David King was born a slave but freed early in his life by the Reverend William King, a man committed to creating the Elgin Settlement in Canada, a thriving community of freed black families in Ontario started in the mid 1800s. David doesn't remember life as a slave; his memory starts in Canada as a free child living with his mother. He is an incredibly intelligent man and his aptitude was obvious early on in his schooling as he was groomed to dedicate his life to God and the Reverend's philosophies of life. But David examined his life and rejected the path his mother and the Reverend had prepared for him, rebelling against his expected life and choosing instead to live in the nearby town of Chatham with a white, German, former prostitute, run an after hours bar, and rob graves.
The novel opens with David learning of the death of the Reverend King. The loss of this man who played such an enormous role in his own early life causes David to reflect on the past and how he ended up where he is now, his own man, making his own choices. David is multi-faceted and intelligent and he presents such a curious and unusual character, moral and principled as defined by his own code, unwilling to live by the Reverend King's dictates where they conflict with his own. And if you think that David's choice of occupation means he is somehow of a lower sort, this is definitely untrue. He is thoughtful and erudite and determined to be in control of his own destiny. Reverend King might have freed David from physical slavery but his good intentions still did not allow David the true freedom to choose his own path, thereby making a breech inevitable.
Robertson has created a masterfully and meticulously written novel that not only brings up issues of race and the shame of our history, but also what we do and don't owe to others for their roles in our lives. The narrative goes back and forth in time as David meanders through his memories but this non-chronological jumping is easy to follow and to assemble into a coherent story. The history contained in this slight book is amazing but it never overwhelms the story itself or the reader. This is a challenging, vivid, and rewarding novel, a small gem for sure.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.