Until she is about seven years old, Armentia never knows she is a slave. She grows up in the southern Appalachians of North Carolina, watched over by loving parents, her older brother, Abraham, and Mama Emma and Papa, a married couple of white and Indian blood who treat her almost as a daughter. But an act of childhood mischief, and the arrival of whites who want the Indians’ land, makes their true relationship painfully clear. In 1838, Armentia’s family, along with thousands of other Black Cherokee – African Americans of mixed heritage, both slave and free – is forced westward on foot, accompanying their owners and other Indians along the Trail of Tears to what is now Oklahoma.
Foster writes in the honest, direct, occasionally folksy style of a slave narrative, recounting Armentia’s journey from innocence to resigned wisdom in the first person. Time and again, Armentia sees others trade her friendship, love, and trust for material gain. Neither her child’s viewpoint nor the reader’s foreknowledge of her survival into old age lessens the impact of the heartbreak she experiences. Foster also proves descriptions of graphic violence are unnecessary in conveying the unexpected horrors that shape a slave’s existence. Elements of her Christian faith, which gives Armentia hope in the hardest of times, are woven into the narrative in a natural, historically appropriate fashion. But Abraham’s Well is not only a powerful indictment against slavery, it’s also a revelation of the hidden history of the Black Cherokee, who know the prejudices experienced by both cultures but belong fully to neither, not even today. The concluding author’s note, in which Foster explores her own perplexing family history, makes her tale even more meaningful. An impressive, impeccably researched novel that deserves to be widely read; highly recommended.