Cecelia and Fanny: The Remarkable Friendship Between an Escaped Slave and Her Former Mistress

Brad Asher. Univ. of Kentucky, $30 (280p) ISBN 978-0-8131-3414-7

Reading between the lines and around the margins of this “lacunae-laden story,” Asher delivers a credible account of how two fairly ordinary women lived their roles as slave and mistress. When Fanny was five, her father purchased the infant Cecelia and her mother for $400; when Cecelia was nine, he gave her to Fanny as a “coming-of-age” gift. Six years later, in 1846, Cecelia escaped to Canada. While Fanny remained moored in Louisville, Ky., Cecelia moved to Rochester in 1860 and back to Louisville in 1865. Although “nothing in the archives substantiates the nature of the later relationship between [them],” there is evidence they met again. Careful with “speculation,” though tantalized by it, Asher serves his history suitably straight, relevant, and readable. In recreating their lives from the slight specific documentation available, he sets an informing context, for example, how the slave hiring-out system worked, how courtship was conducted, what life was like in the Canadian black settlements, how the Civil War affected Louisville. He demonstrates that the two women were certainly “bound together by the most intimate of oppressions, mistress and maid”; he makes a less persuasive case that they had, as the title states, “a remarkable friendship.” Nevertheless, Fanny remembered Cecelia in her will with $100 and a black cashmere shawl, and Cecelia saved five letters from Fanny that led to this remarkable recreation of two lives. (Oct.)