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Book Review: In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas

"The old woman was a teller indeed; she spoke with motion in her hands. Her voice rose like a sudden gust of wind, and fell quiet like the shuffle of leaves. She lingered in silence between words."

In the upper countryIn the Upper Country by Kai Thomas is a book about storytelling. It starts with Lesinda, a young woman living in a Canadian town called Dunmore, which was settled entirely by free black people. The main story is set in the years between British Emancipation and the US Civil War, and Dunmore is one of the last destinations for the Underground Railroad.

Lesinda, who was educated by one of the wealthy white people in the town where she grew up, writes articles for the Dunmore paper as well as keeping house for the family she lives with. She is called, one afternoon, to come to the home of a farmer who lives close to her, where she discovers a group of runaway slaves and a slave catcher who has been shot in the cornfield.

Why the farmer calls Lesinda first, rather than a policeman (who he does eventually also call) becomes clearer as the narrative progresses: the town will need a story for what happened, and Lesinda is a person who can tell stories in powerful ways.

She reluctantly takes up the task of talking with the old woman who shot the slave catcher, and they strike a sort of bargain: A tale for a tale. And thus the narrative builds, weaving backward and forward through time and families that intertwine in and out of each other’s lives.

This is an amazing book. It taught me many things I had never imagined about that time of the world. I didn’t know (or had learned and forgotten) the details about how Tecumsah and his involvement in the War of 1812 nor the plan to create a third nation for Native Americans. I never even thought to consider, in fact, that Native Americans and enslaved people would have interacted.

But more than the history, what I loved was the way the story was told. The exchanging of stories and the different formats (some are the voices of other enslaved people told by a “text" of written slave narratives that Sinda’s old neighbor had), the way the stories covered both time and landscape and yet, in the end, tell the same thing—I loved it.

I listened to this as an audio book, and while the narration was beautifully done, I often had a hard time remembering whose story I was inhabiting. I wonder if the print version has some kind of family tree to help readers keep the ancestry lines straight? I’d actually really like to revisit this one in print, even if I didn’t reread the whole thing, just to straighten things out in my mind.

Honestly, though, I loved it right up to the ending, which was disappointing to me. There isn’t really a resolution for what the town of Dunmore will do if the old woman is hung for her crime and we don’t know what actually happens to her.

But the rest of the story continues to stick with me.


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