Jack Ford tells us a story of a slave in Virginia who manages to turn a court proceeding upside down, and to be deemed a free woman, against many odds. She was not allowed to sue a white man who had mistreated her but somehow a Virginian judge let her owner free her although she had to leave the state.
This novel is based on archival material the author chanced upon. The story starts with the death of a farm owner who has fathered a daughter with a black slave. That child is the woman who is freed in the end. The farmer’s wife, following her husband’s death, is determined to free this slave to live up to a promise she made her husband on his death bed. As this was difficult to do in Virginia and because a nephew is challenging that interpretation of the farmer’s will which leaves everything to the wife, she uses the underground railroad to take the woman to Pennsylvania and carries out legal proceedings to free her there.
However, the story does not end there. The nephew finds the woman with the help of some slave catchers, and brings her and her children back to Virginia. The farmer’s wife and a friend hear of this and manage to free the slave and her children from the shed where they were imprisoned. This incident then leads to the black woman’s decision to sue the nephew for $1000 for the mistreatment she suffered at his hands.
The story is told in a straightforward and clear way and it highlights the following things: (1) the humanity of slaves, (2) the possibility of respectful relationships between white people and people of color be they slaves or not, and (3) the profound injustice of the lack of legal existence of slaves.
Being freed was not, however, the end of all sorrow. The former slave lived the rest of her life in poverty and died only years later.
Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for access to an electronic copy of this book. This book was published on July 31.
Ford, Jack. Chariot on the Mountain. Kensington Books, 2018.