The Way the World Is

Written by Yael Politis
Review by Anna Belfrage

This is the sequel to Olivia, Mourning, and the books should be read in order – the sequel only touches upon the cataclysmic events in the first instalment, so essential to understanding Olivia and the sad loneliness that defines her. The Way the World Is is set mostly in Detroit in the 1840s. Michigan is a state under construction, the frontier mentality is very much present, and the proximity to Canada makes Detroit a hub for the abolitionist movement that helped so many slaves escape servitude.

Ms Politis brings the setting into vivid life: women in bonnets stroll through town, handsome steamboat captains mix with French trappers, bankers and ministers. Not all women wear bonnets – many are entrepreneurs carving an existence independent of men in this Brave New World. Olivia is one of those women.

Olivia has her own reasons to be in Detroit, first and foremost her constant search for Mourning Free, the coloured man who is the father of her son, a child Olivia has been forced to give up as it is impossible for a white woman to raise a coloured infant. Olivia lives surrounded by loss: her son, whom she refers to as Little Boy: Mourning, the only man she longs for. Ms Politis does an impressive job of conveying Olivia’s emotions. Not once is the word “love” used in relation to her feelings for Mourning, and yet the reader has no doubt whatsoever that Olivia lives, breathes, suffers his absence – every single day, no matter how involved she becomes in the dangerous business of smuggling former slaves to Canada. For a white woman to live openly with a coloured man in the 1840s is impossible. Even in permissive Michigan, where white settlers and coloured people co-exist in relative peace, it would not be accepted, so Olivia lives through the double pain of yearning for Mourning and knowing that even if she finds him, she can never be his woman – at least not openly.

Olivia, however, is not a quitter. Determined and quietly brave, she makes a life for herself in a world defined not only by racial tensions, but also by gender divides. Evocative descriptions, excellent dialogue, and a wonderful protagonist makes The Way the World Is an enthralling read. The book closes with one last glimpse of a poignantly hopeful Olivia. I will be counting the days until the final instalment is published, all the while keeping my fingers crossed for Olivia Killion. Bravo, Ms Politis! The e-book edition was reviewed.