January 2023

In the Upper Country

By Kai Thomas
Review by
Kai Thomas’ debut novel is written with great power and a beautifully heightened eloquence that calls to mind the exhortations of the old abolitionists.
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To remember is not just to recall a thing. Remembering can be a way of putting things back together, in the way that dis-membering is to take them apart. Kai Thomas’ stellar novel, In the Upper Country, is all about this sort of re-membering. It’s inspired by the true stories of formerly enslaved and freeborn people (Black, Indigenous and some white folks) who built havens in Canada in the years just before the American Civil War. In a place where people have actual autonomy, what is remembered are not just memories but also the workings of relationships—the practice of hewing and maintaining bonds with family, friends and nature itself.

The story’s narrator is Lensinda Martin, a freeborn Black woman and one of the few people in the town of Dunmore who can read and write well enough to publish articles in the abolitionist newspaper. She’s also a healer, so one evening in July 1859, she’s called to assist a man who’s been shot on a farm. He’s dead by the time she gets there, and it turns out he was a slave hunter from the United States. Emboldened by the atrocious Fugitive Slave Act, he traveled all the way to Canada to kidnap a formerly enslaved woman named Cash and return her to captivity in Kentucky. Instead, the old woman shot him. 

Much of the rest of the book follows a series of exchanges between Lensinda and the now-imprisoned Cash, who agrees to tell her tale only if Lensinda reads aloud the stories from other former slaves that were transcribed by abolitionists—a quid pro quo a la The Silence of the Lambs. Cash hopes her story will make it clear that she acted in self-defense and convince the powers that be that she has earned her freedom.

What makes Thomas’ sprawling novel stand out is his focus on the alliances that formed between Indigenous and Black communities as far back as the French and Indian War, as there was much to be learned in their mutual striving to protect themselves and keep their land from being stolen by white colonizers. As Lensinda reads tales that involve Cash’s husband, an Indigenous man, and other loved ones who were torn from her, Cash is made whole again. Whatever the court decides, this very old woman can die in peace.

Written with great power and a beautifully heightened eloquence that calls to mind the exhortations of the old abolitionists, In the Upper Country is, incredibly, Thomas’ first novel. What an auspicious debut it is.

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