The Purchase by Linda Spalding

The Purchase, Linda Spalding

McClelland & Stewart, 352 pages

ISBN 9780771079351

In Brandywine, Pennsylvania, in 1798, the Dickinson family is well respected in the Quaker community. Daniel earns a comfortable living in the family business, and along with his wife Rebecca, he raises his four children according to Quaker principles.  When Rebecca is about to give birth to their fifth child, Daniel Dickinson hires a girl from a Methodist almshouse to help the family for a few weeks.  Ruth Boyd cooks, cleans, and looks after the children while Rebecca rests in preparation for the birth.  The birth does not go well; the baby is born sickly, and Rebecca dies.  Rather than send her back to a squalid almshouse, Daniel asks Ruth to stay with his family and mind the children, a decision which shocks the Elders.  In their view, a Methodist orphan is an unfit mother for a Quaker family, so the entire community responds by shunning the Dickinsons.

Daniel marries Ruth to be respectable, but he does not love her the way he did Rebecca.  The new family leave Brandywine for the farmlands of Virginia, and soon after arriving, Daniel witnesses a slave auction.  He is aghast at the cruel, dehumanizing attitudes, and feels a strong need to protect an especially vulnerable looking young boy from a life of misery.  Daniel’s abolitionist principles are called into question when he realizes that the only way to spare the boy is to purchase him.

Equality and freedom are cherished Quaker values, but the Dickinsons soon learn that they are much harder to apply in their new Virginia home.  Onesimus sleeps in a shelter outside of the main house, he works on the farm, and the children, though friendly, do not consider him a peer.  He begins a relationship with a slave girl on a neighbouring farm, and when their son is born, the Dickinsons must decide how far they are willing to go to keep him safe.

The Purchase tells the story of a man who, for the very best of reasons, has based his life around decisions that compromise some aspect of his personal moral code.  It depicts the complex realities of living by strong principles, and the difficulties that arise when some of those principles need to be sacrificed for the greater good.


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