Ottawa Writers Festival: Linda Spalding returns to her family’s story in A Reckoning

Linda Spalding. Photo: Derek Shapton

“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

Poor old Cicero met an unfortunate end sometime later but these words are worth considering when you read books such as Linda Spalding’s family’s story as told in The Purchase and now A Reckoning.

Spalding won the Governor General’s prize for English fiction in 2012 for The Purchase a story about Daniel Dickinson, a young father and widower, who breaks with his past life and starts fresh in the backwoods of Virginia where he homesteads with his family. But when he trades his a horse for a slave to get help on the land, he betrays his Quaker faith and his family is tainted by that sin. Murders, betrayals and more departures ensue. The novel was Dickensian in its embrace of characters and fate and the twists and turns of a life of toil.

In the middle of the 19th century, amidst the turmoil of the contentious decade before American Civil War, we are reconnected with the Dickinsons in A Reckoning. This is the story of John Dickinson and his family.

Spalding, who lives in Toronto with her husband Michael Ondaatje, had always seen the Dickinson sage as one story, but the gap of years between the two books, and her editors, ultimately convinced her this was a separate book.

“I had always sort of thought of it as one story, but I couldn’t figure put how to join the two,” She said in a recent interview.

The Dickinsons, who have lost their legacy due to bad decisions, decide to join the mid-century migration west to seek a new land and a fresh start.

Their slave Bry is on the move too. After meeting and learning about freedom from a Canadian abolitionist, he runs away to Canada where he hopes to be reunited with his mother.

Stories of race are fraught with contention in Donald Trump’s America U.S.

Spalding has felt this sting including being accused of “commodifying black pain” by a woman after one reading.

“I have received some very angry and insulting comments but I haven’t heard that before. I was sort of taken aback. And I thought, maybe, in a funny way I am.

“Then she said ‘You did this for marketing. You are using slavery to market your book’. Au contraire. But it was interesting because you have to think about all this stuff.”

The idea of cultural appropriation seems to lie behind the accusation Spalding faced.

“My standard reply to accusations of that is that we all have to imagine every life possible and enter it fully and this is one way to do it. How can it be wrong to consider something with empathy and seek to understand it. I just don’t see how that can possibly be wrong.”

The story of the Dickinsons’ difficult journey through the wilderness resonates today too. That they were headed to the violence and turmoil of Kansas and Missouri in the 1850s, when anti-slavery Free-Staters battled pro-slavery Border Ruffians.

“I grew up with this history. This is pretty much what happened to my family.They did travel in a covered wagon. They did travel by steamboat.” And they eventually did land in Kansas.

A Reckoning is based on “a brief typewritten account done by my aunt many years ago. She recounted family confabulations.”

One of the more magical parts of the book is happens when one of the Dickinson’s children, 13 year old Martin, is lost and separated from his family. For many weeks he wanders alone in the woods with only one companion … a bear he had taken as a pet when its mother was shot and killed.

“There is no actual record of the animal,” Spalding says, but Dickinson family lore says “there was a bear that was captured as a cub. I kept worrying about the bear all through childhood.

“The bear eventually had to be disposed of. As a child I thought they had let the bear go, but as an adult I realized the bear was killed.

“I had to deal with that. If I had been a guy, I might have Martin kill the bear, but I couldn’t do it. Faulkner had already done that sort of thing. I wondered if there was another way. So it becomes a companion for a lost boy on a journey through the wilderness.” Bears are potent symbols in American frontier history starting with Daniel Boone, she says.

It was a smaller world. People gathered around places on the big rivers. They moved through an environment that wasn’t always friendly and welcoming. After their wanderings the Dickinsons do reunite and find a new home. Spalding was born and raised in Topeka, Kansas. Martin, by the way, is her great grandfather.

“I think I always knew this book was going to happen. I really wanted to tell the story about going up through Kentucky and the wagon and the bear. It’s what compelled me in the first place, the idea that my family had gone in a covered wagon.

“I grew up with that. That seemed more and more interesting as I got older. When I grew up it seemed like half the people you knew had done that. But as I got older realized that that was really something.

“One moment that is really interesting in (A Reckoning) is when John (Dickinson) meets another man and John says ‘I am going to go to a place where I can’t do any damage’ and the other guy says ‘Oh really, have you thought about the other people who live out there. What are you going to do about them?’

“That question really interested me because we kind of think (about the westward migration) that we were entering pure land. It was too bad those other people were there in our way.”

In The Purchase, Spalding did not address the First Nations people who were removed from the land to allow white settlement.

“I felt I had not carried through on responsibility to talk about Indigenous peoples. I was nervous about it and I thought that’s stupid. They are such a huge part of our history. I think the native peoples of both countries have a definite right to demand an end” to the mythologies of colonization.

So in A Reckoning, Bry is rescued by a woman from the Delaware nation who helps him get to Canada. The Delaware people were moved from their land in the Midwest and many went to Oklahoma along with other peoples. In southwestern Ontario, near St. Thomas, there is the Munsee-Delaware Nation, who had been encouraged to settle there by John Graves Simcoe.

“I must tell you I’m nervous about my Delaware woman. I hope I didn’t contribute to a stereotype.

“When she rescues Bry, she says to him, ‘If I say you are (my slave), no one can arrest you. He didn’t like it but I decided deal with it this way. I found it a fascinating idea.” The Delawares did, in fact, keep slaves.

“All these things happened, they are real and not talked about,” she says.

Now that she has landed the Dickinson’s in Kansas, is there a third book? She seems more interested in another aspect of her family history.

“My father was sort of a hero of desegregation in the U.S. I wouldn’t mind dealing with a little of that.

Jacob Alan Dickinson was president of the Topeka Board of Education when one of the most famous civil rights cases in U.S. was decided by the Supreme Court. Brown vs. the Board of Education essentially ended school segregation in the States.

A Reckoning
Linda Spalding (McClelland & Stewart)
In town: The author will be on an Ottawa International Writers Festival panel with Ed O’Loughlin and Ottawa’s Frances Itani on Oct. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.