Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Purchase


Linda Spalding’s novel The Purchase is a heartbreaking story about a Quaker man named Daniel Dickinson who remarries a Methodist woman after his wife dies in childbirth. He is shunned by his community for his decision to remarry outside of his religion so he decides to pack up his five motherless children, his new wife, and all of his earthly belongings to move away from Pennsylvania and start a new life in Virginia.


Beginning in 1798 the story covers a rather long period of time in it’s two parts. The first part of the novel focuses on Daniel’s decision to move, his struggles to provide for his family in this new frontier, and the difficulties he has adapting to a community that is not Quaker. He struggles most with slavery, being himself an abolitionist, and finds himself buying a young slave boy named Onesimus. Daniel, having only gone to the auction to purchase tools for his new land, believes it may have been God’s will that he purchase this slave boy. Despite the fact that he bid beyond his means to purchase Simus, and becomes indebted to the slave auctioneer, Daniel brings Simus home to help him build a house for his family. Daniel must continue to remind himself that he must have purchased Simus for some reason, because he remains ashamed of himself for becoming a slave owner and inwardly cringes whenever he speaks harshly to Simus.


While helping to build the Dickinson home, Simus slips and breaks his leg. Daniel sends his eldest daughter, Mary, to run for help to a nearby neighbour, Jester Fox. Fox sends his own slave girl, Bett, who is a gifted healer to Simus’ aid. The two become close while Bett continues to tend to Simus’ leg; Bett even begins to sneak away from her shed on the Fox property at night to visit with Simus. Until this point in the novel, most of the hardships are based off of money and the debts Daniel faces while trying to build a new life for his family.


But here, Daniel and his family are now exposed to the harsh realities of slavery in the more southern parts of America. Bett becomes pregnant and her owner Jester Fox is furious with Daniel, claiming that Simus has fathered the baby and saying that he will have to beat Simus in order to teach him a lesson. Daniel refuses to let this happen saying that the two young slaves were likely lonely and found solace in each other’s company.


The disheartening novel that opens with new beginnings seems to thwart the idea, of a hope for a future, at every chance, but the novel ends with a small sense of hope. Hope that people like the Dickinsons with their open hearts, were the change that the abolitionist movement needed. The reader gets a sense that no matter what terrible things may come, there is always some small shred of hope to hold onto. Though most of the novel is about heartbreak and loss, it ends with the outlook for a happier story to begin and the hope for change in a cruel world.