Carly Phillips (1993 [2006]) Crossing the River.

Crossing the River was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s not one book, but many stories linked to what it means to be human, to be black and bought and sold, to be despised because of your skin colour.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the story’s through-line or theme.

‘A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children. I remember. I led them (two boys and a girl)…My Nash. My Martha. My Travis. Their lives fractured.’   

‘The Pagan Coast’ (Liberia).

Nash Williams has been sent to Liberia by his master, Edward Williams. Edward Williams educated Nash and freed him. Repatriated him with the help of the American Colonization Society. Nash Williams’ task was to convert the Liberians to Christianity. His master complained about his childish requests for money—which was stolen from him—seeds and tools.

His former master went to look for himself. Edward William’s wife had passed as an unfortunate suicide. His Southern plantation made him rich enough to indulge his whims. In seven long years, he’d heard little. His wife hid the former slave’s letters. Now he’s going to find out if his former slave had gone native. Edward Williams wants to be vindicated, and only his former slave’s success can give him that. In selling his children to the white man as slaves, Nash hopes to give his children a proper education and Christian life.

Slavery is where riches are. The Duke of York set out from Liverpool, 24th August 1752. Master James Hamilton commands the ship. He has brought goods to trade and barter for human flesh. He’s twenty-six and determined to prove himself, not least to the sweetheart he’s left behind. He prays to the white Christian God that his mission will be successful. They will have a successful voyage. He had to use the thumbscrews on the insurrectionist in the hold to find out who were their ringleaders.

‘West,’ finds Martha in Colorado Territory. She doesn’t want to be in there, huddled up in doorway trying to sleep in the cold. She wants to be in California. She dreams of finding her daughter there. There were sold as separated lots with farm equipment and furniture after the farm failed. The American Civil War had ended, and she’s free, but it doesn’t mean much. She’s old and black and there’s no way forward and no way back.

‘Somewhere in England,’ jumps forward almost a hundred years. The second world war has begun, and a woman, by her own admission, not much to look at, married Len, who is ten years older. She doesn’t love Len. She doesn’t really love anyone, including her mum, whose life she is locked out of by maternal disapproval. Marriage doesn’t really change her. Instead of working in a warehouse, she works in Len’s village shop. She keeps herself to herself.

New arrivals. The reader isn’t told the GIs are black. It’s inferred. Travis has a gap in his teeth and is ever so polite. He’ll come back for her…? Read on.