to see truths
that we’d rather not.
It takes courage
to speak up
when the way things is,
ain’t the way they should be.
It takes courage
to go beyond what you know
to the places you don’t."
I have tremendous respect for Caroline Pignat's ability to tell powerful stories. Her historical novels have a place of importance on my 'keepers' shelf. Winning awards is not new to this fine writer. So, I was happy to read that she had won yet another ... the Governor General's literary award for this beautifully told story of hardship and hope.
Choosing to tell it in verse, as well as in multiple voices, proves her mettle as a chronicler of history and the creator of brilliant characters. It was meant to be a part of the series that includes Greener Grass, Wild Geese, and Timber Wolf. Instead, she found herself reading about the Fugitive Slave Act of Canada in the 1850s ... and Phoebe's voice wanted a place to tell her story.
The setting is a Virginia tobacco plantation, the year is 1858 and the strongest voice is Phoebe's. There are five other characters whose perspective is shared: Master, Tessa, Doctor Bergman, Bea and Shad. Phoebe has known no other life. She is a house slave, a servant to Master Duncan's daughter Tessa. Since the master sold her mother, Phoebe has been mute. She knows the sorrow of loss, the fear of being sold away herself, the agony of watching her fellow slaves be beaten, the hatred of both Tessa and her mother.
She also knows love ... her momma taught her to be strong, to watch and to listen while never publicly sharing her thoughts and ideas. She loves birds, and is loved by Bea:
"When Missus cut my Phoebe's face with the knife,
I stitch her up.
And when Missus cut my Phoebe's back with the strap,
I cool her welts.
And when Missus cut my Phoebe down
with all the hate in her bitter soul,
I raise her up.
Time and time again,
I raise that girl
with all the love I got left in me to give."
When Doctor Bergman arrives from Canada to study and draw the birds of Virginia, he is happily welcomed by the Duncan family. Tessa wants him for a husband, the family enjoys his genteel demeanor and importance. Phoebe is made his guide. She is concerned about being alone with a white man. Dr. Bergman is intrigued by the young girl who says not a word, has thorough knowledge of all birds, and is able to read and write, a discovery he makes when he finds her notebook in a hollow tree.
After building trust with his young guide, Dr. Bergman reveals the truth behind his visit and asks for her help. It is a terrifying prospect for the young slave. The tension builds, secrets come to light, and change comes with alarming speed.
The choice to use a verse novel to tell her story is inspired. Such power and poignancy is captured in perfectly chosen words. Readers are made painfully aware of the reality that is plantation life for all. The different voices offer variety in perspective. Personal interpretation of what is truth and what it means to be free are carefully portrayed. Being able to listen in on each of the narratives makes the reading more personal and immediate.
Phoebe has courage; in the end she also has hope.
"Birdman look at me in surprise. "Yes," he say.
"I saw her when I was home last.
She works at the Willard Hotel in St. Catherines."
And I know then where I'm going.
Even if I don't yet know the way,
or the how.
I ain't lost no more."