So, those of you with your reading hats on will remember that Tanya Landman won the Carnegie Medal in 2015 for her amazing book Buffalo Soldier (see review) the tale of young black slave who is emancipated and then joins the American army pretending to be a boy. It’s a powerful book about America’s racial problems. The emancipation of slaves by Abraham Lincoln caused a whole load of different problems for the American people in the 1860s. This book is set in England in the 1750s and follows the story of Caleb; a mixed race boy who lives with his father, Joseph Chappell, who is a Punch and Judy showman.
Joseph has just finished a show in the small town of Torchester and Caleb is going round collecting any donations. A small boy runs in to Joseph and winds him; a silk purse falls at his feet. After that all hell breaks lose. Joseph is arrested and taken to jail. He is spared a death sentence but it is commuted to seven years hard labour in the colonies (America). Joseph and his sister are the children of an Earl who lost his fortune when a ship that he had financed sunk and all the goods were lost. Joseph tells Caleb that he has an aunt Anne who lives at the end of the river; he must follow the river and make for a large house called Norton Manor where she is a maid to Sir Robert Fairbrother, she will, he says, help Caleb until he returns.
Caleb takes the Punch and Judy theatre and heads along the river to find her. When he eventually arrives he is told that she no longer lives there. she has married a fisherman and has moved to a nearby village. He goes in search of her and find her in a tiny cottage at the end of a row of houses. She has a small baby called Dorcas and a step daughter called Letty. Her husband is away at sea and, to make ends meet, they take in sewing from the local crews coming back from long journeys. Letty is not too pleased to see him and Anne is just surprised. The village in general are gob smacked to find a young black man in their midst but seem to take it in their stride. Latent racism is the order of the day here. Questions such as ‘does it rub off’ are common but Caleb is used to that. He cannot find work but is a talented sewer and, while Letty goes out to get the work, Anne and Caleb fall in to a routine of sewing and mending. All seems to be ok.
One morning Letty is ill and Caleb is required to go to the beach to see if any driftwood has washed up for them to burn. He doesn’t find any wood but discovers a body instead. The body is a man and he has a distinctive ring on his finger which Caleb recognises. After this things seem to get more and more mysterious. Caleb and Letty turn detective to try and solve the mystery and eventually put them all at risk. Not only are they poor but Caleb is also black, a distinct disadvantage in the 1750s.
I enjoyed this book, I really did. But, and you knew this was coming, I have a couple of issues with it. Firstly, the colour of Caleb’s skin was a little pointless. He wasn’t unusually harassed or picked on, he was a free man and could work and do what he wanted. I wasn’t really sure why he was written as a black man. if he had been used or it had some significance to the story then fair enough, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. That’s not me being racist, it just didn’t sit very comfortably with me. Secondly, there is a romance brewing but it never really gets going. The relationship between Letty and Caleb is nice but not really fleshed out. The book is based on a real life case where a nobleman was paid by the government to transport slaves to the colonies but instead left them on a small island of the coast of Devon and used them as slaves, I remember watching a programme about it. An interesting historical novel that will keep you guessing but, there are too many coincidences to make it really good. Landman writes well though and her ability to set the scene and make you feel as if you are really there is spot on.
you will enjoy if you like historical mysteries, or just enjoy a good yarn!