friendships, but also Nell’s potential romance with a family friend and Charlotte’s strained bond with her father/boss, who refuses to acknowledge their past. A few too-modern word choices stand out (“slow-walked”), but this is an altogether absorbing, thought-provoking story.

Ashton Lattimore's All We Were Promised was published by Ballantine in April; I reviewed it initially for May's Historical Novels Review.


  1. Anonymous12:23 PM

    As an author who has based his novels in this exact time and place, I look forward to reading Ashton Lattimore's tale. Philadelphia in this era is a novelist's playground. Everybody hates everybody. Roger Smith, Rian Krieger's Journey

    1. There was a lot of that in this novel - so much strife and division. Great that you've written fiction in this setting also.