“River Sing Me Home” (Review)–Surviving Slavery

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (The Guardian) reviews River Sing Me Home, by Eleanor Shearer, explaining, “Set in the Caribbean around the time of the Slavery Abolition Act, Shearer’s powerful debut novel follows a mother’s journey to reunite with her children.”

Eleanor Shearer’s propulsive debut opens with an enslaved woman, Rachel, running. The novel is set in the Caribbean around the time of the Slavery Abolition Act, a move by Britain to emancipate its slaves that left them bound to their masters in enforced “apprenticeships” that were not much better than slavery itself.

Rachel is fleeing a plantation in Barbados, where the master tells the slaves that they are now “free” but also that they “cannot leave”. “What is freedom?” Rachel asks as she runs. Thus she sets in motion one of the novel’s principal questions: what kind of lives can the formerly enslaved fashion for themselves outside slavery? For Rachel, freedom means being reunited with her children, who were taken from her and sold across the Caribbean. Her journey takes her to the colonial towns of Barbados, into the forests of British Guiana, and across the Caribbean to Trinidad.

This compelling premise of a mother in search of her children powers a moving and dynamic novel. The pacing is swift, and Shearer writes in clear, energetic prose. There is an accessibility to the language that is refreshing; it buoys the narrative, giving us intimate access to a complex period in history.

Shearer is descended from the Windrush generation and in her Author’s Note explains how Rachel’s story bloomed from the life of Samuel Smith as narrated in an oral history, To Shoot Hard Labour, published in 1986 by his descendants. In this oral history, Smith recalls the story of his great-great-grandmother, Mother Rachael, who walked across Antigua after slavery was abolished in search of one of her daughters. Thus, this fictional account acts as a form of deep witnessing, an ode to the oral tradition and the slave communities it sustained.

The novel is notable in its treatment of the ambiguities of British Emancipation; it includes key historical events such as the Demerara Rebellion of 1823, in which more than 10,000 enslaved people in the British colony of Demerara-Essequibo, now part of Guyana, attempted to free themselves. Also impressive is the book’s treatment of the Maroon communities of formerly enslaved Africans that flourished across the Caribbean, as Shearer explores the relationship between the indigenous communities and the African slaves and their descendants.

There is space in these generous pages for multiple conceptions of freedom. For Rachel’s daughter Mary Grace, freedom is synonymous with following her mother across the Caribbean in search of her other siblings; for Rachel’s son Thomas Augustus, it is found in the Maroon community in the forests of British Guiana; for Micah, it lies in fighting to be free; for another daughter, Cherry Jane, it means fashioning a new past. The child who most resembles Rachel is Mercy, who, like her mother, has experienced naked brutality under plantation slavery. [. . .]

For full, original review, see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/jan/05/river-sing-me-home-by-eleanor-shearer-review-surviving-slavery

[Photo above by Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty Images: Rachel flees into the forests of Guiana.]

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