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The Hard Side of the River: A Novel of Abolition Paperback – August 1, 2019
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In the Old South, freedom moves in kind hands and brave hearts … but justice only comes from the barrel of a gun.
The setting is Maysville, Kentucky, 1833—thirty years before the War Between the States will tear our fledgling nation asunder. But on the dusty roads just south of the freedom line, schoolteacher Dana Curbstone and preacher Cal Fenton have already begun their private war on the institution of slavery. When they conspire to smuggle escaped slave Jacob Pingram across the Maysville River, Pingram’s masters dispatch retired slave tracker Dan Baskin to retrieve their human cargo and bring the two budding abolitionists to justice.
But Baskin has his own war to wage. Pingram knows the whereabouts of another former slave, Abejide, and the determined tracker’s quest to learn the fate of the woman he loved and lost sets slave and freeman alike hurtling toward an electric showdown on the mud-slick banks of the Maysville River from which nobody will escape unscathed.
Richly detailed, immaculately researched, and orchestral in its construction, The Hard Side of the River pays thoughtful tribute to the human cost of slavery and the overpowering strength of the American spirit. It is nothing short of a literary triumph.
Readers who enjoyed The Help by Kathryn Stockett, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild will love this moving narrative, as well as anyone who likes reading about:
- Slave narratives
- Stories about abolition
- The antebellum south
- The American Civil War
- Southern politics
- American history
- Slave trackers
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- Publisher : TCK Publishing (August 1, 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 235 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1631610740
- ISBN-13 : 978-1631610745
- Item Weight : 12.3 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.59 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #3,897,277 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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...I bought this book after reading just 2-3 sample paragraphs.
Why? Because illiterate slave tracker Dan Baskin—who’s nobody’s hero, just a guy putting one foot in front of the other—riveted me. He’s so real and compelling because Johnny Payne is a flat-out brilliant writer
I willingly followed Dan and others through this story, through abject poverty and despair, hopelessness and squalor--along Dan’s transformational journey triggered by a careless choice with heartbreaking consequences--and through the lives of slave owners, slaves, abolitionists, law enforcement, the crooked, self-interested and self-sacrificing, the evil and well-meaning.
For anyone who grew up as I did, with a sanitized, tidied-up internal picture of the abolitionist period of history, this book will be a shock. There’s filth, degradation, cruelty, criminality and hopelessness...and, occasionally, hope.
True to its title, Hard Side of the River vividly depicts a time and a place and a way of life which, to privileged Western sensibilities, is at the least distinctly uncomfortable, and at times horrifying.
But in this case, the effort is richly rewarded with one of the best-told, most unputdownable tales I’ve ever read.
A truly good story.
From the book's description: Richly detailed, immaculately researched, and orchestral in its construction, The Hard Side of the River pays thoughtful tribute to the human cost of slavery and the overpowering strength of the American spirit.
“When we disembarked near the stalls, we had to step around a sow scratching her teats in the grainy dirt with a satisfied look. People let their livestock run around that way and wonder later where it went, or how it caught bush foot. The pens were not as crowded as when I had left. They was slaves enough, but the frenzy of the buying and selling had settled down over the past three days, giving way to more or less a quietude. As we passed by the open pens, some of the slaves look curious at the Yoruba gal, as if trying to recognize her with her head downcast, and others stared more hostile like. During the short ride, she had kept her own counsel, only now then reaching out a hand to touch me, as if she needed to steady herself.”
The great thing about HARD SIDE is that Payne finds many such voices, which are completely believable and entertaining. In “Abejide”, which Payne calls Part One, those voices include Calvin Fenton, a do-good minister and abolitionist, and Dana Curbstone, a genteel twenty-something woman, who is an abolitionist because, in her circle, it’s cool. But the best voice in this section belongs to Rae, a girl of thirteen from an intensely dysfunctional family, who encounters Baskin as he tracks an escaped slave. Here is some of their banter, paragraphing omitted.
“What’s your name?” ”Rae.” Like ray of sunshine?” “Sometimes. It depends on the day. Other times, like ray of thunder.” “I think you mean ray of lightning.” “I say bolt of lightning. But have it your own way. Only don’t change the subject.” She cheated forward and took my measure once again with that quall-egg face. “All right, I lied. And I don’t do it well, because I seldom have cause. I’m usually on the side of the law.” “You don’t look too lawful to me. Kind of scruffy for a sheriff.” Tell me, Rae. Did those three continue up the Maysville Road?” “I ain’t telling nothing more until you let me know why in hell’s blazes you’re after them.” I could not help but sigh. She made me feel like a schemer. This half-sack of turnips was outwitting me.”
Anyway, my point here is that the interplay between Baskin and Rae, which continues throughout this novel, is both entertaining and an accomplished allusion to TRUE GRIT, where Mattie Ross bosses around Rooster Cogburn. (Movie-wise, I like the Coen brother’s version.)
Two other sections of HARD SIDE are also very impressive. These are “The Charity Ball”, which follows Dana Curbstone in prison and is a disturbing story of sexual exploitation, high dudgeon, and a desperate attempt to retain identity; and “Strawberry Farm”, which shows an escaped male slave with a fustian manner of expression finding solace in the simple life of Esmeralda, who is a poor, uneducated, and free black woman with common sense and lyrical thoughts. (Hello, Toni Morrison.) The final part of HARD SIDE, “The Ivory Ring”, ties the book together.
This is an outstanding novel, although slightly sentimental in its ending where Rae, skittish yet preternaturally mature, behaves with surprising generosity. Regardless, the book is fun and highly recommended.