It’s 1855, and the Dickinson farm, in the bottom corner of Virginia, is already in debt when a Northern abolitionist arrives and creates havoc among the slaves. Determined to find his mother and daughter, who are already free in Canada, Bry is the first slave to flee, and his escape inspires a dozen others. Soon, the farm, owned by one brother and managed by another, is forfeited to the bank.One of the brothers, who is also a circuit-riding preacher, gathers his flock into a wagon train to find a new life in the west. But John Dickinson has a dangerous secret that compels him to abandon the group at the last minute,
- Pantheon Books
- March 2018
- 320 Pages
“What a brilliant and harrowing book! Everyone thinks they know the epic story of early nineteenth-century America, of the covered wagons and the way west; A Reckoning will persuade you that you don’t. For one thing, it is the story of families—for another, it was written over the politics of slavery. Riverboats, rutted forest roads, slave catchers, con men, sick mules, broken axles, lost children. There is something of Mark Twain in this telling and something of Willa Cather, a narrative as ingenious in its mix of points of view as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and full of enough to keep anyone turning pages. And at the heart of it is the portrait of a remarkably strong woman and a painfully rich portrait of a marriage and a family.”—Robert Hass
“A dark and mythopoetic novel . . . that stands apart for its texture, moral nuance, and the somber earthy prose.”—The Globe and Mail
“A beautiful and brilliant work of art, vulnerable, driven, and unsettling. A humane and timely examination of how the societies we create—just or profoundly unjust—set the parameters for the people we become. Extraordinary.”—Madeleine Thien
1. What does the title, A Reckoning, mean and refer to? Who is making a reckoning and why?
2. What is the role of Alexander Ross, the Canadian abolitionist, naturalist, and medical student who arrives in Jonesville? How does he affect the lives of everyone around him? Why does the novel open with him?
3. Compare and contrast the two brothers John, the preacher, and Benjamin, the land and slave-owner. What does each do with the legacy of their father? How do their views of slavery agree and differ? And how substantial is this difference?
4. What reasons make John feel it necessary to send his family on a journey to the west with other members of their religious community, while he stays behind?
5. What happens to Lavina on the trip to Kansas? How has she found “a piece of herself she didn’t know” (p. x). Is this a complete transformation or does she return to the old Lavina after John returns? Why? Why doesn’t Lavina leave John?
6. The trip also transforms Martin who says, “My father is wrong about everything. Dominion is not the point” (p. x). What does he mean? Dominion over what? People? Nature? Family?
7. How does Martin break apart from the yolk of his father, “You are not in command here Father” (p. 123)?
8. How does Bry’s journey north to Canada compare and contrast with the journeys of the Dickinson family to Kansas?
9. What did you learn about this time period, the years before the Civil War, and this part of the US, at that time from A RECKONING? Has Spalding presented anything new or fresh about this time period?
10. Do the characters remind you of anyone you know or any other characters from other novels? Do you connect with any of the characters more than any others? Who is your favorite character and why?
11. What do you think is the most important scene in the novel? Why?
12. What do you think of the ending of A Reckoning? What does it mean and is it satisfying or intriguing as an ending? Why does Spalding end the novel this way?
13. Describe the different female characters, Lavina, Emly, Matilda and the Native American woman who helps Bry. How are they each women of their time and place in society and how are they universal? What do they share and how are they different?
14. There are abundant passages about the natural world in the novel. “And the world announced itself. The rhododendrons were opening beside them; the azaleas were ready to burst; the birds were finding each other after a long winter of waiting” (p. 139). Why these descriptions of nature? How does it add to or contrast with actions of the people?
15. “We are born in ignorance and must make ourselves civil,” John as preacher always said, but his son Martin discovers that Cuff the bear is “true to her nature rather than ignorant” (p. 210). How do these two different views provide a commentary on human nature and the novel?
16. Why does John send Martin out to kill his bear? What is the significance of the order and of what happens afterward?
17. What is the role and importance of religion in the novel?
18. What is Bry’s relationship to the other characters in the novel? How does this inform your reading of this novel and does it affect your view of Bry? If you’ve read The Purchase, how has your opinion of him grown or changed?
19. How does Bry escape to Canada? Who and what does he need to rely on though he tries to be self-sufficient?
20. Emily Donaldson (Globe and Mail) writes, “Perhaps what makes her novel germane to the current moment is how little has changed in race and gender relations, not how much.” Comment on this and discuss whether you agree with this statement or not.