Thursday, August 11, 2016
Coming from Books We Love this Fall - The Canadian Historical Brides
When twelve year old Kirsten is asked to write a paper on women in her family who have faced adversity for school she turns to her Grandmother Elsie for help. To her surprise she is taken back in time to learn the story of her grandmothers. She is soon invested in the stories of her great, great, great grandmother Nassia Jacob, an escaped slave, her great, great grandmother Sadie who lives through the famous Regina tornado and the war, her great grandmother Viola’s rumoured affair in the Moosejaw rum running tunnels, and her grandmother’s own story of survival during one of the harshest winters in Saskatchewan record. Freed Hearts & Bootlegged Love is the story of five generations of women, woven around the rich history of Saskatchewan Canada.
Regina, Saskatchewan, present day.
Twelve year old Kirsten perched on the footstool made of egg cartons and macramé at her grandmother’s feet and sighed.
The moss green yarn spooling from the bag of colored balls ceased as Grandmother Elsie paused in her knitting, and smiled. “You look like the cat stole your cream, honey. What’s the matter?”
“My teacher, Mrs. McKinnon gave us writing homework for the weekend.” Kirsten pouted.
“Well, you just get it done now and you’ll have all weekend to do whatever you like.” Grandmother went back to her knitting, her needles clicking away in rhythm to her foot pushing the rocking chair.
“That’s just the problem, Grammy. It will take me all weekend to figure out what to write.” Kirsten sighed again and cupped her chin in her hands.
Grandmother put down her knitting and leaned back in her rocking chair. “Maybe I can help, what do you have to write about?”
“We have to write about a female relative who faced adversity.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
Kirsten frowned. “Nobody in our family has never done anything interesting, or faced any kind of adversity that I remember.”
“Is that so?” Grandmother Helen leaned forward in her rocking chair. “Well, it just so happens there are many women in our family who have had rough times and come out for the better in the end, some even fell in love despite all odds against it.”
With a doubtful look Kirsten asked, “Like who?”
Her grandmother got a strange faraway look in her eye. “Well, take your great, great, great Grandmother Naissa Jacob for starters.”
Kirsten tried to recall the name but failed. “What did she do?”
“It’s not what she did, necessarily, but more who she was.”
“I don’t understand, Grammy.”
Grandmother Helen smiled. “You see it all started in Pile O’ Bones, that’s what Regina was called before it became a city in 1905.” She paused a moment. “Actually, if truth be told, Naissa’s story really began in Virginia…”
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 1859
Naissa stood on the auction platform at the end of the line of thirteen other negro and negro cross slaves. As much as she wanted to cry, she dared not. Mammie, the matronly colored woman who raised her, had warned that weak slaves found themselves at the bottom of the bidding and therefore in the worst of homes. Screaming on the inside, Naissa stared straight ahead at nothing, her unfocused eyes blocking out the leering faces. The stench of rot gut and cigar smoke permeated her nostrils. She didn’t have to look to know it was the fat man in the white suit again. He had walked past her already half a dozen times. Flabby, tobacco stained fingers groped her chest, slid down her flat stomach and invaded the forbidden area with rough force. Swallowing, she made herself be still.
“You’re a right pretty colored girl. Open your mouth.”
In silence Naissa obeyed, opening her mouth wide so he could inspect her teeth.
“Yeah, you sure are pretty. You breeding?”
“Why not? You’re old enough, you barren?”
Naissa gritted her teeth. “No, suh.”
The slave trader sauntered up. “This here is a prime mulatto. Bred off Lord Riker’s best colored, Jacob.”
The man in the white suit grunted. “A fine slave that Jacob, hear he’s bested every colored boy east of the Mississippi. Who was the mate?”
“An immigrant scullery maid, the prettiest little Irish potato you ever seen.”
Naissa bit her lip when the man in the suit reached up and pulled one of her spring-like black curls.
“At least she got none of that awful Irish red hair.” The fat man snickered. “How much?”
“Twelve hundred!” The man in the white suit scoffed and then spit in the dirt. “A good sturdy field slave is going for only eight hundred. This little one won’t do half the work of one of them. She’s too small and scrawny.”
“Maybe so, but she’s a mulatto. I paid good money fer her. She’s an educated slave too, can read, write and do sums. Them cross-breds’ is all the spit these days, and a real show piece this one is. Just think how pleased all your guests will be when you offer them a little treat like this ‘un to entertain them.”
“How do I know she ain’t been well used?”
The slave trader poked her. “You tell ‘em you ain’t been used, girl.”
Though Naissa wanted to spit I his face, she refrained and answered. “I’ve not been used, suh.”
“You expect me to take a slave’s word for it? I won’t pay twelve until she’s checked by a physician.”
Naissa began to tremble. In effort to keep control, she squeezed her eyes shut. Mammie had warned her that this would happen.
A low voice punctuated her thoughts. “I will give you twelve for her, unchecked.”
Startled she opened her eyes. A tall man in a fine brocade suit stepped forward. His lips were set in a grim line, but his eyes held a soft kindness she could feel.
“And who might you be?” The slave trader looked the stranger up and down.
“Just a man with a lot of coin, in search of a pretty serving wench.” The man tipped his head. “Sir John Hightower, at your service. Now, have we a deal?”
The slave trader glanced at the man in the white suit. “Unless you care to offer more?”
The man in white shook his head and walked away.
“Let me see yer coin.” The slave trader held out his hand.
“I do not have any on me. If you will be happy with a promise to take to my man of business, I will take the girl and be on my way.” The tall man held out a card.
The slave trader’s eyes narrowed. “How do I know you have the coin?”
“Would I have a man of business if I had no funds?” The tall man lifted his brow in snooty challenge.
“I suppose not.” The slave trader rubbed his jaw. “And you’ll gimme full price?”
“Yes.” Mr. Hightower wrote the sum on the card, signed it with a flourish and then held it out. “You have my word as a gentleman.”
The slave trader hesitated a moment more, then snatched the card and stuck it in his pocket. “All right.” He rifled through his ring of keys, selected one and then unlocked her shackles. “You can’t return her ifn’ she’s not pure, now.”
“I understand.” Mr. Hightower grasped Naissa’s elbow. “Come along.”
As he towed her through the crowded market Naissa couldn’t help but be thankful. Even though she did not know what lay in store for her, this man had at least spared her the humiliation of being checked for purity.
“What is your name?”
She stumbled alongside him, the rocks hurting her bare feet. “Naissa, massah.”
“I am not your master.” The man peered over his shoulder and then ducked into an alleyway between two buildings. “You want to be free, Naissa?”
“Yes, mas- suh.” She pushed her legs to keep up with his long quick stride.
“Good, cause I aim to see you free, but you must hurry and do exactly as I tell you, understand?”
Nassia huffed and puffed with the effort of keeping up with the man, who was practically jogging now down alleyway after alleyway. “Yes, suh, Mr. Hightower.”
He flashed her a tight smile. “My name’s John, John Whitaker, Reverend, to be precise. Hurry now, we have got to get you hidden before that slave trader finds out there is no Mr. Hightower.”
Heart pounding both from fear and exertion, Naissa broke into a trot beside the stranger. Why he cared and why he wanted to see her free, she couldn’t fathom. She was no one, just a colored skin. Nobody cared about her, except maybe Mammie.
They came to the rear of a large church made of red brick. The Reverend drew her to a small door, looked both ways, and then opened it. He shoved her inside ahead of him, and quickly shut the door behind.
“This way.” He led the way along a narrow corridor sheathed in cobwebs and shadow.
They rounded a corner and a small locked door blocked their way. The Reverend pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. It opened with a squeal of rusty hinges. Without a word he drew her inside, locked the door and made his way up a narrow flight of stairs.
Naissa’s legs trembled as they climbed not one flight, but six. At the top another door opened to reveal a small room which housed a massive iron bell.
The Reverend ushered her inside. “Wait here and do not make a sound. I will send Sister Mary up to see to you. From now on, you are a nun in service to the Church, at least until I can make arrangements to have you transported on the railroad to freedom.”
Used to obeying orders, Naissa sat on a dusty trunk as he left, shutting and locking the door behind him. A nun? She had no idea what that was. What if it was some kind of bed slave? A shiver rode her spine, partly from the loathsome idea of being nothing more than a broodmare, and partly from the sweat cooling on her skin. Did it matter? She was a slave, bred and born to serve, no more, no less than a prize cow.
The minutes passed as she sat there in the dim quiet. Fingers of light patterned the floor from the single small window, illuminating lacy cobwebs, worn wooden beams and flecks of dust. Naissa looked down at the floor, and then traced a line in the grime with her toe. Her stomach grumbled, startling her and breaking the eerie silence. The food at Master Warwick’s had been good and plentiful, and Mammie, the kitchen slave, had always ensured Naissa had enough of it. The last few weeks since she had been sold to the slave trader however, had been misery. Long dusty marches chained in a long line of other slaves, a thin blanket on the ground at night and a bowl of mush twice a day, had been little comfort.
The door creaked open and Naissa scrambled to her feet as a woman entered. She eyed the stranger’s odd black and white, loose fitting dress.
“You must be the Reverend’s new package.” The woman smiled and shut the door behind her.
Bewildered, Naissa looked around for a parcel, but the room was empty except for the crate she had sat on and the giant bell. “Ain’t no package here, ma’am.”
This time the woman chuckled. “You are the package.” She held out a bundle of black and white cloth. “Put this on. I am Sister Mary. From now until you reach freedom, you are Sister Martha, and you need get used to being called a package, for that is what you will be referred to on the Underground Railroad.”
Naissa took the bundle and shook it out. It was a black dress identical to Sister Mary’s. “What is this clothing? Am I to be a house servant?”
Sister Mary gave her a soft smile. “I am only a servant to God. You are going to pretend to be a nun so that we may transport you to freedom.”
Though she didn’t understand Naissa donned the clothing.
“Now, we will go below and get you ready for transport.”
Naissa frowned. “Transport?”
Sister Mary nodded. “We need to move you fast before the trader finds out the Reverend is not a slave buyer. I am afraid your journey to Boston will not be the most comfortable one, and for that I am sorry.”