October Read of the Month: “The Stockwell Letters” by Jacqueline Friedland 

Dramatic conflicts caused by the Fugitive Slave Act are central to Jacqueline Friedland’s excellent, thoroughly researched historical novel, The Stockwell Letters. The Fugitive Slave Act put all Black citizens at risk of kidnapping, even if they had been born free, causing many to exit the United States: “Nearly three thousand Negroes had crossed the border to Canada after President Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act.”

Based on real people, the novel particularly focuses on the abolitionist Ann Phillips and fugitive slave Anthony Burns. Friedland uses rotating viewpoints to offer a more complete picture of the abolitionist era. Besides Ann and Anthony, a fictional character named Colette rounds out the viewpoints as the plantation owner’s wife who secretly teaches Anthony to read. The talented Friedland brings these characters to life with fully developed personalities and authentic voices. This important story deserves a wide audience.

Hampered by ill health, Ann struggles to remain active in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. She can’t quite believe her husband Wendell loves her when she is plagued by so many ailments. Yet she also wonders if “perhaps Wendell loved [her] best when [she] was weak and helpless . . . he was a man who took nourishment from assisting others.” The author’s endnote tells us Ann may have suffered from rheumatoid arthritis or a similar ailment affecting many parts of the body. While Wendell is a skilled orator, Ann uses her writing skills to craft persuasive speeches for her able-bodied husband to deliver. She has a knack “for crafting statements that delicately balanced the need for both outraging and inspiring listeners.” She wrote “about how the Union should not be used to sustain slavery, that nations are molded either by their great men or their masses.” Ann feels it is time for statesmen to step up. She acts in ways both small and large, each important, to protest against slavery. For example, she refuses to sweeten her tea with sugar because it is grown and harvested “off the broken backs of [her] fellow man.”

The beautiful Colette highlights many problems women faced in that patriarchal era. She was forced into a loveless marriage to wealthy man more than thirty years older than she:

I’d known for years prior to our marriage that Elton, and the elevated status my own family would gain from the union, would be my destiny. . . . I’d known better than to protest when my daddy told me I’d be marrying such a prominent man.

Elton, a lustful, violent man, is especially angered that Colette has yet to produce an heir after a year and a half of marriage. Colette longs for meaning in her life and tries to manipulate her husband into agreeing to let her teach at the nearby Female Institute.  While Colette is decent to her slaves and allows herself to “believe that because Adelia and [she] were more familiar than was common between mistress and slave, that she was frank with me,” eventually she realizes Adelia must often keep “her true thoughts inside.” Colette tries to force Adelia to be honest, but Adelia sets her straight:

“You think you’re so different from the other folks down here because you speak kindly to the slaves, say please and thank you? Because you don’t tolerate beatings? But you still owning us,” she said. “You are still the problem.”

Even though Anthony is enslaved by a man who thought of himself as a good master, he longs for freedom and the chance to be educated. He goes to great lengths and endures considerable pain to escape to Boston. Sadly, his freedom lasts less than a year before he is arrested and returned to enslavement. Many times, Anthony contemplates how he could take his own life rather than return to life as a slave. The entire country is in an uproar over his escape, with some angered that a free man in Boston can be forced back into slavery and others furious that he escaped in the first place. Upon his return to the South, Anthony endures horrific punishment, kept in an isolated cell in utter filth. His story is all the more horrific because it is true.

One enjoyable aspect of the novel is spotting famous Americans in the crowd of protesters like Henry Thoreau and Sojourner Truth. The novel captures the way the anti-slavery movement had become more than a political position; it had become a religion for many. The Stockwell Letters is a fine novel concerning this country’s central problem, one present from our inception and still affecting us today. It illustrates the importance on acting on one’s moral principles in whatever way one can.

Jacqueline Friedland

Jacqueline Friedland is the USA Today best-selling and multi-award-winning author of He Gets That From Me, That’s Not a Thing, and Trouble the Water. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and NYU Law School, she practiced briefly as a commercial litigator in Manhattan and taught Legal Writing and Lawyering Skills at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. She returned to school after not too long in the legal world, earning her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Friedland regularly reviews fiction for trade publications and appears as a guest lecturer. She lives in Westchester, New York, with her husband, four children, and two very lovable dogs.



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