Monday, May 15, 2023

River Sing Me Home by Elenor Shearer

Let me begin by allowing Eleanora Shearer to say in her own words why she wrote this beautiful/awful novel:
My aim in writing this novel was to bring to life a story about the Caribbean in the aftermath of slavery—a place and time that is not always well-known or well understood. Doing this history justice was incredibly important to me, especially given my family ties to the Caribbean. To make this story as accurate as possible, I have chosen to use some terms—such as “mulatto” and “Negro”—that are offensive to many people today, myself included. There are also characters who express deeply racist views., which were widespread at the time. I do not use these terms or write these characters to condone them, but I want readers to be clear-eyed about the extent of the brutality and oppression that enslaved people faced. As we excavate history through fiction, we can confront the injustices of our past as a way to shed light on our present and work toward a more equitable future
Although I won’t reveal much of the story of Rachel as she searches the islands for her children who were taken from her and sold, I will sketch out some parts. When the King of England announced the end of slavery for Barbados in 1834, that did not mean the slaves were free, it simply changed their title from slave to apprentice, But they were still bound to the plantation owners who went after, caught and often executed so-called runaways.

Rachel has two sons and two daughters that were taken from her and sold. During the course of this harrowing but beautiful story, she finally finds two of her daughters and the one son who lived, the other having been killed during an uprising.
When the hurricanes came, they ripped up even the sturdiest tree; and when the white men came, they tore children out of their mother’s arms. And so, we learned to live without hope. For us, loss was the only thing that was certain.

Hope hurts…She [Rachel] had survived for so long by suppressing hope, but when she left, she dared to believe her children might be found…Hope led you to dream things that could not be, like freedom wrested from the white man’s unwilling hands, or a family reunited.
On her journey from island to island, Rachel is assisted by others One man, Abraham, has lived as a hermit.
Me don’ think about it when me was young. When me first get here. Me think about going home. But that’s why the white man love to keep us on islands—how can me get home? The sea help them keep us here.
I found myself wondering why Shearer adopted the odd grammar and the pronoun Me instead of I. She answers that question in her author’s note.
The other bit of historical accuracy I grappled with for this novel was how to write the dialogue. I wanted the characters to speak in a way that reflected the wonderful creole languages of the Caribbean, but also was accessible to non-Caribbean readers. In the end, I went with dialogue that is not always perfectly in line with how someone like Racheal or Mama B would have spoken at the time, but that still follows some of the rules of Caribbean grammar. Language such as Bajan creole do not conjugate many verbs, which lends an immediacy to Caribbean storytelling…
This novel reads as a kind of epic, and at least for this reader, there was no problem with suspending disbelief at some of the wild adventures. There are grisly scenes of chase and horrible descriptions of some punishments meted out. But as Shearer herself says, “I hope this sense of possibility, of love, is something readers will take away from the novel.”

Both her academic training and her own history lend authority to this historical novel. I agree whole heartedly with Shearer’s evaluation:
Women like Rachael (and the real Mother Rachael) set out to make a kind of freedom for themselves when they brought their families back together again. There is something so wonderfully hopeful in those stories. They are histories that need to be told.

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