The Purchase: A Novel

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Winner of Canada's 2012 Governor General's Award for Fiction
In this provocative and starkly beautiful historical novel, a Quaker family moves from Pennsylvania to the Virginia frontier, where slaves are the only available workers and where the family’s values and beliefs are sorely tested.
In 1798, Daniel Dickinson, recently widowed and shunned by his fellow ...

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The Purchase: A Novel

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Winner of Canada's 2012 Governor General's Award for Fiction
In this provocative and starkly beautiful historical novel, a Quaker family moves from Pennsylvania to the Virginia frontier, where slaves are the only available workers and where the family’s values and beliefs are sorely tested.
In 1798, Daniel Dickinson, recently widowed and shunned by his fellow Quakers when he marries his young servant girl to help with his five small children, moves his shaken family down the Wilderness Road to the Virginia/Kentucky border. Although determined to hold on to his Quaker ways, and despite his most dearly held belief that slavery is a sin, Daniel becomes the owner of a young boy named Onesimus, setting in motion a twisted chain of events that will lead to tragedy and murder, forever changing his children’s lives and driving the book to an unexpected conclusion.
A powerful novel of sacrifice and redemption set in a tiny community on the edge of the frontier, this spellbinding narrative unfolds around Daniel’s struggle to maintain his faith; his young wife, Ruth, who must find her own way; and Mary, the eldest child, who is bound to a runaway slave by a terrible secret. Darkly evocative, The Purchase is as hard-edged as the realities of pioneer life. Its memorable characters, drawn with compassion and depth, are compellingly human, with lives that bring light to matters of loyalty and conscience.

Winner of the 2012 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Even before its publication in the Unites States, this historical novel by Linda Spalding won a coveted award in her native Canada. The multi-generational epic begins in the waning days of the eighteenth century when recently widowed Daniel Dickinson earns shunning from his fellow Quakers when he marries his servant girl to raise his five young children. To escape his supposed dishonor, he moves his family to rural Virginia where he compounds his problems by buying a young slave boy. That decision and the tragic aftermath that followed affected not only him, but his offspring. (P.S. The realism and gravity of this powerful fiction is enhanced by the author's drawing on her own ancestors' histories.)

Publishers Weekly
This novel of frontier life focuses on one family’s attempt to meet the challenges of antebellum America. At the beginning of the 19th century, widower Daniel Dickinson, cast out of his Quaker community, travels from Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley to the frontier of southern Virginia, taking with him the orphan Ruth Boyd as his new wife, and his five children—from Mary, the headstrong eldest, to the babe Joseph. When Daniel, a staunch abolitionist, inexplicably bids on the 13-year-old slave Onesimus, the purchase has many unfortunate effects. It also introduces freedom, consequence, and the hand of providence as themes Spading will follow with varying success. Onesimus befriends Mary and another slave, Bett, who is terrorized by her own master’s nightly visits. When Bett gets pregnant, the lives of Mary, Bett, Bett’s son, and her master, Jester Fox, become linked by both love and tragedy. Throughout the 15-year span of the novel, the Dickinson family is transformed by their disparate ambitions, though Spalding (Daughters of Captain Cook) struggles to fully develop characters in a book with a large cast. References to Virgil and the Old Testament imbue Spalding’s raw, powerful writing with some hope that “every human success simply requires faith,” but the bleak story lacks enough space to process the endless supply of tragedy. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Linda Spalding’s The Purchase
“It is said that a great work of art moves us on four levels: entertainment, instruction, inspiration and enlightenment. Rarely are all four found in one volume. The Purchase is one of those rarities.”––Jeremy McGuire, The New York Journal of Books
“Spalding’s work brilliantly depicts the indelible stain that slavery has left on the moral fabric of America.”––Jay Strafford, The Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Spalding’s vivid portrayal of eighteenth-century Virginia is a searing indictment of the institution of slavery, showing how personal interest and human frailty made complicit participants of the most “innocent” of bystanders. Powerful and disturbing, though with notes of hope throughout, readers won’t be able to help compare their own choices to those of the novel’s flawed but strongly principled characters.”––Nicole Bonia, Linus’s Blanket
“Historically, The Purchase is fascinating as it combines several different elements of the country’s unique background. Daniel’s world is as unfamiliar to him as it is to modern readers, but it is Ms. Spalding’s succinct descriptions that allow readers to adapt and learn about this unfamiliar setting and lifestyle.”––That’s What She Read
“Riveting . . . An engaging but dark novel that received Canada’s 2012 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.”––Chris Stuckenschneider, The Missourian

"With meticulous yet seamless attention to historical detail, Linda Spalding transports the reader to eighteenth-century Virginia in her mesmerizing novel . . . The Purchase is in epic novel in every way that matters—in scope, depth, and heart."
—Jury Citation, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

"In The Purchase, one man's unsettling betrayal of his own moral code creates unforeseen ripples that sweep over multiple generations. Thanks to Spalding's compassion and the singular brilliance of her narration, this transfixing novel weaves a tale that is both intimate in nature and, ultimately, huge in scope."
—Gil Adamson, author of The Outlander

"A poised and moving novel about the indignities of slavery and the moral stain at the inception of the American republic. The astonishing historical detail never detracts from the poignancy of the characters or the compelling narrative, which quickly swells into a drama of blood, betrayal and belonging."
—Caryl Phillips, author of A Distant Shore

"The Purchase is as engrossing as it is partly because it is set in a time, the dawn of the 19th century, and a place, the frontier society of slave-owning Virginia, where bad judgment could very easily prove fatal.  [Readers] will find themselves immersed in a powerful mood, a feeling of something dark and brooding and yet bracing, in one of the finest historical novels in recent years."
—Philip Marchand, The National Post

"With The Purchase, Spalding places a contemporary spin on the traditional novel of the antebellum South:  Frontier adventure meets plantation romance meets slave narrative—and to haunting effect . . . It reads like a disturbing dream imbued with the power of myth."
—Donna Bailey Nurse, The Toronto Globe and Mail 

"A complex and engaging novel that is Hardy-esque in its examination of the consequences of the purchase of  a young African man . . . a powerful novel of personal tragedy that ends in a hopeful way."
—Peter Robb, Ottawa Citizen

Kirkus Reviews
A displaced Pennsylvanian acquires a slave, with disastrous consequences, in Spalding's (Who Named the Knife, 2007, etc.) brooding latest. Daniel Dickinson has been cast out of his rigid community because he retained an unmarried servant girl after his wife's death in childbirth; it's typical of Daniel's right-minded but shortsighted thinking that he feels he can't return orphaned Ruth Boyd to the almshouse. Instead, he marries her and takes Ruth and his five children to Virginia--an odd choice for an anti-slavery Quaker in the winter of 1798. Attending an auction to buy equipment for his new farm, Daniel feels "his right arm go up as if pulled by a string" to bid on an enslaved boy; he is forced to honor a pledge he can't afford by hostile Virginians who dislike this outsider. Repaying the balance on his debt for Simus keeps Daniel's family in straitened circumstances for years. It already simmers with tension: 13-year-old Mary despises her Methodist stepmother, only two years older than she, and Ruth is bewildered by her aloof husband. Matters only get worse after Simus becomes intimate with Bett, "house girl" to the neighboring Fox family. When Bett becomes pregnant--probably by her master, who accuses Simus--the result is a lynching and a baby boy who will provoke deadly conflict between the two clans in the future. Spalding captures the grim particulars of slave life with unflinching yet restrained detail, and she gives each of her flinty characters sharply defined personalities and motivations as the story unfolds over several decades. Betrayal of principles and loved ones is a constant theme, yet there is also redemption: Uneducated, unassertive Ruth finally offers a vision of compassionate religion that stuns her dismissive husband, and Mary's battered friendship with Bett survives exploitation and flight to end with a moving reunion. Too slow-paced and dark for the casual reader, but a serious, probing look at the interaction of character and environment during a seminal period in American history.
Library Journal
In 1799, Daniel Dickinson leaves Pennsylvania, bound for Virginia. He has been turned out by his Quaker brethren for allowing Ruth Boyd, age 15, to stay on in his household to look after his children after his wife's death. Though Ruth becomes Daniel's wife, she is little accepted by his children. When Daniel attends an auction hoping to buy much needed homesteading tools, he instead comes home with a slave boy. He intends to grant the boy his freedom since Quakers do not believe in slavery. But a die has been cast, and soon he is harboring another slave, Bett, a pregnant healer who teaches one of Daniel's daughters the healing arts. As the fates of the slaves and Daniel's family become intertwined, death and betrayal are close behind. Try as he might, Daniel feels he has failed his family. VERDICT As readers follow a gritty cast of characters facing prejudice at every turn, they will question the cost of survival. Winner of the Canada Council for the Arts 2012 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, this tragic historical novel of the American Southern frontier will appeal to readers who appreciated Edward P. Jones's The Known World or Toni Morrison's Beloved. [See Prepub Alert, 3/1/13.]—Keddy Ann Outlaw, Houston
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908414
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/6/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 800,207
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

LINDA SPALDING was born in Kansas and lived in Mexico and Hawaii before immigrating to Canada in 1982. She is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, Daughters of Captain Cook, The Paper Wife, and (with her daughter Esta) Mere. Her nonfiction includes The Follow (Canadian title, short-listed for the Trillium Book Award and the Pearson Writers’ Trust Prize, and published in the US as A Dark Place in the Jungle), Riska: Memories of a Dayak Girlhood (shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize), and Who Named the Knife. She has been awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the Canadian literary community. The Purchase received Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award and its Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Spalding lives in Toronto, where she is the editor of Brick magazine.

Visit Linda's website at

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Read an Excerpt

Daniel looked over at the daughter who sat where a wife should sit. Cold sun with a hint of snow. The new wife rode behind him like a stranger while the younger children huddled together, coughing and clenching their teeth. The wind shook them and the wagon wounded the road with its weight and the river gullied along to one side in its heartless way. It moved east and north while Daniel and all he had in the world went steadily the other way, praying for fair game and tree limbs to stack up for shelter. “We should make camp while it’s light,” said the daughter, who was thirteen years old and holding the reins. But Daniel wasn’t listening. He heard a wheel grating and the river gullying. He heard his father – the memory of that lost, admonishing voice – but he did not hear his daughter, who admonished in much the same way.
Some time later the child pulled the two horses to a halt, saying again that they must make camp while the sky held its light. The new wife arranged dishes on the seat of the wagon, and the child, whose name was Mary, pulled salted meat out of a trunk at the back. It was their fifth day on the road and such habits were developing. By morning there would be snow on the ground, the fire would die, and the children would have to move on without warm food or drink. They would take up their places in the burdened wagon while Daniel’s fine Pennsylvania mares shied and balked and turned in their tracks. A man travelling on horseback might cover a hundred miles in three days, but with a wagon full of crying or coughing children, the mountainous roads of Virginia were a sorrow made of mud and felled trees and devilish still-growing pines.
The children, being young and centred on their own thoughts, were only dimly aware of the hazards of the road and of the great forest hovering. They hardly noticed the mountains, which were first gentle and then fierce, because all of it came upon them as gradually as shapes in an unhappy dream. The mountains only interrupted a place between land and sky. The forest got thicker and darker on every side. They had, within a few weeks, watched their mother die, given up home and belongings, landscape and habits, school and friends. They had watched people become cold to them, shut and lock doors to deny them entrance. How were they to understand? There were other wagons leaving Pennsylvania and going south and west, but none were so laden with woe as the one that carried the five children and the widower and his new bride.
Daniel spoke of the trees and told his children which were the yellow pine and which the white oak. He pointed to a deer standing still as vegetation in the bushes, but he made no effort to hunt or to fish for the beings that swam in the streams. As a Quaker, he did not own a gun and would depend on his store of food until he could raise his own crops. It was November, an ill-advised time for travel, but in spite of rain and cold winds and sore throats, he looked down at the rushing river and told himself that he had no choice. The Elders had cast him out. He had been disowned and now he was rudderless, homeless, alone on a crowded road. He did not count the new wife or the children as companions. They were plants uprooted before they had formed into shape or type. They were adrift on this high road above a river that divided them from everything they had come to expect. “When I inherit we will have a good piece of land,” his dear Rebecca had said whenever he’d chafed at his dependence on her family. She had always said it and he had eventually decided there was no shame in having a wealthy wife. He had spent twelve years working for the tobacco firm owned by his father-in-law, but then Rebecca had sickened after her fifth childbirth. All so sudden, it had been, and everyone bewildered while Daniel stared into the flame of his wife’s bedside candle, trying to understand. Neglecting his work and forgetting to eat or wash, he gave over the details of the children’s daily care to a fifteen-year-old girl he had brought in from the almshouse, an orphan. Her name was Ruth Boyd.
Mother Grube fussed in the kitchen while Rebecca lay in her four-poster bed holding her husband’s sleeve. The entire Grube family kept arriving and departing without announcement, but when Rebecca died, on the twenty-first day after Joseph’s birth, they seemed to evaporate. The sisters were married, with large families of their own, and the parents were elderly. Alone in his study, while neighbours brought food to the kitchen door, Daniel wept and prayed and waited to learn what was required of him.
“Thee shall cause scandal by keeping the servant girl in thy house,” his father admonished. “Thee must find a proper mother for thy orphans.”
“Ruth Boyd is also an orphan,” Daniel had replied. It was a listless argument nevertheless. He had taken her from the almshouse on a bond of indenture and did not feel he could return her. He said simply, “I cannot take her back there.” He thought of the way she had run out to his wagon wearing a torn plaid dress and boots so old they were split at the sides. Her cape was unmended, her felt hat unclean.
“And when thee is written out of the meeting for keeping an unmarried girl?” his father had asked. “Then where will thee go?”
“I will go to Virginia.” It was a muttering, a threat. “Land of tolerance.”
“Land of slavery.” Daniel’s father had a mason’s heavy hands. “And does thee know what James Madison has done there?”

“Yes, Father. But it is only a very mild law which holds . . .”
“Which holds the constitution in contempt,” the old man spluttered, “although the Virginians are intent on breeding presidents and, in fear of justified reprisal by the Federalists, are building a militia.” Daniel’s father had taken his hat off and was fanning his face. “Next they will decide to leave the Union altogether.”
“There is religious freedom . . .” In Brandywine, the Elders sat in judgment, measuring each person’s response to the voice of God within. Discipline. The sense of the Meeting.
“And no paid labour to be had,” his father had stated gloomily.
“I shall labour for myself.” This was said with a hint of sinful pride. “Thee once quoted John Woolman to me that if the leadings of the spirit were attended to, more people would be engaged in the sweet employment of husbandry.” Daniel had gone out to his horse then, remounted, and tried to imagine himself as different from the quiet, internalized person he had always been. He would make himself worthy of farm work, although he had so far never lifted a hand in such labour. He would find rolling land and a fast-running creek. He would drive his children through the Blue Ridge Mountains and by the time they found a homeplace none of them would look back. They had already crossed the Potomac at Evan Watkins’s ferry. They had pushed on into Virginia, the old Commonwealth. The children would see this as adventure instead of exile.
When they passed the first plantation, Mary pulled hard at the reins. “There will surely be someone here to suckle poor baby,” she said, thinking of Luveen, who had raised her mother and then all of them but who would not come with them to Virginia, where she could be mistaken for a slave. There’s a betta world a’comin . . . It was something Luveen used to sing.
But Daniel would not see his child nourished by slavery. He turned and lifted the baby from his cradle and put him into the stepmother’s empty arms.
They spent a cold night in a roadside field with the children huddled in the wagon and Daniel on the hard ground underneath. He heard nine-year-old Isaac ask his brother if he was afraid of going where Indians might take his scalp. He heard Mary singing Luveen’s lullaby. He heard Ruth Boyd lift the baby from his cradle in order to feed him milk from the cow that had come along on this journey as unwillingly as the rest, and he turned on his side and covered his ears and thought about Joseph fleeing out of Egypt with a young, chaste wife. For twelve years he had made himself valuable by poring over deeds and other documents and he surely knew enough about land and its value to find the right location for a new home where he could bring his family back to respectability. These were his thoughts as he lay on the ground under an ill-equipped wagon, listening to his children complain.

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Reading Group Guide

1. In what ways does Daniel’s religious background shape the way he thinks about the world around him? How does the way he sees himself differ from the way other characters see him?

2. Would Daniel have been a different father (and man) had his first wife lived? How? Why can’t he be a loving, devoted husband to Ruth?

3. Why does Daniel go against his beliefs and purchase a slave? What are his reasons, much later, for going to the auctioneer’s house instead of the doctor’s when one of his children is dying?

4. Discuss the importance of the lack of mothers for the women in this novel. From the stories the characters remember and tell, what kind of mother was Daniel’s first wife? Discuss Luveen’s importance as a surrogate mother for Mary.  What kind of mother is Bett? What sort of “mother” is Mary to Bett’s son and to her own siblings? Do you think she will be a strong surrogate mother to Bett’s grandchild?

5. What in the importance of trees in the novel? What do trees represent to Onesimus and Bry?

6. The book is dedicated “In memory of my brother Skip, son of Jacob, who was son of Boyd, who was son of Martin, who was son of John, who was son of Daniel Dickinson.” Discuss this dedication and its significance on your reading experience, if any. Does knowing the book was inspired by the author’s ancestors make any difference to your reading experience?

7. Discuss the title. Why such a stark and simple title for such a large and complicated story?

8. In what ways is this book similar to Cold Mountain in its attention to the details and descriptions of daily life on the American frontier/wilderness?

9. Compare and contrast Mary and Ruth at the beginning and at the end of the novel. Describe their relationship. Why don’t they like each other? Do they ever learn to get along? Do they share any traits? Do you think they would have been friends if Ruth wasn’t married to Mary’s father? What does it say about Ruth that she gives her newly purchased dress to Mary? Which of the two women is a more sympathetic character?

10. Why does it say about Daniel that he marries Ruth? Since his Quaker community disowns him because Ruth is Methodist, why didn’t he marry a Quaker woman instead, and employ Ruth as a maid?

11. Why does Daniel decide to travel with his five children and Ruth to Virginia?

12. What is the importance of the stories from Virgil’s Aeneid and the Old Testament for Mary and the children? How does Mary connect these stories with Onesimus’s own history and predicament, and with her own life?

13. How do religion and spirituality play into the novel? Discuss the importance and role of both Quaker and Methodist Christianity on Daniel, Mary and Ruth, and the spirituality of Bett. How different are the versions of faith each character has?

14. Do you believe Ruth’s claim to have been spoken to by an angel? Does she believe it? Who put the idea into her head?

15. How do Daniel’s Quaker traditions and ethics crumble as he spends more and more time away from his former community and on the frontier? Which traditions stay with him? With Mary?

16. What is the importance of remembering childhood stories and traditions for Mary (both of her mother and her nanny, Luveen), Onesimus, and Bett. How useful are these stories out on the frontier?

17. The novel starts and ends with Daniel. Why do you think, when there are so many strong female characters, that the author chose to do this? Do you believe this is ultimately Daniel’s story? Why or why not?

18. Describe Mary’s relationship with Bett and with Onesimus. Who is she trying to save when she hits Jester Fox? How does she become closer to them than to anyone in her own family or, as time goes on, her husband? Why does she refuse to free Bett?

19. Compare and contrast Daniel with the other white men of the novel, especially Misters Jones and Fox.

20. Over the course of the novel, Daniel’s relationship with God changes. How and why? Do you think he finds peace with himself and his God by the end?

21. Does Daniel grow to love Ruth over the course of the novel? Why does he blame her for Joseph’s death? How does Ruth finally assert herself at the end of the novel? Do you think her relationship with her husband will grow stronger?

22. What is the importance of Bett being a healer and knowing homeopathic remedies that the white doctor doesn’t know or believe in? Why won’t she share her secrets with Mary?

23. Discuss the various physical homes in this novel: the Pennsylvania house, Onesimus’s hut, Daniel’s cabin, Wiley’s house, the Foxes house. Why does Benjamin build his house/mansion right in front of his father’s smaller house? Is there a significance to this?

24. Why does Jemima run off with and bind herself to Rafe Fox, despite being aware of the history and animosities between the two families? Are her motives simple or complex? What are the choices and opportunities for a spirited, pretty girl like her out on the frontier? Why is she so devoted to Bry?

25. Discuss Bry. How is he a product of both the white and black worlds of rural Virginia in the early 1800s. What do you think will become of him? Will he ever not be an outsider?

26. Caryl Phillips has lauded this novel, calling it “a poised and moving novel about the indignities of slavery and the moral stain at the inception of the American republic.” What ultimately is this novel saying about this part of American history and its effects on future generations?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2014

    Judy's review

    Love historical novels and "ThePurchase" did not disappoint. Ms. Spalding's style kept me on my toes and her characters seemed like real people with real flaws and at times I wanted to shake some of them. I appreciated all the research she obviously did which made the 17-1800 turn of the century come alive. No bad words or offensive sex. Excellent.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2013


    Very boring writing.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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