Three Novels Rooted in Forgotten Black HistoriesHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, fiction, memoir
Kai Thomas’s debut, IN THE UPPER COUNTRY (334 pp., Viking, $28), is a fresh and propulsive novel, set in 1859 in the all-Black Canadian town of Dunmore, a hub on the Underground Railroad. The town serves as safe haven and utopia both, hacked into the swampland by those seeking freedom.
The novel follows Lensinda Martin, a biracial Black woman, born free and taught to read and write, who has come to Dunmore from the north, unlike most of the town’s inhabitants, who arrived after fleeing slavery in the United States. Lensinda (or Sinda, as she’s called) keeps house and also writes articles for her employer’s newspaper, The Coloured Canadian.
When she’s called to assist a strange white man who’s been shot, Sinda assumes she’s needed for her skill with medicinal herbs, but it soon becomes clear that her words will be the poultice needed for a wound with the potential to fester. A slave catcher has been killed by a Black woman, Cash, he was set on capturing, and Sinda and the people of Dunmore understand that in the wake of this murder of self-defense “a story must be told; some sense must be made. For in the absence of sense, fear and violence would reign.”
Sinda, blunt and aloof, is tasked with interviewing Cash in order to write a story that will sway hearts and minds, but she finds her match in the recalcitrant old woman, who couldn’t care less what people think of her.
Unwilling to share her traumas without recompense, Cash initiates a barter: a tale for a tale. Thomas makes superb use of this framework, with the stories building upon one another until they reach a surprising and satisfying conclusion. What initially seemed like the capricious whim of an elderly woman leads to intermingling revelations about Sinda, Cash, Dunmore and the often overlooked histories of Black and Indigenous Canadians.
Thomas uses evocative detail and immersive description to explore slavery in Canada, a country that has been mythologized as an escape from the institution. As one character laments, “the land of one man’s freedom would always be the land of another’s bondage.” He also deftly makes clear the interconnectedness and rippling traumas it caused from Africa to the Caribbean to the Americas.
Like Sinda’s finished article, Thomas’s work is a testament to the power of story and a veneration of those whose tales are often forgotten in mainstream media.