If you couldn’t put Edward Rutherford’s wonderful novel, The Known World, down, here are some more books you will probably like.
More about Slavery in Virgina
The Known World is set near Richmond, Virginia. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson held people as slaves. While George Washington has a reputation for a fairly enlightened view and freed everyone he held at his death, he and his wife, Martha, used an elaborate rotation scheme to keep their enslaved servants from being in the North long enough to claim freedom while he served in office, and then ruthlessly pursued Ona Judge, who escaped his household (while legally free).
Thomas Jefferson kept Sally Hemings, who he held in slavery, as his concubine for decades. Not only did he “own” her: Hemings was also likely his deceased wife’s half sister.
If you only read one of the two, The Hemingses of Monticello better written than Never Caught. Although we do have direct testimony from Ona Judge and not from Sally Hemings, Dunbar makes far too many assumptions when interpreting what historical figures thought and felt.
These two recent novels are decent reads. As a Virginian, it’s clear to me that Kathleen Grissom didn’t really know our Commonwealth when she wrote her book, The Kitchen House. The Yellow Wife, set in Richmond, suffers from a weak ending but is based on real people. Sadeqa Johnson lives in Richmond, and she describes the area well.
If I were going to choose one of these, I’d go for The Yellow Wife; the themes of both books are similar.
Find more books similar to The Kitchen House here.
Other fiction and nonfiction accounts of the Slave System
They Were Her Property is a jaw dropping read. Ironically, many well-to-do Southern women used the slave trade as a means for maintaining some economic independence inside of marriage and participated in all aspects of the slave economy. While Gordon-Reed handled the Hemings family’s lack of literacy, which meant they left few written records, remarkably well, Stephanie Jones-Roberts used the written testimonies of slavery survivors collected and recorded during the Great Depression, in the 1930’s, as one of Roosevelt’s schemes to provide employment to writers.
You can read more about They Were Here Property here.
Other than The Known World, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the most important novel to read about slavery, but be warned, it is a very challenging read. Aside from the subject matter, there are frequent jumps in time, place, and even style. It is worth it.
Most people have heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was famous in its day and is now arguably a victim of its own success since the story has been told so many times, and in such a superficial way, that its power has been diluted. If you’ve never read the original, you really should. It is much more nuanced than you think.
Lesser known, and less well written, but still compelling, is Dred, a novel about encampments of people, including free African Americans and fugitive enslaved people, who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina. If you really want to be left alone, go where no one else can stand to be.
Note: Dred and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are both in the public domain and available at Project Gutenberg as a FREE download. Before purchasing any public domain book on Amazon, please read our article on what to look for when purchasing a public domain book there.