cover image The Purchase

The Purchase

Linda Spalding. Pantheon, $25.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-307-90841-4

This novel of frontier life focuses on one family’s attempt to meet the challenges of antebellum America. At the beginning of the 19th century, widower Daniel Dickinson, cast out of his Quaker community, travels from Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley to the frontier of southern Virginia, taking with him the orphan Ruth Boyd as his new wife, and his five children—from Mary, the headstrong eldest, to the babe Joseph. When Daniel, a staunch abolitionist, inexplicably bids on the 13-year-old slave Onesimus, the purchase has many unfortunate effects. It also introduces freedom, consequence, and the hand of providence as themes Spading will follow with varying success. Onesimus befriends Mary and another slave, Bett, who is terrorized by her own master’s nightly visits. When Bett gets pregnant, the lives of Mary, Bett, Bett’s son, and her master, Jester Fox, become linked by both love and tragedy. Throughout the 15-year span of the novel, the Dickinson family is transformed by their disparate ambitions, though Spalding (Daughters of Captain Cook) struggles to fully develop characters in a book with a large cast. References to Virgil and the Old Testament imbue Spalding’s raw, powerful writing with some hope that “every human success simply requires faith,” but the bleak story lacks enough space to process the endless supply of tragedy. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Aug.)