Synopsis of Sarah’s Journey
After losing her court case, Sarah and her two white children are sold to a slave dealer who rapes her and then must wait for her child to be born before selling her and the three children. She escapes when her youngest is three weeks old. Methodists, including the father of her first white child who is now a minister, and Quakers help her to safe houses in Ohio. A resourceful guide takes them on a perilous horseback ride through the wilderness to Cleveland. There she is tutored in freedom before being helped to a free Upper Canada where she finds work for an exploiting black innkeeper.
A young Scots entrepreneur, Duncan Campbell, sent by Montreal merchants to the village of Birdtown to save its retail business falls in love with Sarah and arranges for her, when she is pregnant, to come to his area, now called Simcoe, and work for a farmer. After their son is born, he employs her as his housemaid. Freed slaves and escaped slaves make up much of Simcoe’s population. They are tradespeople who work on the houses in contradistinction to mill workers in nearby Brantford.
Sarah makes friends with both black and white immigrants. The reader meets interesting characters and becomes immersed in the activities and working life of the town’s inhabitants and its growth under the leadership of Duncan Campbell. Her children grow, work and fall in love. Meanwhile in Virginia her two black children young Henry and Mary are visited occasionally and clandestinely by their father who works as a horse healer. When James Campbell dies 18 years later and they are about to be sold, they are helped by a conductor on the underground railway, sent by their father. George Smith, otherwise known as the Black Pimpernel, takes them to Upper Canada. After they are reunited with their mother, Smith marries Mary and runs a barbershop in Simcoe, from which he continues his work on the underground railway. Bounty hunters from the states and their connections to tavern keepers, largely Americans, who sell inebriated blacks to them to be whisked across the lake into slavery, are a constant danger.
When the Duncombe Rebellion of 1837-38 divides the inhabitants into rebels and loyalists, the blacks are loyal to a man because the rebels, headquartered in Cleveland, have arranged their uprising in co-ordination with invasions by American irregular forces, organized from Hunters Lodges along the Great Lakes. Should the rebellion succeed, the Americans would re-introduce slavery. Owing to the ignominious failure of Mackenzie’s rebel group in Toronto, the Duncombe rebels are easily defeated by loyalist forces, among whom are militia from Simcoe, including blacks, before they could march on Brantford and Simcoe. The reader sees the inner workings of the rebellion through the eyes of the husband of Sarah’s white daughter, an aide to Duncombe, and George Smith who infiltrated rebel ranks.
Meanwhile John Lewis, Sarah’s son by Duncan Campbell, makes his way into the textile business and marriage in New York under the guise of Creole ancestry. He keeps inquisitive people, including lawyers, at a distance because should they discover that he was a slave as the son of a slave, he would be ruined.
An incident involving the corpse of a white woman, the wife of a poor black man, which is left in a wagon on the main street, leads to a public debate “Is Poverty Owing to Misfortune?” with Duncan Campbell as one of the arbitrators. This chapter is, for some, the novel’s high point.
American free states are forced by slave states to adopt laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act which puts political pressure on Upper Canada, exemplified by the escaped slave Anderson, accused of murdering a white man when escaping, and his trial in Canada.
Sarah’s children in Canada endure tragedies in love while her son John in New York must divorce his wife and has a daughter by an actress who dies from child birth. He commits his daughter to a convent. Sarah, secretly supported financially by her son, loses her memory and wanders off to the north where she is imprisoned as a vagrant. Her children cannot locate her. Her son John comes to her grave site and erects a tombstone but does not reveal his name to the warden of the jail who helps him. His accidental death in Central Park gives a lawyer with whom he had disagreements the opportunity to delve into his secret past and challenge his will. His daughter and his two legitimate siblings, the black Henry and Mary, are headlined to inherit his fortune, but much of it is lost to the lawyers in wrangling through the courts.