Seeking Eden by Ann Turnbull



This is the sequel to No Shame No Fear  and Forged in the Fire, the final book in the trilogy.  This one takes a different turn, as Will and Susanna and their children emigrate to the newly-established city of Philadelphia, seeking a Quaker Eden, and is narrated by their son Josiah.

Josiah gets what he thinks is a good job, as an apprentice to a merchant from Skipton, falls in love with the merchant’s daughter Katherine and she with him, and thinks he can see a promising future for himself … until they sail to Barbados and he realises that the merchant is involved in the slave trade.  Over the years, people have sought to associate slavery with particular religious groups, in an attempt to discredit them, but the fact is that members of many different religions were involved.  Quakers are probably the one group whom you’d think weren’t; but, in fact, some of them were.  And the way in which the story’s tackled is interesting, and not what you would expect of a 21st century book.

This is a young adult story, and not overly realistic – Josiah and Katherine are horrified when they find that Antony and Patience, two slaves who are lovers and expecting a baby, are to be sold separately when their owner returns to England.  They try to help them to escape, and fail, but, ultimately, Katherine’s dad arranges for the couple to be married, for the baby to stay with Patience, and for Antony to be able to stay with them sometimes.  OK, it *did* happen, but I’m not sure that a book written for adults would have gone with a happy ending.  And Katherine’s dad forgave Josiah and Katherine for helping them to escape, and agreed to give Josiah his job back and let him court Katherine.

It was quite strange, because the author was trying to present a balanced view of things, and doing that is very controversial now.  Some owners were kind.  Many slaves were able to get married, and, even if they didn’t live in the same place, spend time with their spouse.  But it’s difficult to show that, because it suggests some sort of positivity.  The book does show Antony being badly beaten, and makes it clear that their lives are insecure and that he, Patience and their baby could be parted at any time, but there is this happy ending.

And this is the first time that I’ve ever read a book showing Quakers as slaveowners or slave traders – and the author says that she herself was shocked when she found out that it did happen.  Philadelphia wasn’t the Eden that it was meant to be.  And I suppose that’s the whole point of the book – the very difficult paradox of the New World, which was seen as a land of liberty but also being a land of slavery.  That’s something which no-one is able to come to terms with.  And it’s difficult to write about it in a way which isn’t wholly condemnatory: the book never suggests that Katherine’s dad is a bad man, and shows some of the Quaker slaveowners as being decent people, but says that they accept slave trading and slaveholding because it’s the norm there.  That’s very difficult to do, and it’s an interesting choice.  I’m not saying that it’s right, wrong or indifferent, just that it’s an unusual choice in a 21st century book.

This book really wasn’t what I was expecting.  There was a lot to think about.