In the winter of 1798, Daniel Dickinson and his young family are cast out by the elders of their tightknit Quaker community in Pennsylvania and must move to the frontier wilderness of Virginia. His excommunication has been prompted by his marriage to a 15- year-old orphan, Ruth Boyd, who came to care for his children during his late wife’s illness and whom he feels he cannot send back to the almshouse.
In addition, Daniel, a firm abolitionist, soon finds himself the owner of a young slave boy, Onesimus. He is the main ‘purchase’ alluded to in the title, but this is only one of many decisions which comes at a price, both for Daniel’s family and himself. Originally believing he can save Simus, Daniel now must work the boy in order to pay off the cost of buying him. A pacifist, he must purchase his land with warrants paid out to surviving Revolutionary War soldiers. Having married Ruth, he finds he has only contempt for her, leaving his older children free to disrespect her also. How can he raise a family with the Quaker principles he holds so dear if he can so easily be separated from them himself?
Whilst Spalding’s writing is beautiful and her storytelling captivating, it is also relentless in its intensity, leaving readers little time to pause and gather themselves. Some of the scenes in which Daniel and his family are establishing their new homestead are reminiscent of Shandi Mitchell’s Under This Unbroken Sky, but without the bursts of familial joy that make that equally harrowing adventure such a satisfying read. In Spalding’s work there can be no doubt that life is hard, working the land is hard, and moral and social decisions are hard, but the occasional ray of sunshine, both literally and figuratively, might go a long way to relieving the bleakness of it all.