A Bear Named Cuff: Linda Spalding’s A Reckoning
An author reckons with her family’s checkered antebellum history
The cub is one of the vivid characters in Linda Spalding’s new book, A Reckoning (McClelland & Stewart, Canada / Pantheon UK, 2018). However, much of the action in A Reckoning, as in its precursor, The Purchase, though inspired by Spalding’s own family’s nineteenth-century history, ventures away from the sparse outlines the author found in family records.
“My problem was if you want them to have fun or be interesting you have to put them in situations they wouldn’t want to be seen in,” Spalding said in a telephone interview. She went so far as to warn cousins that they were going to be mad when they read The Purchase (McClelland & Stewart, Canada, 2012 / Pantheon UK, 2013). That novel tells the story of Spalding’s ancestor Daniel Dickinson, a widower who moves to backwoods Virginia in 1798 and trades his horse for a slave, betraying his Quaker values. The book won Canada’s Governor-General’s Literary Award for fiction, an award similar to the US National Book Award. Spalding, 74, born and raised in Kansas, has been a Canadian for many years.
A Reckoning continues her family’s story as Daniel’s two sons are ruined in Virginia. One of the sons, his wife and children trek west — together with a bear cub, rescued by the 13-year-old son Martin Dickinson, Spalding’s great-grandfather. Concurrently, one of their former slaves makes the dangerous journey north to Canada.
A reviewer from The Globe and Mail described it as “a dark, mythopoetic novel,”1 something that pleased Spalding. “I was a little aiming for that,” she admitted. “I feel like the American experience is pretty mythopoetic.”
Spalding knew her characters would leave Virginia in about 1856. “I knew they got on a paddleboat and that charmed me. Who knew that covered wagons were carried across Missouri in those boats?”
Some of her most enjoyable research for the book was at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, which houses the 200 tons of pre-Civil War artifacts — thimbles, Ironstone china, and prebuilt windows for frontier homes — recovered from the 1856 sinking of the Arabia steamship. “I was besotted with it,” said Spalding.
She also read histories, books about Quakers, the Missouri River, and the Ohio River, and she scoured maps charting the wilderness roads of Kentucky in the 1840s. She used the research to bring the era uniquely alive with spare details and insights in a rich plot that is always driving westward, northward.
Spalding doesn’t claim a philosophy of writing, although she does believe that writers have a responsibility to seek out questions, but not to answer them.
As for her technique, “I edit a lot,” she said. “It’s the excision of extra decorative flourishes. Maybe we don’t need to know about that picture hanging on the wall.”
Her acknowledgements in A Reckoning give a glimpse of the polishing the book was given, beginning with a thanks to “beloved Michael for his encouragement and advice during the years I worked on this story, for reading it gently and believing in it fiercely…” Michael is Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born novelist and filmmaker, recipient, like Spalding, of the Governor General’s Literary Award. The couple live in Toronto.
A Reckoning reads effortlessly. It’s hard to put down and yet every chapter offers invitations to savor its passages, moving through the rough landscapes of longing, regret, and hope.
Nature, in its vastness, is a character as vivid as the bear. “If you’re writing about America, historically it’s what we’re about. It looms large in our psyches,” Spalding said.
A core theme is the stain of slavery in American history. That is something Spalding wrestled with from an early age, when she learned her family had owned other human beings.
Her father, Jacob Alan Dickinson, was the president of the Topeka Board of Education during the time of the Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. “I grew up in a flaming civil rights household,” she said. “Then, when I found out my ancestors had been slave owners, I couldn’t figure out how we could be good guys and bad guys at the same time.”
Her father told her not to worry. “We freed them,” he told her. She remembers being on a car trip and her father telling her, “We gave them each a mule.” Working through the uncomfortably close webs of the sin of slave holding was just one of Spalding’s challenges as a writer.
There was also the bear. Her dilemma was what to do with Cuff. “Should I write the thing that makes American sense and kill the bear, or do something different?” she asked herself.
It shouldn’t give away too much of the plot to note that Spalding has always taken the different path.
1. Donaldson, Emily. “Review: Linda Spalding’s A Reckoning is a dark, mythopoetic novel” The Globe and Mail. 27 Oct 2017.
About the contributor: Kristen Hannum is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.