As a child, I would sit at the knee of my Great-Uncle Roy, listening to stories about Taylor-Thomas kin who fought in the War Between the States. I heard tales of how families were torn apart because of differing ideologies and how my own family experienced this strife when two brothers chose different sides. Although both men survived the war, the battle continued for decades, and supposedly neither spoke to the other again.
As an adult, I have discovered similar stories in other branches. In the Watts-Stark line, Stark and Bailey ancestors defied their South Carolinian and Virginian parents, embraced abolition, manumitted or emancipated their own slaves, and moved away from these slave states to the border states of Missouri and Kentucky. Other family members in both my maternal and paternal lines were active abolitionists. Several were Quakers, whose faith condemn slavery as both ethically and religiously wrong, while others, both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line, did their part to help slaves on their flights to freedom, providing food, shelter, and safe passage through their property. Because of these family members, I knew that not all white Southerners supported slavery.
That is why I wanted to read the novel, The Abolitionist’s Daughter, written by Diane C. McPhail. The book opens in Greensboro, Mississippi in the year 1859. A slave auction has been scheduled. A young woman by the name of Emily Matthews is begging her father to prevent the slave Nathan from being separated from his family. Her father, a judge, is a staunch abolitionist. Despite the law, Judge Matthews educates his slaves and wants to set them free, even though laws prohibit him from doing so. Restricted by Mississippi’s stringent slave laws, Judge Matthews does the only thing he can do legally. He purchases Nathan, Jessie, and their two children and brings them to live at his home.
Emily and longtime companion/mother-figure Ginny, another slave in her father’s home, help this family transition into their new lives. It soon becomes evident, that although enlightened, Emily is often unaware of the realities of their world. Ginny, however, sees life as it is; she knows that the “freedom” and education afforded to them by the Matthews’ family does not extend beyond that homestead. Ginny, although not the protagonist, proves to be the most “powerful” presence in the story. It is Ginny’s resilience and reason that helps Emily evolve and grow. So much so, that when the unthinkable happens, Emily is able to draw from her inner strength, confront painful truths, and right society’s wrongs in any way that she can.
An emotional, often uncomfortable story about friendship, survival, redemption, and infinite hope, The Abolitionist’s Daughter is a must-read for history lovers and women’s fiction readers alike.