In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas
In the years before the American Civil War, Canada became a place of safety for formerly enslaved people who could reach its shores. There, refugees settled in communities like Buxton, Ontario and the fictional town of Dunmore, which sits on the northern coastline of Lake Erie and serves as the setting for Kai Thomas’s first novel.
One evening in 1859, the peace of Dunmore is disturbed when a bounty hunter turns up looking for a group of recent arrivals from Kentucky. During his attempted abduction, he is shot and killed with his own rifle by one of the travelers.
An old woman named Cash confesses and expects to hang for her crime, but first she wants to talk with Sinda, the young black journalist who comes to visit her in jail.
Over the course of several days, Cash and Sinda exchange stories. Some are personal histories, but many of them seem to have little to do with Cash’s predicament. The two women read aloud from written narratives set before and during the War of 1812, and tell tales so shrouded in legend that they almost seem like fables – but eventually Cash reveals that she has a past in Ontario.
This book gives us a peek into what the Great Lakes region was like in the antebellum years. It is at times poetic, at times brutal, and always a reminder of the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
Reviewed by Lynn Heitkamp