Written by Jabari Asim
Review by Kristen McDermott

One horror of American slavery was that its victims were valuable to their captors. Their high price and necessary labor resulted in strenuous effort on the part of their exploiters to maintain the bodily health of their captives while systematically destroying the things that create identity—community, family, memory, or even any sense of the passage of time beyond the demands of the workday.

Because of this, an unimaginably rich, clandestine culture of secret languages and story paths developed among the enslaved people of the 19th century. Asim creates from this a multi-voiced evocation of one community’s struggle to survive the eugenics experiments of the man who owns the land they work on. William, Cato, Margaret, Pandora, and Little Zander, who call themselves collectively “The Stolen,” and their captors, “The Thieves,” offer short vignettes of life on a plantation in the 1850s, using a shared, poetic style that William calls their story voices.

Asim is presenting situations and characters similar to those in works like The Water Dancer and The Underground Railroad, but the choral narrative style particularly emphasizes the communal nature of the setting and allows an unusually intimate glimpse into the strategies enslaved people were forced to create to survive their daily struggle. This story does not allow its characters the comforts of false hope or nobility but simply shares the persistence of love, desire, and faith in the face of dehumanizing terror. As the characters individually begin to imagine a world “yonder,” beyond the confines of their enslavement, they regain a sense of time and place, and the novel enters its pulse-pounding final third with an epic escape attempt. This moving, lyrical book is a worthy addition to its genre, as Asim gives triumphant voice to his own ancestors.