The official abolitions of slavery across the “New World” rarely marked the end of enslavement. Enslavers sought to maintain their grip on power and their supply of labor. They enacted or expanded practices like chain gang labor, sharecropping, “apprenticeships,” or just refusing to acknowledge slavery ended. But despite the disparity in power, the formerly enslaved resisted and rebelled in all manner of ways. In River Sing Me Home, Eleanor Shearer brings light to some of those stories.
River Sing Me Home opens with escape. Rachel is fleeing from the Barbados plantation where she had spent her life in bondage. It is August 1834 and the day before, the master of the plantation announced the abolition of slavery. In its place, the formerly enslaved would stay on the plantation and labor for another six years as “apprentices” – remaining bound to the land, free in name only. Rachel isn’t quite sure what freedom really means, but she knows this isn’t it.
Over the years, Rachel gave birth to eight children. One was stillborn, two more died in early childhood, and her enslaver sold the other five away from her. She has no idea where they ended up or if they’re even alive, but until she finds them or learns what happened, she knows she cannot be free.
It’s a dangerous journey. If she is caught by the plantation owner, she faces terrible punishment. White landowners could shoot her, capture her, and re-enslave her. The elements and the sea could do her in. The chance to find her babies, however, is worth all the risks she can imagine and even those she can’t.
River Sing Me Home covers a lot of ground relatively quickly, both literally and figuratively. Rachel’s journey takes her across Barbados, down to British Guiana, and then across to Trinidad in a year. The prose is succinct and straightforward, even though the issues are deep and complex. Shearer introduces us to Maroon colonies, free Black business owners, Indigenous survivors of colonialism, and the enslaved who endured plantation life and how all of these different groups intersected and interacted. She ties in real slave rebellions and revolts, and the difficult calculus those involved had to make for themselves.
Shearer does not hide from the violence of slavery, but neither does she make it a central focus. She trusts that we know about the beatings, the floggings, the rapes and so while they’re present, she generally does not describe them in detail. At first, I was a little surprised by this, but as the book continued, I really appreciated the focus on how people survived and continued to find hope, love, and purpose despite all they endured. Shearer doesn’t wallow in suffering; she acknowledges it, recognizes its effects, and then shows it is only a piece of a person and a people, not their entirety.
Rachel’s journey is one undertaken by so many across the Americas in slavery’s aftermath. Though fictional, it is based on the story of a real Mother Rachel, who walked across Antigua in search of her children after slavery’s end. It is also based on the author’s family, who hail from the Caribbean, and her own research and fieldwork.
Overall, River Sing Me Home is a strong novel that continues to deepen our understanding of slavery and its aftermath. In a time when certain powers are trying to strip that understanding away from us, these stories are even more important.