Long Way from Home

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Overview

A Long Way from Home recounts the joys, pain, and ultimate triumph of three generations: Susie; her daughter, Clara; and her granddaughter, Susan. Born and reared as house slaves on Montpelier, the Virginia plantation of President James Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison, they are united by love, by a fierce devotion to each other and their fellow slaves, and by a growing desire for freedom - a dream that will finally come to fruition for Susan at the end of the Civil War. Trained as a house slave since ...
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Overview

A Long Way from Home recounts the joys, pain, and ultimate triumph of three generations: Susie; her daughter, Clara; and her granddaughter, Susan. Born and reared as house slaves on Montpelier, the Virginia plantation of President James Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison, they are united by love, by a fierce devotion to each other and their fellow slaves, and by a growing desire for freedom - a dream that will finally come to fruition for Susan at the end of the Civil War. Trained as a house slave since childhood, Susie enjoys the privileges that her position as maid to Miss Dolley provides her and Clara. For Susie, life holds no mystery, no promise beyond the boundaries of the plantation itself - a lesson she tries to impart to the dreamy Clara, who longs to control her own destiny despite her mother's frightening admonition: "You don't know a thing about freedom, 'cause I don't know anything about it. It takes money and know-how to live free. You don't just up and do it." Life will change for both mother and daughter, though, with the death of James Madison and the departure of his wife for her town house, events that leave the estate in the hands of Dolley's profligate son, Todd. As a result of his neglectful stewardship, the plantation soon falls to a series of owners, each posing a new threat to Susie and Clara, and the other longtime Madison slaves with whom the two women have shared their entire lives. Amidst these devastating changes, Clara grows into womanhood and becomes a mother herself, giving birth to two light-skinned daughters, Ellen and Susan. Yet the threat of separation that has shaped her life is soon a reality when her younger daughter, Susan, is sold to a wealthy businessman in Richmond. Susan must create a new life for herself in this bustling city, a life that will be filled with both terror and hope. And it is in Civil War-torn Richmond that she will find love and realize the long-held dream of her ancestors: freedom.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Briscoe (Big Girls Don't Cry) reconstructs her family history in this dense and plot-driven tale. Daughter of a chambermaid and of a driver at a neighboring property, 10-year-old Clara is a house slave at retired president James Madison's Montpelier plantation. When "massa" dies, the rhythm of their lives is disrupted, and Madison's stepson's poor management throws Montpelier into chaos, leading to its inevitable sale to new owners. Soon afterward, Clara gives birth to daughters Ellen and Susan, but will tell them their only that their father is white. They adjust to a series of owners over several years, but the family is fractured when Ellen runs away and Susan is bought as a gift for Lizbeth, the daughter of Mr. Willard, a wealthy Richmond banker and former Montpelier owner who is connected to Susan's past. Off the plantation for the first time, Susan is sometimes mistaken for white in public, giving her a glimpse of the complicated freedom of "passing." She meets and eventually marries Oliver Armistead, a respected free black, amid the rumblings of impending civil war. After the war, the Willards are left in financial ruin, and so agree to let Susan leave Richmond with Oliver. Only then can she answer the mysteries of her paternity and discover the fate of her scattered family. Briscoe's characters, especially Susan, are largely appealing, and the novel's extended chronology is informative. While the book's conclusion is unsurprising, its author's personal exploration of her family's history (Susan is Briscoe's great-great-grandmother) is able historical fiction, although character development is sacrificed to a panoramic view. 150,000 first printing; $350,000 ad/promo; author tour. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This historical novel follows a family of slaves living in Virginia from the antebellum period to after the Civil War. It focuses on Susan, who grows up on a country plantation but is sold to a new master in Richmond. The separation from her family and familiar surroundings is painful, as is the adjustment to life in the city. Although she is treated better, she is still unable to fulfill her own dreams. Then she meets and falls in love with Oliver, a free black man, but their newfound freedom is tempered by personal tragedies and the difficulties blacks faced in the postwar South. The main characters are real people discovered during the author's investigations into her own ancestry. Reader Audra McDonald ably expresses the sadness of separation, the moments of joy, and the frustration of not being in control of one's own fate. Recommended for public library fiction collections.--Catherine Swenson, Norwich Univ. Lib., Northfield, VT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
In a disappointing third novel, the bestselling author of Big Girls Don't Cry (1996), etc., draws on her family's history in a story about slavery, miscegenation, and the Civil War. The aim is worthy, but Briscoe never follows through on events or fully explores her characters, who remain curiously sealed off from one another and the times they live in. The story begins in the last years of James Madison's life, out of office and living at Montpelier, where house-slave Susan works as a housekeeper, aided by ten-year old daughter Clara. As she grows up, Clara describes her increasing anger with whites and her hatred of slavery. Following Madison's death, Dolley Madison's wastrel son Todd, deeply in debt, sells many of the slaves as well as Montpelier. Clara stays on under the succession of white masters, one of whom fathers her two daughters, Ellen and Susan (the author's great-great grandmother) who are fair enough to pass as white. Curiously, Clara never explains the circumstances or names the man. When yet another master takes over, daughter Susan is sold to a Mr. Willard, a rich banker in Richmond whom Susan recognizes as the white man who gave her pennies when she was a child. She also looks like his daughters, Lizbeth and Ellen, but nothing is said or thought about this curious circumstance. As Susan becomes part of the household, looking after Lizbeth's children and falling in love with freed slave Oliver Armistead, the Civil War begins. Susan and Oliver marry, but he's taken away to man the defenses of Richmond and she must live with the Willard family, which continues to be self-absorbed and terminally stupid. Even when the War ends, they don't seem to grasp its implications,but Susan, realizing now that she's free, is reunited with Oliver and heads to the Tidewater to make a new home and life. Heartfelt, but a thin and unsatisfying take on a weighty and still urgent subject. (First printing of 150,000, $350,000 ad/promo, author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060172787
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/7/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Connie Briscoe
Connie Briscoe lives in Falls Church, Virginia. She is a descendant of the slaves on the Madison family plantation.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Clara sat up on the edge of her pallet and rubbed her eyes with her fists. She could tell it was awfully late by the way the morning shadows fanned across the attic floor. Mama had been up long before the shadows, and by now she would be running around the mansion lighting fires, emptying chamber pots, and fetching fresh water from the well for Mass Jimmy and Miss Dolley and all the folks who always seemed to be visiting them. And if Mama knew her daughter's fanny was still lolling on a pallet way past dayclean, she would go into another one of her yelling fits. Clara just hated it when Mama got to fussing.

Still, it was awful hard to get moving. She had started having chores to do at dayclean when she turned ten almost a year ago, but she wasn't yet used to this getting up before the sun did. Sometimes she thought she'd never get used to it. She wiggled her bare toes and stretched her lips with a yawn until she thought her mouth would burst at the corners. She would just take a quick peek out the window before getting dressed, she thought. She stood and made her way across the plank floor, then pushed the shutters open and leaned out.

To the north, rows of pine trees lined a path leading to the small temple over the ice house. On the other end, a deer browsed near a weeping willow, and a few sheep grazed nearby as Ralph, a boy about Clara's age, appeared from around the side of the mansion. He was leading one of the horses to the gate, probably for a guest who wanted to take an early morning ride on the grounds of the estate. Suddenly, the deer raised its head and leaped away.

Clara took a deep breath and filled her lungs with the scent of rosesand jasmine drifting up from the gardens. She loved this spot at the very top of the mansion, for she could see clear across the lawn and over the treetops to the peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains. The plantation stretched out before her was small compared to the grand estates along the James River, but it was still considered by many to be the finest in the Piedmont area of Virginia. After all, this was Mont-pelier, the home of James Madison, former president of the United States, and his wife Dolley. And for the lucky few like the Madisons, it was a time of pillared mansions, velvet ball gowns, and gilded carriages, of Southern ladies entertaining in Persian-carpeted drawing rooms and gentlemen galloping freely across their vast estates.

But seeds of change were sprouting throughout the Virginia countryside, and Clara often overheard white grownups talking about the glories of the old days. Good land was harder to come by now, fields were overcultivated, and there were simply too many slaves. Whites bitterly recalled the days, only a few years earlier, when a slave preacher named Nat Turner held the citizens of Virginia in terror as he led a band of angry men through the countryside killing every white in sight. By the time they caught Nat Turner and hanged him that November of 1831, more than fifty whites lay dead. It was one of the bloodiest insurrections in American history, and it had happened right there on Virginia's soil.

Colored folks talked about that time, too, but usually with more awe than anger. For them, these had been long days of retrenching freedoms, of women and men toiling from dayclean to daylean, and of dreams dying in the dark.

The horse neighed, and Clara snapped out of her reverie and looked down below. One of Miss Dolley's nieces walked down the gravel path in front of the mansion and mounted the horse as Ralph and now Ben and Abraham steadied the animal and handed the reins to her.

Clara closed the shutters, then ran back to her pallet and squeezed her feet into the hard leather and cardboard shoes lying on the floor. She looked down and tried hard to wiggle her toes. No such luck. They were her first pair of shoes, and Mama insisted she wear them, as all the other house slaves did. But the things were so dratted stiff, it felt like she was wearing rugs on her feet. How did Mama expect her to be able to run and skip and jump? Clara supposed she had the answer to that. If Mama had her way, her daughter's carefree days were over. Clara belonged in the big house now, Mama said, doing her chores. And for that, she had to look respectable; she had to wear shoes.

She sighed and pulled her dress over her head. She was extra gentle with the dress as she buttoned it at the collar. Mama had made it for her eleventh birthday, with new muslin fabric from Miss Dolley. Even though the special day was two months away, Mama let her wear it now, since most of her other dresses were getting too small. Mama said she was growing faster than a weed in a vegetable garden.

She smoothed the dress around her legs and looked down at the shoes once again. She wrinkled her caramel-colored nose with disgust, kicked the shoes off, and placed them side by side next to the pallet. There, she thought, stretching her toes on the plank floor. That felt more like it. Mama would get mad if she caught her walking around barefoot, so she would have to stay out of Mama's sight. Probably a good idea, anyhow, since Mama was sure to make her do her chores if she caught her, and she had other fun things in mind.

Clara ran down the back stairs to the second floor of the mansion, then stopped and peeked around the corner. Even though she was supposed to use the back stairs all the way down, she was less likely to run into Mama if she used the main stairs.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Clara sat up on the edge of her pallet and rubbed her eyes with her fists. She could tell it was awfully late by the way the morning shadows fanned across the attic floor. Mama had been up long before the shadows, and by now she would be running around the mansion lighting fires, emptying chamber pots, and fetching fresh water from the well for Mass Jimmy and Miss Dolley and all the folks who always seemed to be visiting them. And if Mama knew her daughter's fanny was still lolling on a pallet way past dayclean, she would go into another one of her yelling fits. Clara just hated it when Mama got to fussing.

Still, it was awful hard to get moving. She had started having chores to do at dayclean when she turned ten almost a year ago, but she wasn't yet used to this getting up before the sun did. Sometimes she thought she'd never get used to it. She wiggled her bare toes and stretched her lips with a yawn until she thought her mouth would burst at the corners. She would just take a quick peek out the window before getting dressed, she thought. She stood and made her way across the plank floor, then pushed the shutters open and leaned out.

To the north, rows of pine trees lined a path leading to the small temple over the ice house. On the other end, a deer browsed near a weeping willow, and a few sheep grazed nearby as Ralph, a boy about Clara's age, appeared from around the side of the mansion. He was leading one of the horses to the gate, probably for a guest who wanted to take an early morning ride on the grounds of the estate. Suddenly, the deer raised its head and leaped away.

Clara took a deep breath and filled her lungs with the scent of roses and jasmine drifting up from the gardens. She loved this spot at the very top of the mansion, for she could see clear across the lawn and over the treetops to the peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains. The plantation stretched out before her was small compared to the grand estates along the James River, but it was still considered by many to be the finest in the Piedmont area of Virginia. After all, this was Montpelier, the home of James Madison, former president of the United States, and his wife Dolley. And for the lucky few like the Madisons, it was a time of pillared mansions, velvet ball gowns, and gilded carriages, of Southern ladies entertaining in Persian-carpeted drawing rooms and gentlemen galloping freely across their vast estates.

But seeds of change were sprouting throughout the Virginia countryside, and Clara often overheard white grownups talking about the glories of the old days. Good land was harder to come by now, fields were overcultivated, and there were simply too many slaves. Whites bitterly recalled the days, only a few years earlier, when a slave preacher named Nat Turner held the citizens of Virginia in terror as he led a band of angry men through the countryside killing every white in sight. By the time they caught Nat Turner and hanged him that November of 1831, more than fifty whites lay dead. It was one of the bloodiest insurrections in American history, and it had happened right there on Virginia's soil.

Colored folks talked about that time, too, but usually with more awe than anger. For them, these had been long days of retrenching freedoms, of women and men toiling from dayclean to daylean, and of dreams dying in the dark.

The horse neighed, and Clara snapped out of her reverie and looked down below. One of Miss Dolley's nieces walked down the gravel path in front of the mansion and mounted the horse as Ralph and now Ben and Abraham steadied the animal and handed the reins to her.

Clara closed the shutters, then ran back to her pallet and squeezed her feet into the hard leather and cardboard shoes lying on the floor. She looked down and tried hard to wiggle her toes. No such luck. They were her first pair of shoes, and Mama insisted she wear them, as all the other house slaves did. But the things were so dratted stiff, it felt like she was wearing rugs on her feet. How did Mama expect her to be able to run and skip and jump? Clara supposed she had the answer to that. If Mama had her way, her daughter's carefree days were over. Clara belonged in the big house now, Mama said, doing her chores. And for that, she had to look respectable; she had to wear shoes.

She sighed and pulled her dress over her head. She was extra gentle with the dress as she buttoned it at the collar. Mama had made it for her eleventh birthday, with new muslin fabric from Miss Dolley. Even though the special day was two months away, Mama let her wear it now, since most of her other dresses were getting too small. Mama said she was growing faster than a weed in a vegetable garden.

She smoothed the dress around her legs and looked down at the shoes once again. She wrinkled her caramel-colored nose with disgust, kicked the shoes off, and placed them side by side next to the pallet. There, she thought, stretching her toes on the plank floor. That felt more like it. Mama would get mad if she caught her walking around barefoot, so she would have to stay out of Mama's sight. Probably a good idea, anyhow, since Mama was sure to make her do her chores if she caught her, and she had other fun things in mind.

Clara ran down the back stairs to the second floor of the mansion, then stopped and peeked around the corner. Even though she was supposed to use the back stairs all the way down, she was less likely to run into Mama if she used the main stairs.

Copyright © 1999 by Connie Brisco. All rights reserved.

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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Set in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains against the backdrop of the American Civil War, A Long Way from Home is a multigenerational story of slavery, freedom, and the indestructible bonds of love and family, witnessed through the lives of three unforgettable African-American women: Susie, her daughter Clara, and her granddaughter, Susan.

Susie, trained as a house slave on Montpelier, the Virginia plantation of President Madison since childhood, enjoys the privileges that her position as maid to Miss Dolley provides her and eleven-year-old Clara. For Susie, life holds no promise beyond the boundaries of the plantation itself. She tries to impart this lesson to dreamy Clara, who longs to control her own destiny despite her mother's admonitions. "It takes money and know-how to live free," Susie warns her little girl. "You don't just up and do it."

With the death of James Madison, the estate falls into the neglectful hands of Dolly's profligate son, Todd, and then to a series of owners, each posing a new threat to Susie and Clara, and the other long-time Madison slaves. Amidst these devastating changes, Clara grows to womanhood and becomes a mother herself, giving birth to two light-skinned daughters. The constant threat of separation becomes a tragic reality when her younger daughter, Susan, is sold to a wealthy businessman in Richmond. Torn from the beloved familiarity of the countryside and the only people she has ever known, Susan creates a new life for herself in the city, a life filled with both terror and hope. And it is in war-torn Richmond that she is able to realize the long-held dream of her ancestors: freedom.

A LongWay from Home vividly recreates Southern life and the ambivalent, shifting relationships on both sides of the color divide, from the cruelty and insidious benevolence of white owners to the deep yearnings and conflicted emotions of the slaves. This poignant, powerful story pays homage to the African-American experience and to the ancestors both black and white whose lives and histories are indelibly entwined with our own.

Topics for Discussion
1. The author sets her fictional characters among historical figures and events. How does this technique affect your reaction to the story? 2. As a girl, Clara is critical of her mama's placid behavior, of her seeming acceptance of their life in slavery. Yet years later, when Clara is head of the house slaves in the Montgomery household, Clara's daughter Susan has the same criticism of Clara. What makes Clara, once so rebellious, reach a similar state of acceptance as her mama?

3. Parts I and II are told by two different narrators, Clara and her daughter Susan. Though they are a generation apart, their lives have many parallels. Both worked in the households of wealthy white families and enjoyed certain privileges. And both rejected a possible turning point in their lives: Clara declines her father's offer to "run" with him, and Susan, sitting in the Richmond train station with money stolen from Miss Lizbeth, changes her mind and returns to the Montgomery house. What kept them from running? What might their futures have held if they had carried out their plans for escape?

4. The author writes of an "invisible mask" that slaves pull over their faces when speaking and acting before white people. What kind of behavior is the mask hiding? What is it projecting?

5. As Susan is chained to a wagon and wrenched from her family, her mother valiantly tries to give her a string of blue beads that belonged to Grandmother Squire. What does the shattering of the beads signify? What objects in our own lives convey a sense of family unity?

6. When Susan's name is changed to Suzanne for her owners' convenience, she feels this insult above all else. What significances is attached to a name? Does her acceptance of this new name reflect a defeated spirit? How would we react if our employers requested us to change our names?

7. Susanne witnesses Oliver's forcible removal from a public park for lack of the "proper papers" and sees his humiliation. She reflects that Oliver, a free man, is not so different from her --he is merely a "slave without a master". How does society limit a person's freedoms even when the law has freed them? Does today's society continue to restrict its black citizens?

8. Many of the slaves are conflicted about pursuing their freedom. What are some of the things they feared would be lost with the gain of freedom? Was it more difficult for a slave like Susan, living amidst wealth and privilege, to see the gains of freedom? What convinces her that a free life is the life she must live?

9. The slaves were forbidden to learn to read. Why did slave-owners fear the literacy of their slaves? How would communication among the slaves challenge the power of the slaveholders? What other ways were the slaves kept dependent?

10. The pre-Civil War South housed an obvious division between whites and blacks. More subtle divisions existed between house slaves and field slaves, between country slaves and city slaves, between American-born blacks and African-born blacks. Besides color, what are some of the prejudices that divide people in our society today?

About the Author: Connie Briscoe lives in Falls Church, Virginia. She is a descendant of the slaves on the Madison family plantation.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2007

    Fantastic book that stays true to the heart

    I remember reading this book when it was first released and it stuck to me for quite some time. I have thoroughly enjoyed her previous books at the time which were ¿Sisters and Lovers¿ and ¿Big Girls Don't Cry¿ but 'A Long Way From Home¿ honestly touched me the most. This book was so entertaining I could not stop reading! It was a joy to read even though I felt heartache for the characters during their dark times. This book consists of three generations of women whom are, first of all, survivors. They are strong, courageous and trapped in a nearly-hopeless situation. Overworked and sleep deprived, the women have to watch out for all kinds of hazards -- including the possibility of rape. Susie, a house slave, has to be very strict on her young daughter Clara should Clara not please the owners with her work, she could be punished, sold or forced to work in the fields -- an even harsher life. Clara, in turn, continues this practice with her two daughters. Briscoe writes about her own ancestors, using family stories handed down through the generations, research she's done, and an obvious love of the subject matter. She succeeds in weaving together a fascinating biography of sorts. It's a stirring account of the everyday lives of slaves in the South before and during the Civil War. Not many black authors write from a historical perspective. She also paid tribute to her ancestors by detailing the harshness and brutality that slaves often endured. A key point that was referenced in the book was the differences in mentality between the house slaves and the field hands. This book is destined to be a 'must' for Black History Month, but it is a wonderful read for anyone of any ethnic background. Of course, the Civil War brings on many changes, also documented in the book. When finally free, the former slaves still face many hardships, but their courage and tenacity wins out in the end. 'A Long Way From Home' is a moving account of the struggles of three strong women. You'll go away with a better understanding of, and with new respect for, what the blacks in the South had to endure.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2004

    Must read!

    I totally enjoyed reading this novel! The characters were so real that it drew me into their world. One of the best book I've read besides Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2003

    Another Winner!

    When I first read Sisters and Lovers, Connie Briscoe intrigued me, then I read Big Girls Don't Cry and I KNEW that I was a Briscoe fan. A couple of months ago I read PG County and that verified the fact! A Long Walk From Home was the 2nd to that verification! At first I thought the subject of slavery would bother me, but I found it EXTREMELY hard to put this one down! This is a WONDERFUL read! Actually, it made me appreciate the fact that I am even able to READ it! While reading you feel like you're DRAWN to the characters in the book, you REALLY begin to feel their pain, their anxiety, and their need for freedom! The personal tie in at the end, was just the icing on the cake! 'A Long Way From Home' wasn't that far from home for me...it touched me right in the heart! Hope others enjoy it as well!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2003

    Wonderful history lesson!

    This book was so entertaining I could not stop reading! It was a joy to read even though I felt heartache for the characters during their dark times. I am now more informed of the way lives were lived during our country's time of slavery.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2001

    Not Your Everyday Reader

    I am a high school senior, and I have only read two books that were not required for school, but I cannot stop now because of this book. I bought it so that I could keep myself busy for the Winter Holiday Break (seeing how it was 400 pages long), but once I started I couldn't stop. I started to get upset because I had to go shopping but wanted so badly to know what was going to happen next. I finished the book in about 2 days. Now I am on Barnes and Nobles website searching for books with a similar theme. This was an excellent book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2000

    Very well written!

    The characters in this book seem so real. This book would make a good gift.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2000

    a gift I didn't need to return

    I received this novel as a Cristmas present.. it turned out to be one of my favorite gifts !!! I truly enjoyed this novel... Connie is a gifted storyteller...

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