Having been First Lady on the three occasions her husband Michael Ondaatje won the Governor General’s Prize for Fiction (he also won twice for poetry before they were married), Linda Spalding continued to play a kind of Hillary to Ondaatje’s Bill last Tuesday when she received the honour for her fourth novel The Purchase. Spalding also beat out Tamas Dobozy, who had bested her for the Rogers Writers’ Fiction Prize the week before. (Regardless of how you assess the awards prestige-wise, monetarily it was a truce—both writers came out $25,000 richer.)
Curiously, The Purchase is the second GG winner in a row to take place in eighteenth-century America, though Spalding’s novel, set in the wake of the War of Independence, begins about 50 years earlier than Patrick DeWitt’s Gold Rush-era The Sisters Brothers. Kansas-born Spalding’s protagonist is based on her great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Dickinson, a Quaker who left Pennsylvania to begin a hardscrabble life in Virginia, where he built a home using slave labour. The book’s fictional aspect arose out of Spalding’s imagining of the set of circumstances that could have lead to so flagrant a violation of his sect’s firmly held abolitionist beliefs.
In doing so, Spalding provides her ancestor with, if not quite a Get Out of Jail Free card, then a compellingly persuasive alibi. Her readers are rewarded with a grippingly immersive depiction of a family attempting to conform their perilous lives to a moral framework often at odds with the practicalities of survival.
As the novel opens, Daniel’s beloved wife has recently died giving birth to their fifth child. When, for mercy’s sake, he decides to marry his orphan servant girl Ruth Boyd, who would otherwise be returned to the almshouse, he is ex-communicated by the Quaker elders, whose tolerance does not extend to Ruth’s Methodism. Daniel buys an acreage in Virginia, where he and his family sleep in a primitive lean-to. At an auction where he goes to acquire tools for house building, Daniel is swindled out of his best horse for a slave boy named Onesimus.
Everything in this new land involves bargaining or compromise. Often there are Catch-22s. As a Quaker, Daniel is a pacifist, yet his land must be bought through warrants awarded to veterans of the War of Independence. To free Onesimus, Daniel must first take advantage of his servitude to kill off the debt he incurred buying him. Ruth has the idea to make butter but can only buy a churn if she sells their cow.
Spalding’s finest creation is Daniel’s oldest daughter Mary, who, thanks to her relationship with Bett—an escaped slave with a talent for healing—evolves from a haughty, selfish girl contemptuous of a step-mother barely her elder, to a courageous, self-critical woman with moral compass that will eventually lead her north.
It’s so very easy for novels like this to fall into teachiness. But this one never does, even though, ironically, teaching comes into it constantly, being something sought out by several of the novel’s barely literate characters. Spalding’s writing is controlled but inspired, and she often allows the untamed landscape to assert itself in visceral, emotionally resonant ways: “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.”
You could say that what The Purchase lacks in Canadian content quantity-wise it makes up for in quality—Canada gets a small, unsullied role as the Promised Land (in a film the credits would say “and introducing…”). To which I say enjoy it while it lasts—the next crop of Canadian historical fiction is likely to try to dispel that notion.