Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Literally the Best Reviews: The Abolitionist's Daughter

The Abolitionist’s Daughter - Diane C. McPhail
A John Scognamiglio Book
336 Pages

When it comes to historical fiction, it always seems very hit or miss with me. I either love them or hate them. I find a lot of times that the newer the publication the more revisionist it becomes, with more and more personal politics blurring the historical aspect of the novel. The Abolitionist’s Daughter by Diane C. McPhail walks that line very closely, dangerously leaning into the revisionist aspect of historical novels in several places. However, overall this is a pretty good book in most places.

Emily Matthews is the progressive daughter of an abolitionist judge in rural Mississippi. The story begins in 1859 with a slave sale and continues into and through the Civil War. When she realizes that a slave family is about to be broken up, she convinces her father to buy the entire family from their ruthless owner and keep the family together under one roof. The story then explores Emily as she comes of age and begins to court, set against the backdrop of impending war.

Emily marries the local doctor, Charles Slate, who while he doesn’t have the same abolitionist trend that Emily does, seems very prgressive in matters of intimacy for the time. As their married life evolves, she finds more and more fault with the man she married, ultimately resulting in tragedy for the young woman on several fronts. 

The novel at first seems to promise the exploration of abolition in the antebellum Deep South, which would have been a great story by itself. However, this book quickly changed focus to an evolving state of life for a young woman as she married, became a mother, and worked to keep her family together. It is at this point that the plot becomes very disjointed. Instead of a single plot weaving throughout the narrative, we get a series of disjointed vignettes that tell nice little stories. 

This book was an easy read. McPhail writes with great flow to keep the reader turning pages. Sometimes some of her descriptions are lacking, but for a debut, this book passes muster with me. Probably my biggest issue with the book is the very apparent 2019 set of morals thrust upon 1860s life. I know the author was attempting to teach a lesson in her writing about the mistakes of the past, but I feel there are always better ways than injecting modern sensibilities on historic figures.

Easily the most heinous of these incidents was when one of the characters used the phrase “white privilege.” There is absolutely no way, educated or not, that anyone in 1860 would have ever uttered those words. That moment was definitely a modern interjection that stuck out and served as an abrupt roadblock in the narrative.

The Abolitionist’s Daughter is Diane McPhail’s first novel. There is definitely a great opportunity to improve her storytelling since it is already well formed. I hope she writes more novels to enjoy. The premise of this novel was certainly intriguing, and McPhail has a great talent writing. I will be on the lookout for her next foray into fiction.

Craig Bacon is a Civil War buff, and lives for the little-known stories of that conflict and time period. His great-great grandfather served in the New York 8th Heavy Artillery.