“This is a series of tragedies, told lightly, but with precious few characters arriving happily on the other side. I wonder though, would it be possible to write an uplifting book about slavery? The story is told in circles, as it would be if relayed orally, so that you meet a character and learn of their fate in the same sentence and spend the rest of the book learning how they got from here to there. It's a cool device, but it makes for a dense read as you have to reach back to remember who was who and what happened to them when their story finally gets going. It also creates an atmosphere of foreboding at times so heavy that I had a hard time continuing on (then again, that must necessarily be the case when slaves are the main characters).
The most interesting thing about this book for me, however, was how exploring the lives of black slaveholders made me recognize and shudder at my own, unconscious apologies for the institution of slavery. Although I know that slavery is a violation of human rights and that its practice in the US has had a terrible impact on our country, some part of me has always wondered if it was not a simplification to describe the lives of all slaves as universally miserable and all slave owners as universally evil. After all, many slaves and owners were related, many grew up together as friends, and -- as I believed in some recess of my mind -- some of them must have been able to form meaningful and fulfilling relationships as adults, despite the legal construct. In the most subtle and aching way, Jones' story set my moral compass straight. The slave owners here are free blacks, their stated objective to be caretakers for their brethren and thereby lift all boats, yet they too will put their own advancement ahead of what is right. So too with the white characters morally opposed to slavery, who nonetheless uphold the "law" and can't see the dehumanizing effect of their paternalism. The author brutally murders the few people that do maintain their bearing in this environment -- Augustus, Mildred, and John Skiffington. Most powerfully, we see how each slave carries the weight of their bondage, how it affects their development, their relationships, and their fates. Even before the book reveals the true nature of the black owners, no slave can be content with their lot. ”