Sunday, May 24, 2020

Book Review: 'The Hard Side of the River: A Novel of Abolition' by Johnny Payne

The Hard Side of the River by Johnny Payne

Lest we forget…

California author Johnny Payne is a novelist, poet and dramatist with eleven novels and three books of poetry to his credit. He also produces virtual reality experiences for creative writing seminars as well a being director of the MFA Creative Writing program at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. He directs his own plays in various theaters in Southern California.

There could not be a better time to read this impressive novel about the abolition of slavery: immediate acts of racial conflicts, such as the tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia for one example, have honed our attention on the injustices that remain active. Payne’s dramatic skills bring a sense of immediacy to his story, especially evident in the opening lines – March 1831, Cheapside Slave Market, Lexington Kentucky as we meet the primary character Dan Baskin: “I had worked eighteen days straight. It seemed everybody wanted to sell or trade slaves at Cheapside Market. Nobody liked what chattel they had and coveted the other’ns, so the pens got overcrowded and we was having to leave come chattel overnight in the backs of wagons where they wadn’t secured; it became a mess really. Mid-March had fell, and the wind blowed hard, full of trash and grit, like it would never stop, expelling the remnants of winter in its jaws. One of the overseers acted partial to me; Rickman was his name. He said, “Baskin, I done seen you eyeing that Yoruba gal, she ain’t but about seventeen, fresh as they come. Take her home to your digs for a day or two, while we get this mess sorted out. Give yourself a well-deserved break. Nobody will be the wiser, and I owe you a favor or two. I know I can count on you to take good care of her.”

In those few lines Payne has recreated the umbrage of slavery, opening the curtains for an intensely moving historical fiction novel. The plot is well condensed as follows: ‘The setting is Maysville, Kentucky, 1833—thirty years before the War Between the States will tear our fledgling nation asunder. But on the dusty roads just south of the freedom line, schoolteacher Dana Curbstone and preacher Cal Fenton have already begun their private war on the institution of slavery. When they conspire to smuggle escaped slave Jacob Pingram across the Maysville River, Pingram’s masters dispatch retired slave tracker Dan Baskin to retrieve their human cargo and bring the two budding abolitionists to justice. But Baskin has his own war to wage. Pingram knows the whereabouts of another former slave, Abejide, and the determined tracker’s quest to learn the fate of the woman he loved and lost sets slave and freeman alike hurtling toward an electric showdown on the mud-slick banks of the Maysville River from which nobody will escape unscathed.’

At once dark and raw, yet also poetic in the choices of period communication, this novel zooms to the top of the shelves of important books dealing with slavery and the abolitionist movement. Well sculpted characters help define the immediacy of the message of the story. Would that everyone would spend time with this fine novel! Highly recommended.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.