Did you know the roots of slavery date back to 6800 B.C.?
It was then that Mesopotamia emerged as the world’s first thriving city with land ownership and the very earliest stages of technology. What came after? War and thus, slavery – back then, the captured enemies were forced to work for their capturers.
Over millennia, slavery has diminished but not completely. Here we are in 2021, and believe it or not, slavery still thrives in parts of the world. The Hard Side of the River: A Novel of Abolition by Johnny Payne is a story about slavery in early 19th-century Maysville, Kentucky.
Before I explain why you should read this book, a bit of history first. In 1833, about 28 percent of white families enslaved African Americans, and only 5 percent of these families had 100 or more slaves. In Lexington, where most of the slave trade took place, slaves outnumbered slave owners. Amid this insanity, there were slave rescuers who helped free slaves and slave trappers who tried to capture runaway slaves and return them to their masters (for a high fee, of course). Johnny Payne brilliantly tells their story in The Hard Side of the River.
A historical fiction novel and rendered one of the best-written books I’ve ever read, Payne writes first-rate prose throughout his novel. He brings to life the characters of the 19th century with nothing less than brilliance. His well-researched and detailed descriptions, beautifully-written paragraphs, and character development left me in awe. If you are a lover of literature and exemplary prose, you will love reading this book! Honestly, it is rare to discover a writer who captures the essence of the period and characters exceptionally like Payne.
Set thirty-two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Payne takes us through the story of a runaway slave, a slave trapper, slave advocates who risked their lives to help slaves escape and find freedom, a runaway white girl, and more. Character Dan Baskin, a slave trapper, searches for a former slave-woman he loved, runs into trouble on the banks of the Maysville River, and the story unfolds (I won’t spoil it for you). Not only is Payne’s book a story about physical enslavement and abolition, but it also illustrates how humans enslave themselves by their demons, thoughts, choices, and actions.
I recommend The Hard Side of the River: A Novel of Abolition by Johnny Payne to anyone interested in 19th-century American history, slavery in the United States and the abolition movement, or black history. Anyone who wants to understand the racial conflict and tensions in the United States with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) should read this book for perspective. Although not a book on the BLM movement, the context demonstrates the roots of slavery in the U.S.
A bit about the author, Johnny Payne:
Johnny Payne is a native of Kentucky. In addition to The Hard Side of the River, he is also the author of Confessions of a Gentleman Killer, Bedfellows, and other writings including poetry. He has written a collection of plays: Los Feliz, Touchstone, and Cannibals, and directs the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. In addition, he is currently writing a collection of essays, The Reluctant Assassin, which will be completed sometime in 2021.
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