'The crops failed. I sold my children'

Monday Books

February 21, 1994|By Veronica Chambers

CROSSING THE RIVER. By Caryl Phillips. Knopf. 237 pages. $22.

FROM the very first lines of Caryl Phillips' "Crossing the River," there is remorse. "A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children." Starting with the late 18th century, when an African man sells his children (two boys, one girl) into slavery, Mr. Phillips takes our hand and guides us through their three disparate lives -- one becomes a missionary in Liberia, one pioneers across the American West, another becomes an American GI in Europe.

Their father, in person and then in spirit, is our anchor to the African shore. For 250 years he waits for the children to cross back over "the river" that has taken them into a lifetime of struggle and bondage: "A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children."

The novel is slim, and the story of each child is whittled like wood to its most shapely essence. Each story takes place in a different time, making it impossible, really, for the characters to have been brothers and sisters: Nash is a missionary in the 1830s, Martha ventures west in the late 1800s, and Travis fights in World War II. Suspend logic, and Mr. Phillips' web is so appealing that one doesn't question dates and times. Like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he writes of times so heady and chaotic and of characters so compelling that time moves as if guided by the moon and dreams, not by any clock or calendar.

Nash, the oldest son, is purchased by a man named Edward Williams. Edward is heir to a slaveholding fortune; a fervent Christian, he seeks to liberate himself of this blot on his conscience before he meets his maker. Thus Edward's involvement in the "American Colonization Society," a group of wealthy white Americans who help to send slaves back to Africa. Unsure of the slaves' origins and well aware that the Americanized blacks are no longer "natives," they are sent to Liberia, the West African nation formed by free slaves. For Edward, it is the perfect solution:

"Not that the American Colonization Society was ignorant of the dangers that would accompany their policy to attempting to repatriate former slaves on the west coast of Africa. This was, after all, a continent belonging to the native African and to nobody else.

"But the American Colonization Society was sure that the benefits would accrue to both nations. America would be removing a cause of increasing social stress, and Africa would be civilized by the return of their descendants who were now blessed with rational Christian minds."

It is only when Edward sends off his favorite ex-slave, Nash Williams, that he begins to realize how attached he is to the black man who calls him "Father." When, seven years into his missionary stay, Nash disappears into "the Dark Continent" and cuts off all contact, Edward heads off to Africa. It is there that Edward realizes how deeply linked he is to Nash and to all blacks in general -- that his definition of being "white" is dependent on a corollary definition of being "black."

Martha, the daughter, has already lost a husband and a child to the auction block when she decides to head west. With only a card from a friend who is happy and free in San Francisco, Martha heads out to make the difficult journey from the slave territories to the free land. Through her, we see and feel the desperate hope that led so many blacks to follow the hard trails of the pioneers. By the time we meet Martha, she is already an old woman and well aware that she might not make it to the "Promised Land." No matter:

"That night, Martha packed her bundle and left the house. For where, she was not sure (don't care where), being concerned with only heading west (going west), away from the big river (away from Hell) and avoiding . . . . traders who would gladly sell her back over the border and into Missouri. The dark night spread before her, but behind the drifting clouds she knew the sky was heavy with stars (feeling good). Never again would she stand on an auction block. (Never.) Never again would she be renamed. (Never.) Never again would she belong to anybody. (No sir, never.) Martha looked over her shoulders as she ran. (Like the wind, girl.)"

For Travis, the youngest son, an American GI, love and hope comes in the arms of a white English girl. She is uneducated, orphaned by the war and running from a husband who beats her. She knows that Travis is "coloured" and that is a problem in 1943, but she wishes she could explain to him that she was an outcast before he ever came into her life.

At first glance "Crossing the River" seems to be a historical novel about slavery. But as one goes through each of the novel's four slim chapters, it becomes clear that this is not so much a book about slavery as it is a book about where slavery has taken us. It led Martha West and Travis to Europe. It led Nash back across the river -- and for his sake, Edward Williams crossed the river as well. Neither can one forget the father, who waits 250 years by the riverside for his children's return. "Crossing the River" is also a novel about parenting, about bad decisions and remorse: "A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children."

Veronica Chambers is writing a family memoir about African-American mothers and daughters. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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