Abraham Lincoln—whose birthday we commemorate on February 12th—is celebrated for guiding the nation through the American Civil War and ending slavery in the United States. The practice of slavery, however, was not confined to this country, and its devastating effects certainly didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment. The ramifications are still felt around the world, and, as often happens with events of complex historical significance, many writers have taken on the subject in their work.
The novels below are excellently crafted, heartbreaking tales of slaves, the horrors of life in bondage, and the struggle to find true and lasting freedom. Their stories take us from Africa to Barbados, to Louisiana and beyond giving us a perspective into how the world dealt with race in the 1800s. These beautifully written, powerful novels emphasize that the scars of slavery don’t heal with escape to a free state or abolition, but linger on as former slaves and slave owners wrestle with their pasts and what it means for not only their futures but for future generations.
Slavery’s devastating legacy is with us today, and books like the ones listed here help us remember and confront where our country came from—where our world came from. Only by reckoning with our history can we understand our present and shape a better future. We hope these books inspire discussions that will do just that.
A Reckoning by Linda Spalding
“Timely, historically sensitive. . . . A literary saga. . . . Explores the ramifications of slavery on the next generation. . . . Spectacularly described.” —Booklist
1855, Virginia: the Dickinson farm, run by brothers Benjamin and John, is visited by a Northern abolitionist who secretly distributes compasses, maps, and knives to the people enslaved there. Bry is the first slave to flee, determined to find his mother and daughter already in Canada. His escape inspires a dozen others.
Without their labor, the farm falters and is forfeited to the bank. John Dickinson, who is also a circuit-riding preacher, gathers his flock into a wagon train to find a new life in the West. But he carries a dangerous secret that compels him to abandon the group at the last minute, and his wife, daughters, and thirteen-year-old son, Martin, must now face life on the trail without him. After a fateful encounter along the way, Martin and Bry will hatch a plot to get Bry safely to Canada, but each member of the family will be irrevocably changed by the journey. Told with astonishing empathy, A Reckoning brilliantly re-creates an America that was: the undefiled beauty of its lands; the grand mix of settlers and Native Americans, blacks and whites; and people leaving one life behind for another they can only just begin to see.
“Perfectly executed. . . . Soaring. . . . More than a tale of human bondage, it’s also an enthralling meditation on the weight of freedom, wrapped in a rousing adventure story stretching to the ends of the earth.” —The Boston Globe
George Washington Black, or “Wash,” an eleven-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is terrified to be chosen by his master’s brother as his manservant. To his surprise, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Soon Wash is initiated into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky, where even a boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning—and where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, Christopher and Wash must abandon everything. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic. What brings Christopher and Wash together will tear them apart, propelling Wash even further across the globe in search of his true self. From the blistering cane fields of the Caribbean to the frozen Far North, from the earliest aquariums of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black tells a story of self-invention and betrayal, of love and redemption, of a world destroyed and made whole again, and asks the question, What is true freedom?
“Masterful, urgent. . . . One of the finest novels written about our country’s still unabsolved original sin.” —USA Today
Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him. In Colson Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is both the gripping tale of one woman’s will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.
“Thanks to Ms. Gyasi’s instinctive storytelling gifts, the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries.” —The New York Times
Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.
Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.
Property by Valerie Martin
“Fraught with tension, desperation, and rage, all masterfully sustained. . . . An unflinching depiction of our nation’s most shameful historical chapter.” —Los Angeles Times
Valerie Martin’s Property delivers an eerily mesmerizing inquiry into slavery’s venomous effects on the owner and the owned. The year is 1828, the setting a Louisiana sugar plantation where Manon Gaudet, pretty, bitterly intelligent, and monstrously self-absorbed, seethes under the dominion of her boorish husband. In particular his relationship with her slave Sarah, who is both his victim and his mistress.
Exploring the permutations of Manon’s own obsession with Sarah against the backdrop of an impending slave rebellion, Property unfolds with the speed and menace of heat lightning, casting a startling light from the past upon the assumptions we still make about the powerful and powerful.
Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.