History is thick with the mistakes of individuals. And families are fragile things, easily destroyed by a handful of choices, if they are the wrong ones.
Linda Spalding exposes this truth and rips a family apart in her most recent novel. A Reckoning, set in the American south in 1855, reveals the struggle of a country through the struggle of a family. There is no propaganda here, no glorious American dream. No proud Southern slave owners, no guiltless Northerners. There is only the Dickinson family, stripped of their home and their dignity, each person forced to make choices that change them. As the Dickinson family journeys west to escape their circumstances, the family is separated. Pulled together, separated again.
It’s all very maudlin: dirty, rough and saddening. Without the propaganda from either side relating to the imminent Civil War, the state of the union, slavery and all the rest, it’s easier to see the time period for what it was. A messy mix of people struggling to survive and the whole thing tainted by the evilness of slavery.
It is in fact the arrival of an abolitionist that destroys, or at least speeds up the implosion, of the Dickinson family. He appears, encourages their slaves to leave, and then is gone, sure he has made life better for everyone.
None of us should be so blase about our own impact on important societal turning points. Things are rarely so simple. Martin, the youngest boy in the family, isn’t pro-slavery (he helps a man escape) but he also hates the abolitionist for telling the slaves to abandon the the Dickinson family, leading to their poverty. He’s a boy, and doesn’t understand the full scope of what has happened so it’s easy for him to lay blame.
And here we find the filter we so often see events through: our own.
I enjoy reading Civil War era novels and I even suffered through Ken Burn’s The Civil War PBS mini series because the time period is fascinating and informs today’s news headlines. A Reckoning is interesting for the same reasons, even if it is densely written and adversity stacks up for 314 pages.
There are no victors in Spalding’s novel. Some find their way home to the people who love them but their success is not complete. Too much has happened, too many injuries borne.
Linda Spalding appeared at Events 14 (Grand Openings: The Alma Lee Opening Night Event) and 63 (The Pull of History) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.