THE PURCHASE by Linda Spalding (McClelland & Stewart), 352 pages, $29.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Linda Spalding gives the term "caveat emptor" new meaning in her Governor General's Award-winning novel.
When Quaker Daniel Dickinson inadvertently purchases a teenage male slave when he's supposed to be buying tools, he sets in motion a series of life-changing - most of them devastating - events.
Having been shunned by his Pennsylvania community for marrying 15-year-old orphan Ruth after his wife died giving birth to their fifth child, Daniel's moved to Virginia. But he remains a firm abolitionist and advocate of non-violence, struggling to maintain his values in a hostile environment.
Each of his children is out of control, most notably his eldest, 14-year-old Mary, who despises Ruth and befriends slave and healer Bett, who's arrived at the Dickinson homestead pregnant.
You'd think a book set at the turn of the 19th century about a Quaker trying to farm in Virginia would be a plodding affair, but this story has more sex and violence than the average crime thriller.
The period detail, though, is what makes The Purchase so impressive. Spalding harnesses a ton of research to explain 18th-century farming methods, the clothing homesteaders wore to survive and the complexities of herbal healing potions that were met with both relief and distrust by patients.
You can tell the author spent a lot of time in the novel's locations. She seems to know every inch of the landscape - its rivers and rocks, where it's unforgiving and how it nurtures each seed that's planted.
But she's also populated that landscape with some fascinating characters, many of whom go through profound personal changes as the story unfolds. These all make sense in the moral universe Spalding has so carefully conceived.
A major accomplishment.
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