When Sarah and her Grandmother, Lydia, find themselves being shipped away to a new life of freedom in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, they hardly dare to hope that things might truly be different for them there, better than the cruelty, hardship and neverending toil that defined their lives as slaves on a southern plantation. But when the Black Loyalist slaves arrives in Nova Scotia, they very quickly discover that there is no escape from the tyrrany of hatred, persecution and discrimination, even there. The land and provisions that they were promised never materialize, and Sarah and Lydia along with all their friends and neighbours must struggle to just to survive. Also, they must remain ever vigilant against the slave traders who make their living by abducting free Negroes and selling them back into slavery. Sarah and Lydia are among the lucky ones whose determination and will to survive enable them to get by. But Lydia’s wounds from the past run deep and when her long-hidden secrets finally come to light, Sarah and her father decide that the time has come to try to pull Lydia’s scattered family together at last.
This book provides an intriguing and revelatory glimpse into the early days of what is now Shelburne, and into the deplorable conditions that the newly freed slaves faced upon their arrival in Nova Scotia. Wesley depicts the stark reality of their situation: the living conditions were harsh, and while they were, in theory, free, they by no means enjoyed any sense of equality or fair treatment. Sarah and Lydia are both sympathetic characters despite the fact that the third person narration tends to emotionally distance the reader from the full impact of the events as they unfold. The secondary characters are less well-developed and remain essentially one-dimensional. Nevertheless, the story is fascinating and an important one, particularly for young readers who might be tempted to believe that black slaves who escaped to Canada found freedom and prosperity and lived happily ever after. Wesley’s book reveals how tightly people clung to their beliefs about their neighbours, how slow attitudes were to change and how challenging life was for the newly-freed former slaves.
Atlantic Books Today, Fall 2011