Review in the Chronicle Herald

Slaves Chase Freedom to Canada

Birchtown the setting for young adult novel about Black Loyalists

SARAH Redmond was born a slave on a South Carolina plantation.

At the end of the American civil war, the Loyalist slaves were freed and Sarah and her grandmother, Lydia, were part of a large group of slaves sent to New York. They were promised land in Canada, and holding tight to their certificates of freedom, they sailed for Nova Scotia, toward a new land and a better life.

Their excited anticipation was quickly dashed. In Birchtown, there were no houses for them, and no work. Nothing but “a vast breastwork of slate and rocks and sand stretched along the ocean and inland to meet thick greenery.” The local settlers were hostile and winter was fast approaching. Unused to such cold and without adequate shelter, many did not survive that first bitter winter.

It took author Gloria Wesley over five years to research and write Chasing Freedom. Her own ancestors were Black Loyalists, an ancestry she can trace back to 1783.

“I joined the Black Loyalist Society of Shelburne and started investigating our history about 10 to 15 years ago,” she said at her home in Halifax. “There are lots of records at the Shelburne County Museum, so much history.”

So she began to write but not a history book. Her story, Chasing Freedom, is fiction, she said. “I created lists of names from the old records and from the Book of Negroes. Then I created their lives.”

Lydia had been a breeding slave and most of her children were taken from her, and sometimes sold to childless white couples. “I received my special gift today … a sweet baby girl of five months, so fair, no one would question her blood lines.” For the rest of her life, Lydia grieves and never stops searching for them.

Far from being a haven, Birchtown was a dangerous place for the freed slaves. Hostility and aggression from the local white settlers was the norm, and daily life was fraught with danger. Bounty hunters were disdainful of certificates of freedom and travelling outside the community was perilous.

Threads of mystery and romance weave through chapters set against familiar landscapes.

Wesley’s characters are real and earthy. There is Boll Weevil and Cecil, a despicable pair whose antics would be comic if hate was not their driving force.

When Lydia’s son Fortune becomes the first suspect in a killing, the Redmond family closes ranks to protect him.

“Port Roseway shivered. The news of (the) death engulfed the settlement in fear. Fuzzy details became solid fact as gossip spread … the murder of one of their own, a prominent business man, had them all steaming like a pot of boiling soup.”

Wesley is passionate about the history of black people in Nova Scotia. She wants young people to read about it, to be able to see and understand where they came from.

“Roseway (Publishing) felt that Chasing Freedom would appeal to young adults,” says Wesley, “and I believe this may be the first historical novel that is African Nova Scotia in content.”

She is hopeful that her book will also appeal to the Department of Education for use in black literature and black history courses. “I would love my book to go into the schools,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to bring history out.”

Chasing Freedom is novel about a relatively undocumented part of Nova Scotia history. It is about slavery and about the indestructible nature of the human spirit. It is about people struggling to live and love in spite of the tragedy of circumstances. Its eclectic wealth of fictional characters in a setting that is historically accurate brings to life a history that is in turn horrifying, joyful and fascinating. It is hard to put down.

Gloria Ann Wesley has published three books of poetry and holds the distinction of being the first published black Nova Scotian poet. Born in Yarmouth, she taught in the school system for 34 years. She now lives in Halifax. Chasing Freedom is her first novel. - Judith Meyrick for the Chronicle Herald, 20 November 2011.

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