I've been reading a great many books about racial inequality over the past few months, and although it does educate me in ways that my schooling never did, it also makes me realize that there are so many despicable notions that have permeated through history when it comes to the relations between Caucasians and African Americans. It’s all well and good to say that slavery is over, but as many people doubtlessly realize, the tensions between different ethnic groups still flourishes and stains the world even today. This is one of the reasons that this book was so eye-opening for me. While Reed, a man who is stuck in a wheelchair, has been raised owning slaves all his life and even lost his legs in order to protect that lifestyle, there is a marked growth and understanding that comes to him when he sees and experiences life in the North, where all men are free.
Reed is an angry and disheveled mess when he lands in Fenton, carrying years of regret and hurt with him like the baggage that he wheels along with. He sees things going on in the town that anger him, and he refuses to treat each Freeman with the dignity and respect that he has for his own race. When he meets Beulah Freeman, a Free Woman who manages the hotel owned by his cousin, he is initially rude and discourteous. As Beulah refuses to validate his chastisement and meets him with challenge, he becomes curious about her and begins to treat her with a grudging respect. This is the first change of many that will turn a man from a racially insensitive creature into a full-fledged human being—one who is caring and trusting, and one who goes far out of his way to help someone that Beulah cherishes.
The other catalyst to this story is the arrival of Belle. Belle is a woman who is dirt poor and lives with her abusive father and brothers. Though monetarily disadvantaged, Belle has honor, dignity and dreams for herself. Caught in a trap of her father and brothers’ making, Belle’s only way out of her daily beatings is to marry Reed. What at first seems an act of pity begins to change the lives of everyone in the town, most markedly Reed’s. In the book’s exploration of love as a softening agent, Reed makes decisions that he never thought himself capable of. His heart, once a festering wound, begins to show that thing that we all wish for, self actualization. It’s more than the love for Belle that proves to be his remaking, but the love that he finally grants to himself that gives him the courage to break the bonds of slavery to a life that keeps others as property and evaluates them by the color of their skin. A lifelong promise is what he makes, but what is more important is that he is rebuilt, from stern to soul.
While some of this book made me angry, especially the violence that was perpetrated on African Americans and women, I think the author did a wonderful job immersing herself in the realities of the times and subjects that she sought to capture. There was a sweetness to the changing reflections of Reed and the courage that he demonstrated on behalf of people he would have earlier shunned. It was easy to keep turning the pages and reading because the characters were realistic, and history tells me that they were also accurate. A novel that moved me, despite my initial reluctance.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.