The Abolitionist's Daughter

The Abolitionist's Daughter

by Diane C. McPhail


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In her sweeping debut, Diane C. McPhail offers a powerful, profoundly emotional novel that explores a little-known aspect of Civil War history—Southern Abolitionists—and the timeless struggle to do right even amidst bitter conflict.
On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily’s companion and often her conscience—and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan’s family arrives at the Matthews farm.
A young doctor, Charles Slate, tends to injured Nathan and begins to court Emily, finally persuading her to become his wife. But their union is disrupted by a fatal clash and a lie that will tear two families apart. As Civil War erupts, Emily, Ginny, and Emily’s stoic mother-in-law, Adeline, each face devastating losses. Emily—sheltered all her life—is especially unprepared for the hardships to come. Struggling to survive in this raw, shifting new world, Emily will discover untapped inner strength, an unlikely love, and the courage to confront deep, painful truths.
In the tradition of Cold Mountain, The Abolitionist’s Daughter eschews stereotypes of the Civil War South, instead weaving an intricate and unforgettable story of survival, loyalty, hope, and redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496720306
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Diane C. McPhail is an artist, writer, and minister. In addition to holding an MFA, an MA, and DMin, she has studied at the University of Iowa distance learning and the Yale Writers' Workshop. Diane is a member of North Carolina Writers' Network and the Historical Novel Society. She lives in Highlands, North Carolina.

Actress Kirsten Potter has performed on stage, film, and television, including roles on Medium, Bones, and Judging Amy. Her narrations have won AudioFile Earphones Awards, and she earned an Audie nomination for her reading of Rise Again by Ben Tripp.

Read an Excerpt


Heat hung fierce for spring over the town of Greensboro, Mississippi, the late sunlight flickering in dusty rays. A breeze that might have otherwise refreshed only added to the oppressive atmosphere, diving in gusts to trouble the crinolined skirts of the ladies along the boardwalk. Except for the few accompanied by personal slaves, the women struggled with their parcels as they clutched their bonnets close against a dry haze of dust unfurled in the wake of passing carts. Nailed to the livery stable, a slave auction notice snapped in the gritty air. At the sound two women halted on the boardwalk. Emily Matthews pressed a gloved finger to still the paper. A cluster of men nearby suspended their conversation to stare. Ignoring them, Emily jerked away from Ginny's restraining grip and tore the poster from its nail.

"You best drop that thing, Miss Emily. Here, give it to me." Fierce determination drove Ginny's half whisper.

"Leave me be, Ginny." Emily thrust the paper in crumpled folds deep into her pockets. "Papa must see this. Holbert Conklin is selling Nathan."

"People's watching you, Miss Emily. Leave it now. You gone get somebody killed." Emily shook herself free of Ginny, grabbed at her hoops, and stepped down onto the dirt of the street.

In spite of sullen glances her direction, Emily shouldered through the dwindling afternoon crowd and negotiated her way through the fine buggies, plodding mules with clattering wagons, and the ever-present dung of Main Street. Ginny funneled behind her, eyes down, but missing nothing. Opposite the courthouse, Emily clasped the edge of her gray bonnet, squinting. She brandished the crumpled paper up at her father where he watched for her from his office, as he did every Friday. His hair and beard glowed white in the sunlit window, his eyes intense under the thick brows. He saw me, Emily thought, as she stepped onto the courthouse lawn. By the time the two women mounted the steps, Judge Matthews was locking the heavy front door, one arm loaded with law books. Emily restrained herself, but barely, as he ducked under her bonnet to kiss her cheek and smooth a loose strand of hair over her ear. He smiled and nodded to Ginny.

Emily thrust the notice at him. "This is a travesty, Papa. You must do something." Though his antislavery stance took a heavy toll on them both in a town like Greensboro, she counted on that foundation.

He shook the rumpled paper flat. Ginny clutched the unstable law books, as Emily peered over her father's sleeve, her hand fisted against his arm. He retrieved his spectacles from a pocket, flicked them open, and adjusted them on his nose, where they magnified the intensity of his almost-brown eyes.

TO BE SOLD & LET, By Public Auction,
On Monday the 7th of March, 1859
Nathan, a 30-year-old buck and excellent hand of Good Character with some training as a household servant

He got no further as Emily jabbed at the words. "Nathan has a wife and two children," she said. "I see them when I call on Virginia. Conklin's going to tear that family apart. He cares nothing for family, including his own. He's a despicable man, Papa. And cruel." She glanced at Ginny. "Virginia never speaks of it, but I see her bruises. The ones she can't cover and more than ordinary life accounts for."

Judge Matthews folded the notice and retrieved his books. "Thank you, Ginny."

The judge knew Conklin well — an unwelcome, perhaps even dangerous, cohort of his son, Jeremiah. Silence enveloped the three as they jolted over the rutted road home. First father, then daughter commenced to speak, but stopped, their utterances incomplete.

"He is a vile man, Papa," Emily said, as he helped her from the buggy. Evil was the word she wanted to use. "Can you stop him?"

He hefted the law books from the wagon and held a hand to Ginny. "I'll do what I can."

* * *

Jessie pulled the ripped dress around her frail torso and shivered. Morning was moving toward the horizon. She stood on the unpainted porch, her eyes blank, not seeing her children's red ball in the dusty yard, the pile of rocks she hauled up from the creek yesterday to line the front walkway, nor the broom abandoned in panic. Jessie did not see her own shoe on the sagging step, caught there as she fled Holbert Conklin.

Her dark eyes saw nothing before her, her mind seeing only what had befallen her in the cabin behind: the heavy white hands, freckled like dirty snow; a straggling lock of reddish hair over the icy eyes that burned into her naked flesh; and her own hand gripping the post of the bed Nathan had built her from scrap. Today she would lose him, perhaps forever. He would never need to know this thing that had happened.

She spun back into the cabin with its single room, closed the door, wrenched the coarse sheet from the bed, and piled it on the floor. Heaving, she collapsed onto the violated fabric of her rough mattress. As her body quieted, she rose. She stripped off her torn dress, dipped the barest edge of it in the water bucket by the door, and wiped the blood from her legs. Removing her other shift from its peg, she pulled it hard over her thin body and threw the damp remains of her dress on top of the mounded sheet.

Out back, she gathered an armload of fallen branches, ignoring the sharp twigs digging into her flesh. She stacked them, one by one, on the banked coals from the night before and blew into the fireplace, coughing from the dust and ashes. A flame sputtered. As the kindling caught, Jessie shifted on her haunches, but without relief from the pain. She held the wet edge of the ruined dress over the flame. When it was dry enough, Jessie laid it on the growing fire. With her teeth, she tore the edge of the sheet, ripped it down its length, and fed the two halves into the flames.

When the last of the fabric caught, Jessie stood. Holding the bedpost, she gazed around the cabin. Blood stained the ticking of the corn shuck mattress. With rag and lye soap, Jessie scrubbed the stains in narrowing circles. She took clean water and reversed the spirals, rinsing away the soap. But not the stain, not all of it.

Outside, Jessie dropped the rag in the dirt and started up the lane toward Auntie Clara's. A cluster of children, including her own, too young for the field, played in the early dawn around the old woman's cabin. As Jessie came into the yard, Auntie Clara shushed a boy's wails and brushed dirt from his knees.

"Auntie, I needs your help." Jessie looked down at the boy, who stopped crying and ran. "I needs a bedcover."


At 7:28 on Monday morning, a violent knock shook Judge Matthews's front door. Ginny heard it from the house kitchen, which had been added as an L to the main farmhouse for convenience. She slipped the flowered china cup back into the dishwater and wiped the soapsuds on her apron. Through the window, Ginny recognized Holbert Conklin's overseer, a man whose name circulated through the quarters amid tales of unbridled cruelty. Behind him, four slaves huddled in the curve of the drive: a broad, clean-shaven man, a woman hardly larger than a pubescent girl, and two small children, a boy and a girl. In the dirt beside them lay two half-empty croker sacks.

"Go tell the judge I've come for Mr. Conklin's money," McCabe said when Ginny opened the door. He spit a stream of dark tobacco juice down the steps.

Ginny studied the little group. The man, a strapping buck, clasped his right arm in the other elbow. He leaned, bracing himself almost imperceptibly, against the tiny woman. The girl clung to her mother's leg, and the little boy rubbed at his nose. Ginny nodded to McCabe and disappeared, shutting the door behind her.

McCabe spit off the porch again, swiping at his unkempt mustache with a dirty handkerchief, his back was to the door. When the judge opened it, he did not turn around. Judge Matthews stepped out even with him. Neither man greeted the other.

"Well, Judge. There's your goods. You got the cash?"

"I do." Judge Matthews handed him a stack of bills, which McCabe stuffed into his pants pocket, the wad of money folding in on itself. He wiped at his mustache again before thrusting the soiled handkerchief into his pocket on top of the bills.

"Man's a drunk," McCabe said. "Fell off his goddamned porch on a binge last night."

Now, just how would a slave get liquor? Judge Matthews thought.

McCabe handed over the documents of sale. "May not be much of a bargain. But he's yours."

McCabe never looked at the judge, nor at the human merchandise he left in a wake of dust. When the wagon rounded the end of the drive, Judge Matthews started down the steps. Ginny rushed past him toward the band of frightened slaves.

"What you do to yourself?" Ginny assessed the man, who towered over the little cluster, his arm akimbo, cradled in his other like a baby. The swollen flesh of his left eye glistened like ripe eggplant. The boy swiped at his nose with the ragged sleeve of his shirt, eyes wide and bloodshot. Shame is an awful thing, Ginny thought. She laid her hand on the child's woolly head and pulled him against her long leg.

"Ginny, get this man to the back porch and send someone for Dr. Slate." Judge Matthews turned to the tiny woman. "Have you and your children been fed this morning?"

The woman shook her head.

"You'll be all right now. Ginny will see to your needs." Judge Matthews studied her face, shook his head, and returned to the house.

Ginny patted the girl's short cornrows as she led the family around back. "Come on now, what's y'all's names?" The children stared up at this strange woman, almost as tall as their father.

"Nathan," the man said. "This here's Jessie. And Lavinia and Joseph."

At the rear of the house Ginny indicated a bench at the long pine table on the porch. "Jessie, put your arms 'round your young'uns while I fetch you some victuals."

Ginny stepped into the kitchen, where Samantha, in a sullen huff, was cleaning up from breakfast. Her ample body threatened to escape her dress as her hair had its kerchief. Perhaps everything about her wanted escape. Ginny ignored her foul mood.

"How many biscuits we got left?"

"Umm, six," Samantha counted. "We got six, but one done broke cross the middle."

"Never mind about that," Ginny said. "Got us some hungry young'uns out here. They don't give a hoot which way a biscuit's broke." Ginny considered Samantha's feelings about that broken biscuit. She was new to the household, bought from a place where slaves had eaten with gourds from a common trough. But apparently sufficient to round out her ample body.

Samantha slapped butter on the leftover biscuits, jamming bits of smoked pork into them, licking her fingers. One of the biscuits fell to the floor. She wiped it on her apron and walked outside to set the plate down hard on the table. Ginny eyed her sideways as she brought out a jar of apple butter.

"All right now, y'all eat," Ginny said.

All four sat motionless, looking at the food and then up at the two women. Samantha grunted and vanished back into the house.

"What you waiting for?" said Ginny. "Eat."

Jessie picked up a biscuit. Ginny slathered apple butter on another and handed it to the little girl. She studied the child's surprise as the tart sweetness of this unfamiliar brown stuff touched her lips.

"You need some help?" Ginny said to Nathan.

"I be all right," he said. "Happens I'm left-handed. Mighty good victuals, mighty good. Ain't it good, Jessie?"

Jessie nodded. Ginny held a spoonful of apple butter out to her. Jessie glanced at Nathan for approval and he gave her a small smile. Ginny spread the biscuit.

"You like apple butter, Jessie?" she said.

"Never had none. Served it before. I been a house gal, but never had nothing except molasses myself. Has you, Nathan?"

"Had a little honey once," he said, grinning. Jessie bit into the biscuit.

Rapid hoofbeats clipped the air.

"That'd be Dr. Slate," Ginny said, rising.

* * *

Taking the reins, Benjamin motioned the doctor toward the porch. Charles Slate, ash-brown hair disheveled, mounted the steps two at a time. "Understand you have a patient here," he said to Ginny. His dark hazel eyes rested on Nathan. "What's your name?" Slate gave Jessie a penetrating side glance.

"Nathan, sir."

"Well, Nathan, finish your breakfast while I speak to the judge." He beckoned to Ginny. "Get me some lint for bandages. I'll need a good bit. And linen for a sling. Give that man a shot of whiskey. No, several." He looked around for a likely place to examine the injury. "And make me some fresh coffee. Where's your master, Ginny?"

In his study Judge Matthews looked up from his conversation with Emily as Slate knocked on the doorframe and entered without pausing. He straightened and stepped forward.

"Dr. Slate, this is my daughter, Emily," Judge Matthews said, half blocking the space between them. Extending her hand, Emily curtsied to the doctor and took her father's arm. He kissed her cheek and nodded toward the door. Though slow to withdraw her hand, she obeyed her father's silent bidding and exited. Charles stared after her, taking in the hay-colored hair, the narrow waist, and swaying hoops. The judge cleared his throat and said, "You see my new man?"

"Yes, sir. Looks right ashen." Slate swiveled, his eyes on the empty door where Emily had parted. "What happened?"

Judge Matthews stepped across the carpet and stood with his back to the door, as if to shield even the vanished shadow of his daughter from Charles's gaze. He focused on the issue at hand. "Man was posted for auction this morning. Without his family." He cleared his throat. "I made Conklin an offer for the lot of them, and McCabe delivered them earlier. Obviously not in the condition the man would have been for auction."

"First glance, I'd say he's likely to have a bad break. Woman doesn't look so good, either."

"McCabe claimed the man fell off his porch drunk in the night."

"I reckon it's a possibility, Judge. But I expect Conklin keeps tight control over there. So McCabe claimed he's a drunkard? Feat for a slave to get his hands on enough liquor for that."

"That's what he said. I find it unlikely. I'd say Conklin's control on alcohol might be selective." The judge returned to his desk and straightened some papers. "Convenient timing. Conklin wasn't keen on selling the woman and children. My offer was fair and for the lot only."

"Buck looks strong. Eye will heal, I warrant. Shame about the arm. If it's broken, it might be two, three months that he'll be no good to you around here." Charles hesitated. "Don't know as I'd trust Conklin, Judge Matthews. But he's a friend of Jeremiah, isn't he? Be that as it may, the man has a vicious streak. I hear tales and I've seen enough evidence myself. Shame he had to rough up a good nigger to get at you."

Judge Matthews's face hardened. "Yes, a good Negro man. See what you can do."

"Well, let me go see what we're looking at here," Charles said. "Are you coming, sir? You may want to know the condition of your merchandise."

"That would be wise." Judge Matthews stared after him, shut the drawer of his desk, and locked it, pocketing the key.

Out on the porch, Charles straddled a bench. He took Nathan's injured arm in his hands, his hold strong and precise, fingers deft. Charles studied the man as he manipulated the arm slightly, one way and then the other. The slave's face was taut, the mahogany color drained. As Charles rotated the arm another fraction, a constricted groan escaped the man's throat, though his expression did not change. Charles supported the arm in one hand and with the other pulled down the lower lid of Nathan's uninjured eye. What should have been a robust rose was the color of putty. He pulled open the man's lower lip. The same deep gray. Charles palpated the swollen, purple flesh of Nathan's arm, avoiding the open wounds, which appeared superficial. Midway of shoulder and elbow, he probed. As another deep groan surfaced, Jessie's head jerked up in alarm.

"Arm's broke bad," Charles said. "Ginny, I'll need — no, wait. Put a big pot of water to boil. And go fetch Benjamin."

Charles scraped back his chair and motioned to the judge. The two men kept their eyes on the ground as they strode to the rear fence. The judge waited. Charles spit and cracked his knuckles.

"Well, Judge, here it is," Charles said. "I can do nothing, put him in a sling, and it will heal maimed, somewhat useless, and likely painful from here on out. I can amputate. Don't need to expound on that one. Or I can set it, splint, and starch it. It'll take a couple of hours to do and overnight to dry. Healing, if it can, will take a good eight weeks or more. Can't be gotten wet or the lint'll come undone. Like washing the starch out of a petticoat. And I can't guarantee the arm'll be good afterward. Don't know how much more investment you want to make here."


Excerpted from "The Abolitionist's Daughter"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Diane C. McPhail.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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