This story, involving three main characters, takes place in Tennessee right after the War of 1812 during the Western expansion. Wash (short for Washington) is a slave from Nags Head, North Carolina who spends the first 17 years of his life in near solitude before coming to live at the Richardson estate. He is sullen and distrustful from abuse at the previous plantation. When Richardson realizes he needs money, he decides that Wash would better serve as a stud rather than a worker alongside other slaves. Pallas lives on a nearby plantation. Unable to have children of her own, she is a healer and midwife delivering many of Wash’s offspring. After she is called in to care for him they become secret lovers.
Richardson is a methodical, meticulous master who keeps all his transactions in a leather-bound book. His horses, slaves, and business accounts all receive the same attention to detail. When this book accidently comes into Wash’s possession, Pallas reads him the names of his children. His reaction is one of sadness, anger and destruction.
Richardson is fascinated by Wash and goes to his quarters every night to share a bottle of bourbon and talk non-stop until dawn. Wash never speaks during these many encounters, but his thoughts are paramount to the story. There is very little dialogue throughout, and I feel this has made the difference between a fair book and a good one. Wash’s shamanist mother instills in him a history of his ancestors and all that she knows about them but never speaks a word in the story.
Writing a book about slavery in this age of political correctness is courageous, but I thought this book was difficult to follow and the characters were less than memorable.