Escaping enslavement: Two book reviews

Published 11:49 am Friday, May 8, 2020

This time of enforced separation and isolation because of the coronavirus is a great time to read.

Today’s reviews are of Ezra Greenspan’s “William Wells Brown: An African American Life” (W.W. Norton, 2014) and Johnny Payne’s “Hard Side of the River: A Novel of Abolition” (TCK Publishing, 2019).

Greenspan is the editor of “William Wells Brown: A Reader” (University of Georgia, 2008). He is a professor of English at Southern Methodist University.

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Payne, originally from Lexington, is a novelist, playwright and poet. He is director of the MFA program at Mt. Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles.

Payne’s novel is focused on the pursuit of an escaped enslaved person, Jacob Pingrim, and the white couple who are helping him escape over the Ohio River at Maysville.

Pursuing the threesome are a slave tracker, Dan Baskin, who wants to earn the $500 reward for recapturing Pingrim so he can afford to buy out of enslavement the woman he loves.

Payne tries to bring life and understanding to Pingrim by contrasting sterling silver to the realities of Pingrim’s life as an enslaved person:

“So I ask about the sterling silver on the sideboard, admire its workmanship, and the lady exclaims that … the heirloom has been in the family for several generations, and she shows me the tiny, indelible scuff marks of its use, which polish will not remove …

And I, base, wicked, insufficiently grateful, struggle against the desire to throw up my borrowed shirt, exposing my back and its profuse scars, shocking my generous and noble hosts, indulging in a childish perversity, telling them that polish won’t remove those either.”

Pingrim’s partners in the escape endeavor, as well as those whose homes are way stations on the trip to Maysville, are all white making it seem that Pingrim owes his freedom flight to the very people who, under different circumstances, might have made themselves Pingrim’s master.

Make no mistake, Payne’s book is well written telling a story that is enjoyable and interesting from the first to the last of its 233 pages.

I recommend it; I also recommend that the local library add it to their collection.

Greenspan’s biography of Brown, author, abolitionist, public speaker and playwright, runs to more than 600 pages, 100 pages of which are notes and an index.

Eminently readable, Greenspan’s book is a literary-historical detective story that unveils the life and thinking of Brown.

Brown, born into enslavement in the environs of nearby Mount Sterling, escaped captivity and enslavement in 1834 at 19 by his own wits.

He then spent the next 30-odd years of his life as an abolitionist; as such he frequently disguised parts of his story to protect himself, the routes and methods of the Underground Railroad, friends and family from detection, harm and/or re-enslavement.

Consequently, Brown’s own slave narrative autobiography and other writings were full of “lies” and distortions, which Greenspan unravels with the skill of a detective.

On other occasions he allows Brown to tell his own story and reveal his own intelligence:

“Captain Price has some fears as to the propriety of taking me near a free State or a place where it was likely I could run away with a prospect of liberty. He asked me if I had ever been in a free State. ‘Oh, yes,’ said I, ‘I have been in Ohio; my master carried me into that State once, but I never liked a free State.” When Mrs. Price, no less suspicious, took her turn at probing [his] loyalty to her family, he responded just as coyly by reaffirming his love for Eliza [whom Mrs Price had matched him with]: “Nothing but death should part us.” The Prices took the bait.

Soon after, Brown effected his own liberty by escaping into the woods near Cincinnati and making his way to Cleveland, Ohio, and  later Buffalo, New York.

Escaping enslavement is only a portion of the stories contained in these books.

The characters of both books are rich and rounded, but the confidence exuded (or confounded) by each book’s subtitle is revealing.

Payne’s “A Novel of Abolition,” reveals a fear that, without the subtitle, readers might toss his book aside from political correctness or disgust at the book’s topic.

Yet, the vagueness of  the subtitle “An African American Life” indicates Greenspan’s  confidence that his subject requires little explication; his ability to lay out and explain the life and times of Brown are sufficient to keep people reading.

Bill McCann is a playwright, poet, flash fiction writer and teacher who writes about arts events and personalities. He can be reached at