“I think it [was] Toni Morrison — I may be misquoting her — who said, ‘it’s never going to be over,’” says Toronto-based author Linda Spalding in regards to American race relations and the ever-present ghosts of that country’s slaveholding past. “It’s so toxic that I don’t think we’ll ever get over it.”
A couple of things have steered the conversation in this direction. Yes, there’s Spalding’s latest novel, The Purchase, which examines the inter-generational impact of slavery in the U.S. — and which was honoured with the Governor General’s Award for Literature this past Tuesday.
But also, there’s that pair of maps of America that have gone viral on the Internet following the recent presidential election — one shows the electoral divide of Republican-voting red states and Democratic party blue states; the other map displays the breakdown between pre-Civil War slave states and free states (the very era that Spalding covers in The Purchase.) Chillingly, the two graphics, depicting eras nearly 200 years apart, are almost identical. And given some of the horrific racist rhetoric to spill out over social media immediately following Barack Obama’s re-election, it’s also, unfortunately, not that surprising.
“I think it is the absolute certainty with which southerners felt they were entitled,” says Spalding over the seemingly never-ending divide over skin colour south of the 49th parallel. “And not just that, but they really saw a distinction in races and they’ve never quite gotten over that — they just can’t see it as an equal situation.”
As relevant as its themes are to the contemporary narrative of the American experience, though, The Purchase also contains a very personal thread for its author. Indeed the story — about an abolitionist Quaker named Daniel who is cast out by his community because of his marriage to a teenaged orphan girl, and who then sets out across Virginia and becomes, unexpectedly, a slave owner — is rooted in Spalding’s own family history.
She says she became aware of her ancestral slave-owning relations when she was around 10 years old — ironically, during another period of racial unrest in the U.S. Growing up in Topeka, Kansas (she moved to Canada in 1982), Spalding witnessed firsthand the birth of de-segregation in schools — her father was the local school board president at the time and favoured the move towards mixed classrooms.
“I thought that this was all great — that this was what we were all about — and then I find out my father comes from a slave-owning family in Virginia,” explains Spalding. “And much later I found out that we were Quakers in our origins. It became a kind of longtime obsession for me.
“I found out who they were, when they had been born, what their names were — I knew that the real Daniel left Virginia in 1798, having been disowned by the Quakers, and nobody would tell me why that had happened,” she continues. “Nobody cared, really. But I figured out why he was disowned. It was because he had married a Methodist. And I figured out why he had married the Methodist — I decided that she must have been very young because they didn’t have their own child for five years. So I sort of built into my case that he let her, you know, remain chaste. I kind of built around these little facts that I had.”
But while The Purchase takes its cues, and characters’ names, from these very real people and events, the plot itself is very much a work of fiction. But, once again, lest you think this is yet another destined-to-be-dusty tome about 19th century arcana, the author — not to mention current events — suggests that her story reflects as much on contemporary concerns as it does the past.
“I think we have all kinds of the same issues. Obviously they’re played out in a very different environment,” says Spalding. “I think that people are substantially different in the sense that almost everyone at that time had a belief in the divine, and certainly that isn’t the case now. That’s a big change in human consciousness. But stuff like shame and envy and fear and grief are obviously pretty much the same everywhere.”