Winner of Canada's 2012 Governor General's Award for Fiction
In this provocative and starkly beautiful historical novel, a Quaker family moves from Pennsylvania to the Virginia frontier, where slaves are the only available workers and where the family’s values and beliefs are sorely tested.
In 1798, Daniel Dickinson, recently widowed and shunned by his fellow Quakers when he marries his young servant girl to help with his five small children, moves his shaken family down the Wilderness Road to the Virginia/Kentucky border. Although determined to hold on to his Quaker ways, and despite his most dearly held belief that slavery is a sin, Daniel becomes the owner of a young boy named Onesimus, setting in motion a twisted chain of events that will lead to tragedy and murder, forever changing his children’s lives and driving the book to an unexpected conclusion.
A powerful novel of sacrifice and redemption set in a tiny community on the edge of the frontier, this spellbinding narrative unfolds around Daniel’s struggle to maintain his faith; his young wife, Ruth, who must find her own way; and Mary, the eldest child, who is bound to a runaway slave by a terrible secret. Darkly evocative, The Purchase is as hard-edged as the realities of pioneer life. Its memorable characters, drawn with compassion and depth, are compellingly human, with lives that bring light to matters of loyalty and conscience.
Daniel looked over at the daughter who sat where a wife should sit. Cold sun with a hint of snow. The new wife rode behind him like a stranger while the younger children huddled together, coughing and clenching their teeth. The wind shook them and the wagon wounded the road with its weight and the river gullied along to one side in its heartless way. It moved east and north while Daniel and all he had in the world went steadily the other way, praying for fair game and tree limbs to stack up for shelter. “We should make camp while it’s light,” said the daughter, who was thirteen years old and holding the reins. But Daniel wasn’t listening. He heard a wheel grating and the river gullying. He heard his father – the memory of that lost, admonishing voice – but he did not hear his daughter, who admonished in much the same way.
Some time later the child pulled the two horses to a halt, saying again that they must make camp while the sky held its light. The new wife arranged dishes on the seat of the wagon, and the child, whose name was Mary, pulled salted meat out of a trunk at the back. It was their fifth day on the road and such habits were developing. By morning there would be snow on the ground, the fire would die, and the children would have to move on without warm food or drink. They would take up their places in the burdened wagon while Daniel’s fine Pennsylvania mares shied and balked and turned in their tracks. A man travelling on horseback might cover a hundred miles in three days, but with a wagon full of crying or coughing children, the mountainous roads of Virginia were a sorrow made of mud and felled trees and devilish still-growing pines.
The children, being young and centred on their own thoughts, were only dimly aware of the hazards of the road and of the great forest hovering. They hardly noticed the mountains, which were first gentle and then fierce, because all of it came upon them as gradually as shapes in an unhappy dream. The mountains only interrupted a place between land and sky. The forest got thicker and darker on every side. They had, within a few weeks, watched their mother die, given up home and belongings, landscape and habits, school and friends. They had watched people become cold to them, shut and lock doors to deny them entrance. How were they to understand? There were other wagons leaving Pennsylvania and going south and west, but none were so laden with woe as the one that carried the five children and the widower and his new bride.
Daniel spoke of the trees and told his children which were the yellow pine and which the white oak. He pointed to a deer standing still as vegetation in the bushes, but he made no effort to hunt or to fish for the beings that swam in the streams. As a Quaker, he did not own a gun and would depend on his store of food until he could raise his own crops. It was November, an ill-advised time for travel, but in spite of rain and cold winds and sore throats, he looked down at the rushing river and told himself that he had no choice. The Elders had cast him out. He had been disowned and now he was rudderless, homeless, alone on a crowded road. He did not count the new wife or the children as companions. They were plants uprooted before they had formed into shape or type. They were adrift on this high road above a river that divided them from everything they had come to expect. “When I inherit we will have a good piece of land,” his dear Rebecca had said whenever he’d chafed at his dependence on her family. She had always said it and he had eventually decided there was no shame in having a wealthy wife. He had spent twelve years working for the tobacco firm owned by his father-in-law, but then Rebecca had sickened after her fifth childbirth. All so sudden, it had been, and everyone bewildered while Daniel stared into the flame of his wife’s bedside candle, trying to understand. Neglecting his work and forgetting to eat or wash, he gave over the details of the children’s daily care to a fifteen-year-old girl he had brought in from the almshouse, an orphan. Her name was Ruth Boyd.
Mother Grube fussed in the kitchen while Rebecca lay in her four-poster bed holding her husband’s sleeve. The entire Grube family kept arriving and departing without announcement, but when Rebecca died, on the twenty-first day after Joseph’s birth, they seemed to evaporate. The sisters were married, with large families of their own, and the parents were elderly. Alone in his study, while neighbours brought food to the kitchen door, Daniel wept and prayed and waited to learn what was required of him.
“Thee shall cause scandal by keeping the servant girl in thy house,” his father admonished. “Thee must find a proper mother for thy orphans.”
“Ruth Boyd is also an orphan,” Daniel had replied. It was a listless argument nevertheless. He had taken her from the almshouse on a bond of indenture and did not feel he could return her. He said simply, “I cannot take her back there.” He thought of the way she had run out to his wagon wearing a torn plaid dress and boots so old they were split at the sides. Her cape was unmended, her felt hat unclean.
“And when thee is written out of the meeting for keeping an unmarried girl?” his father had asked. “Then where will thee go?”
“I will go to Virginia.” It was a muttering, a threat. “Land of tolerance.”
“Land of slavery.” Daniel’s father had a mason’s heavy hands. “And does thee know what James Madison has done there?”
“Yes, Father. But it is only a very mild law which holds . . .”
“Which holds the constitution in contempt,” the old man spluttered, “although the Virginians are intent on breeding presidents and, in fear of justified reprisal by the Federalists, are building a militia.” Daniel’s father had taken his hat off and was fanning his face. “Next they will decide to leave the Union altogether.”
“There is religious freedom . . .” In Brandywine, the Elders sat in judgment, measuring each person’s response to the voice of God within. Discipline. The sense of the Meeting.
“And no paid labour to be had,” his father had stated gloomily.
“I shall labour for myself.” This was said with a hint of sinful pride. “Thee once quoted John Woolman to me that if the leadings of the spirit were attended to, more people would be engaged in the sweet employment of husbandry.” Daniel had gone out to his horse then, remounted, and tried to imagine himself as different from the quiet, internalized person he had always been. He would make himself worthy of farm work, although he had so far never lifted a hand in such labour. He would find rolling land and a fast-running creek. He would drive his children through the Blue Ridge Mountains and by the time they found a homeplace none of them would look back. They had already crossed the Potomac at Evan Watkins’s ferry. They had pushed on into Virginia, the old Commonwealth. The children would see this as adventure instead of exile.
When they passed the first plantation, Mary pulled hard at the reins. “There will surely be someone here to suckle poor baby,” she said, thinking of Luveen, who had raised her mother and then all of them but who would not come with them to Virginia, where she could be mistaken for a slave. There’s a betta world a’comin . . . It was something Luveen used to sing.
But Daniel would not see his child nourished by slavery. He turned and lifted the baby from his cradle and put him into the stepmother’s empty arms.
They spent a cold night in a roadside field with the children huddled in the wagon and Daniel on the hard ground underneath. He heard nine-year-old Isaac ask his brother if he was afraid of going where Indians might take his scalp. He heard Mary singing Luveen’s lullaby. He heard Ruth Boyd lift the baby from his cradle in order to feed him milk from the cow that had come along on this journey as unwillingly as the rest, and he turned on his side and covered his ears and thought about Joseph fleeing out of Egypt with a young, chaste wife. For twelve years he had made himself valuable by poring over deeds and other documents and he surely knew enough about land and its value to find the right location for a new home where he could bring his family back to respectability. These were his thoughts as he lay on the ground under an ill-equipped wagon, listening to his children complain.
Excerpted from The Purchase by Linda Spalding. Copyright © 2013 by Linda Spalding. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Linda Spalding was born and raised in Kansas. She is the author of three previous novels and two acclaimed works of nonfiction, A Dark Place in the Jungle, which was short-listed for the Trillium Book Award and the Pearson Writers’ Non-Fiction Prize, and Who Named the Knife. The Purchase received Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction. Spalding lives in Toronto, where she is an editor of Brick magazine.
1. In what ways does Daniel’s religious background shape the way he thinks about the world around him? How does the way he sees himself differ from the way other characters see him?
2. Would Daniel have been a different father (and man) had his first wife lived? How? Why can’t he be a loving, devoted husband to Ruth?
3. Why does Daniel go against his beliefs and purchase a slave? What are his reasons, much later, for going to the auctioneer’s house instead of the doctor’s when one of his children is dying?
4. Discuss the importance of the lack of mothers for the women in this novel. From the stories the characters remember and tell, what kind of mother was Daniel’s first wife? Discuss Luveen’s importance as a surrogate mother for Mary. What kind of mother is Bett? What sort of “mother” is Mary to Bett’s son and to her own siblings? Do you think she will be a strong surrogate mother to Bett’s grandchild?
5. What in the importance of trees in the novel? What do trees represent to Onesimus and Bry?
6. The book is dedicated “In memory of my brother Skip, son of Jacob, who was son of Boyd, who was son of Martin, who was son of John, who was son of Daniel Dickinson.” Discuss this dedication and its significance on your reading experience, if any. Does knowing the book was inspired by the author’s ancestors make any difference to your reading experience?
7. Discuss the title. Why such a stark and simple title for such a large and complicated story?
8. In what ways is this book similar to Cold Mountain in its attention to the details and descriptions of daily life on the American frontier/wilderness?
9. Compare and contrast Mary and Ruth at the beginning and at the end of the novel. Describe their relationship. Why don’t they like each other? Do they ever learn to get along? Do they share any traits? Do you think they would have been friends if Ruth wasn’t married to Mary’s father? What does it say about Ruth that she gives her newly purchased dress to Mary? Which of the two women is a more sympathetic character?
10. Why does it say about Daniel that he marries Ruth? Since his Quaker community disowns him because Ruth is Methodist, why didn’t he marry a Quaker woman instead, and employ Ruth as a maid?
11. Why does Daniel decide to travel with his five children and Ruth to Virginia?
12. What is the importance of the stories from Virgil’s Aeneid and the Old Testament for Mary and the children? How does Mary connect these stories with Onesimus’s own history and predicament, and with her own life?
13. How do religion and spirituality play into the novel? Discuss the importance and role of both Quaker and Methodist Christianity on Daniel, Mary and Ruth, and the spirituality of Bett. How different are the versions of faith each character has?
14. Do you believe Ruth’s claim to have been spoken to by an angel? Does she believe it? Who put the idea into her head?
15. How do Daniel’s Quaker traditions and ethics crumble as he spends more and more time away from his former community and on the frontier? Which traditions stay with him? With Mary?
16. What is the importance of remembering childhood stories and traditions for Mary (both of her mother and her nanny, Luveen), Onesimus, and Bett. How useful are these stories out on the frontier?
17. The novel starts and ends with Daniel. Why do you think, when there are so many strong female characters, that the author chose to do this? Do you believe this is ultimately Daniel’s story? Why or why not?
18. Describe Mary’s relationship with Bett and with Onesimus. Who is she trying to save when she hits Jester Fox? How does she become closer to them than to anyone in her own family or, as time goes on, her husband? Why does she refuse to free Bett?
19. Compare and contrast Daniel with the other white men of the novel, especially Misters Jones and Fox.
20. Over the course of the novel, Daniel’s relationship with God changes. How and why? Do you think he finds peace with himself and his God by the end?
21. Does Daniel grow to love Ruth over the course of the novel? Why does he blame her for Joseph’s death? How does Ruth finally assert herself at the end of the novel? Do you think her relationship with her husband will grow stronger?
22. What is the importance of Bett being a healer and knowing homeopathic remedies that the white doctor doesn’t know or believe in? Why won’t she share her secrets with Mary?
23. Discuss the various physical homes in this novel: the Pennsylvania house, Onesimus’s hut, Daniel’s cabin, Wiley’s house, the Foxes house. Why does Benjamin build his house/mansion right in front of his father’s smaller house? Is there a significance to this?
24. Why does Jemima run off with and bind herself to Rafe Fox, despite being aware of the history and animosities between the two families? Are her motives simple or complex? What are the choices and opportunities for a spirited, pretty girl like her out on the frontier? Why is she so devoted to Bry?
25. Discuss Bry. How is he a product of both the white and black worlds of rural Virginia in the early 1800s. What do you think will become of him? Will he ever not be an outsider?
26. Caryl Phillips has lauded this novel, calling it “a poised and moving novel about the indignities of slavery and the moral stain at the inception of the American republic.” What ultimately is this novel saying about this part of American history and its effects on future generations?