River Sing Me Home

Written by Eleanor Shearer
Review by Edward James

1st August 1834: slavery is abolished in the British Empire. What happens next? For most slaves, 2nd August is much the same as the day before. Slavery is replaced by a six-year ‘apprenticeship’, to prevent an immediate exodus from the plantations. River Sing Me Home is the story of a ‘freed’ slave, Rachel, who decides to leave on the 2nd nonetheless, setting out on a journey to find her children, who have been successively sold off to other slave owners.

Her journey takes her from rural Barbados to the capital, Bridgetown, and then to Demerara in British Guiana, then into the forest hinterland and finally to Trinidad. She finds each of her children, or at least what happened to them, and we learn the different ways that they found or failed to find freedom.

The book is about slavery but even more about freedom. We are reminded that by 1834 there was already a large population of ‘free blacks’ in the West Indies: shopkeepers, pedlars, prostitutes, tavern keepers and runaways living in the forest. Slavery brought them to the West Indies, but they found their own ways to shape their lives.

This is Shearer’s debut novel, written in homage to her ancestors. It is written with feeling: resentment against the injustice of slavery, pride in the resilience of her people, and delight in the variety and beauty of the Caribbean.