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Jo’s Pick of the Week: In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas

Kai Thomas’ fascinating debut novel, In the Upper Country, offers a fresh take on the Underground Railroad in Canada.

The author, who is Afro-Canadian, became intrigued about historical accounts he read about the relationships of runaway slaves and Indigenous peoples in Canada. This inspired him to write his first novel, which opens in 1859. It is set in the fictional town of Dunmore, which was based on real Canadian refugee communities formed by former slaves who fled the United States. The Underground Railroad brought an estimated 30,000 and 40,000 fugitives to British North America (now Canada), which banned slavery in 1834.

When an American slave catcher comes to Dunmore looking for several runaway slaves, he finds them hiding at a farm. An elderly black woman named Cash refuses to let him take the group away and shoots him dead.

The novel is full of strong women, including the young Lensinda Martin, who is determined to make something of herself. She works as a journalist for a black newspaper while also cleaning her editor Arabella’s house for room and board. When Arabella hears about Cash’s arrest for murdering the slave catcher, she asks Lensinda to go to the jail to interview the old woman. Cash agrees to tell her story if Lensinda first tells her a story. This story for a story continues over several days and slowly reveals what Cash went through as a runaway slave, a free woman married to a Native man, and then a recaptured slave. Cash’s narrative ends up changing Linsinda’s life.

I enjoyed the beautiful writing and the relationships between Native Americans and African Americans, which is a narrative I have never read in a novel. Thomas’ lyrical prose creates a strong sense of place and time. The complex, courageous female characters are memorable. I recommend In the Upper Country for fans of historical fiction and books such as The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.

While reading this book I started looking for historical background information, which I thought I would share here.

For more on the Indigenous connection to the Underground Railroad, click here.

For more about Canada’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, click here.

For more on the abolishment of slavery in Canada, click here.

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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