In The Upper Country by Kai Thomas

Set in Canada in the 1800’s, in a (fictional) town called Dunmore, a place at the end of the Underground Railroad where freed or escaped slaves have made a home and give safe harbour. Lensinda is a journalist for the local paper who is tasked with interviewing a woman who refused to flee after shooting a white man who was a slave hunter, and is now in prison. The paper is hoping to use the woman’s story to change public opinion and legislation, but the woman will only tell her story in exchange for stories from Lensinda.

The book starts in first person from Lensinda’s perspective, but later when the prisoner talks, it slips into her being the first person speaker sometimes. The women also share stories and these are sometimes in first person from the main character of those stories, and sometimes in third person. This isn’t often clearly marked, so you do need to pay attention and I think it’s a bit of a confusing choice from the author. Especially since sometimes when a story is written in third person, the main character in that story sometimes turns out to be the person narrating the story as well.

The book takes a little while to get going and I found it a little hard to get into. I kept getting easily distracted and having to make myself focus. The characters felt a bit cold and flat sometimes, and I forgot who was who when they were too similar and didn’t have a unique voice. The book got a bit more dramatic and picked up the pace in the last third, where some parts felt more well written and as though the author was enjoying writing them a bit more than other parts, leading the whole to feel a bit uneven. This is a debut novel and one that really wants to take on a lot for a first book, with historical details, a complex cast of character relationships, and big themes like war, racial relations, family saga, as well as a plot that moves backwards and forwards on a narrative timeline. It’s quite bold really, and on the whole, it’s not totally unsuccessful.

I think I wanted a little more from a story like this. I want to know all about the town of Dunmore and the people who live there, what their stories are. These people have all made it to the Ithaca at the end of their Odyssey, so to speak, and that’s fascinating. What does life look like after that? How do they agree to govern or manage things in that town? How much does their past define them? We don’t get to find out. (For a place that welcomes runaways, the author mentions bickering and jealousy a lot) The book brings up a few times that a lot of people who made it to the end of the Underground Railroad went back, and I wanted to know all about that, but the book doesn’t go there.

The author also presents the idea that the indigenous people were allied with the escaping slaves in this area, and I had never heard this before (I don’t know much about Canadian history). In the Epilogue at the end of the book, the author says he feels like there’s a closeness in understanding between black people and indigenous people, in his experience, and so I then was left wondering if that part of the book was creative license or based in a lot of historical fact. I’ll have to look it up, I think. 

Read It If: I was drawn to this one because it’s about part of Canadian history that we don’t see much in fiction. I think some people will really love this, and I like that it’s whetted my appetite to learn more, but I think one was a bit too slowly paced and the characters to flat for me to truly recommend it.

With thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for the copy of this book for review.


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