Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips
What a powerful novel! I’d never even heard of this one till it was picked for an online bookgroup I belong to. I couldn't put it down. Really a well conceived and imagined novel.
The novel begins with a father explaining how the crops failed and in desperation he sold his three children—Nash, Martha, and Travis—to a slave trader. The four sections that make up the center of the novel focus on each of the children as well as one a young ship’s captain on his first trip to bring slaves from Africa to America—the one who picks up the “2 strong man-boys and a proud girl” from their father. The focus of each section and its language is completely different and appropriate to the content. There is tragedy but also triumph in each life. Nash is conceived as an educated American Negro whose master sent him back to Africa in the 1820s—to the new nation of Liberia—to educate his people and to teach them Christianity. We read his letters to the master, increasingly despairing because he doesn’t hear back (his master’s wife has intercepted and destroyed the letters). Martha is a slave, sold away from her husband and daughter when the master of a Virginia plantation dies, who goes first to pre-Civil War Kansas which is not a slave state and then, when her owner intends selling her across the river (into Missouri which is a slave state) she runs away and joins a wagon train of free blacks going to California, but dies on the way, in Colorado. Travis is an American GI in WWII, stationed in England who carries on a delicate courtship with an Englishwoman, fathers a child, comes back to marry her, and then is killed on the beach in Italy. Nash’s and Martha’s voices are appropriate to their time and place; their thoughts are on freedom and on love. Travis is seen through the eyes of June who loves him though she’s never really known love before. There’s also a section focused on the captain of the American slave ship—consisting of excerpts from a ship’s log and letters to his wife.
Phillips doesn't handle each section the same way, nor are the voices exclusively those of the African disapora. Captain Hamilton's view point is important because he's not a hardened slave trader, though possibly his father, who captained the ship before him, was. But making the last section from Joyce's point of view was brilliant. Had he made it from Travis's, we might have gone over territory that had already been covered, but that of the woman who loved him brought something new.
I loved how Phillips tied it up at the end, in the voice of the distraught father who sold his children, quoting from each of the voices and relating their stories to black soldiers in Vietnam who "had no quarrel with the VietCong”, to Toussaint L'Overature, to those struggling with Papa Doc and other dictators, to Jazz and dance and James Baldwin (who in Paris wrote Nobody Knows My Name) and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.