An intimate, gripping novel of the antebellum Underground Railroad, based on the true story of a valiant Philadelphia freedwoman -- the first novel we have had from the author of Black Ice, the "stunning memoir" (New York Times) of a black student's experience at a New England prep school in the 1970S.
The Price of a Child opens in the fall of 1855. A Virginia planter is on his way to assume a diplomatic post in Nicaragua, accompanied by his cook, Ginnie, and two of her children (one of whom is his). Temporarily stranded in Philadelphia when they miss their steamboat, Ginnie makes a thrilling leap of the imagination: it is the moment she has been desperately waiting for, the moment she decides to be free. In broad daylight, under the furious gaze of her master, she walks straight out of slavery into a new life -- and into a whole new set of compromising positions. We follow Ginnie as she settles with a respectable and rambunctious black family, as she reinvents herself, christens herself Mercer Gray, dodges slave catchers, lectures far and wide in the cause of abolition, and falls in love with a man whose own ties are a formidable barrier to their happiness. And we see her agonizing all the while about the baby boy she had to leave behind on the plantation, whom she is determined to rescue.
In a remarkable feat of historical empathy, Lorene Cary has created an authentic American heroine -- a woman who finds voice for the appalling loss and bitterness of her past, and who creates within herself a new humanity and an uncompromising freedom.
Cary transfers the clear narrative voice that marked her memoir, Black Ice, to her fiction debut. In 1855, Jackson Pryor, a powerful Virginia planter, departs for a foreign diplomatic post with his favorite slave, 32-year-old Ginnie; to discourage escape, he permits only two of her three children to accompany her. Nevertheless, when they are delayed in Philadelphia, Ginnie seizes the chance to be rescued by an antislavery group, whose members, much to Pryor's embarrassment, intercept the three slaves in broad daylight on a public ferry pier. Hiding outside the city with the free Quick family, Ginnie soon changes her name to Mercer Gray and falls problematically in love with Tyree Quick, who's unhappily married and forced to care for his enfeebled father. She also must confront the ironies of freedom, such as the fact that the underground railroad is financed in part by black slum lords whose treatment of employees and tenants has its own peculiar mixture of paternalism and cruelty. Mercer and her children flourish, however, despite their constant fear of capture; and, after Pryor forces a highly publicized trial of her liberators, Mercer becomes a popular speaker on the abolitionist circuit. But she can't put her abandoned child out of her mind, and she and Tyree struggle to resolve their impossible relationship. Mercer is a complex antebellum woman whose internal conflicts, even amidst Cary's abundant period detail, are strikingly modern. Helped by a compelling cast of fully drawn characters, Cary has written a first novel of impressive depth and texture in a literate and provocative voice.