In Spalding’s excellent fifth novel (after The Purchase, 2013), John, a white man, and Bry, a black man, struggle with the onus of slavery, the pain of lost love, and their own sins in pre-Civil War Virginia.
Bry envies the deer their freedom; John has little more than Bry. His half-brother, Benjamin, owns the decaying family plantation and, when he dies, it passes to his wife, leaving John, an impoverished pastor, homeless. After illegally releasing the remaining slaves, John packs his wife and young children into a wagon headed for Kansas Territory without him. John is heading for Tennessee to find Emly, the slave he loves. Bry’s name is on a Runaway Slaves poster; he must cross the Missouri to avoid capture. John’s neglected wife, Lavina, struggling to keep her children together, finds relief from an unexpected source. Still on the run, Bry takes up with a Delaware woman. As the travelers consider their past, present and future, the reader begins to understand their world.
The theme of A Reckoning is present throughout. How will any of us pay for our sins? Slavery is a difficult subject for a novel, familiar enough to forewarn us but, in Spalding’s capable hands, original enough to surprise us. By interweaving vastly different journeys, Spalding explores our exciting if painful national experience, without sacrificing the personal details that make reading novels pleasurable. A Reckoning is highly recommended.