Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat

Phoebe is a slave on Arnold Duncan's Whitehaven Plantation located in Virginia in 1858. When Phoebe was only six years old,  her mother was sold off to another owner and from that time she's never spoken. Now sixteen years old, Phoebe looks after Tessa Duncan, the daughter of the plantation owner, brushing her hair and laying out her clothes.

The story begins with Will, one of the slaves owned by Duncan, being brought back by the overseer Brutus after attempting to escape. Brutus is ordered to "peel and pickle" him, meaning that Will is to be whipped until there is no skin remaining and then salt water poured on the wounds causing extreme pain. Duncan believes that Will, who is a very large man, is a valuable slave and he's determined to "break" him and then breed him. Duncan also owns Will's younger brother Shadrach.

Over the past year Miss Tessa has been tutored by Mr. Cooke to learn to read. Unknown to anyone else, Phoebe has learned to read while fanning Miss Tessa and Cooke as they study. Since it is against the law for a slave to learn to read and write, Phoebe keeps this a secret. She hopes one day to check the master's red book to learn where her mother has been sent.

One day Shad announces to Beatrice who is the cook and to Phoebe that a doctor is coming to the plantation the following week to study Virginian birds. The arrival of Doctor Ross Bergman, an ornithologist from Canada peeks everyone's interest including Phoebe. Arnold Duncan whose great-great-grandfather came from Scotland, is the first Duncan in five generations to have no son to pass on the plantation. His land is almost spent and he needs fresh land to grow tobacco. To buy land, Arnold Duncan hopes to attract Bergman's money.  Duncan is also keenly aware that times are changing with the North turning on the South and the slaves against their masters. The days of a plantation run on the backs of black slaves may be nearing its end.

Phoebe finds Dr. Bergman most interested in her, but even more so when Miss Tessa informs him that Phoebe seems to "have a way with birds". Master Duncan orders Phoebe to accompany Dr. Bergman to the woods to show him where the cedar waxwings nest. Missus Duncan is not happy about this. The next morning Miss Tessa accompanies Dr. Bergman and Phoebe into the woods. Both Shad and Bea worry about Phoebe going into the woods with the white doctor.  Miss Tessa's constant talking means they find no birds. For Tessa the walk and the heat are tiresome and she's not interested in birds but in attracting Dr. Bergman as a potential husband.

At dinner that night, Master Duncan is angry about a suspected abolitionist who has been showing up at the plantations and helping slaves to escape up north. On another outing to find birds, Bergman draws bird nests and is introduced to a more detailed tour of life on the plantation by Miss Tessa, one that sees him witness a black slave being beaten. He keeps his feelings carefully hidden although he does tell Miss Tessa that her use of the Bible as a justification for keeping slaves is not correct.

Dr. Bergman simply bides his time hoping to get Phoebe alone. His chance comes the very next day when Miss Tessa is made to remain at the house for a lesson with Mr. Cooke. Phoebe takes "Dr. Birdman" as she calls him, out into the woods for more birding. Wary of his intentions, she waits until he takes a nap to go to her "hidey-hole" in the tree where she has hidden her journal. Bergman follows her there and watches Phoebe as she sits quietly with an little bird in her hands. When she returns Bergman tells Phoebe he needs her to help him and to keep a secret. He wants her to bring him a slave who has tried to escape to her hollow tree. Phoebe agrees to do this.

Shad, suspicious of Dr. Bergman's intentions, follows Phoebe and the doctor into the woods. Although nothing happens to Phoebe, Shad remains watchful. The next day Master Duncan releases Will from the shed because he needs his tobacco harvested quickly. Phoebe delivers Bergman's message to Will and they meet him at the hollow tree where the doctor tells Will to bring men he trusts to the tree the following night.  The next night Will brings Levi, Joe and Davey to meet Dr. Bergman. Unknown to them Phoebe is hiding within the tree and hears their plans.  Bergman tells the slaves that not all white men are like Master Duncan, that he is there to help them escape and that many hundreds of slaves have escaped to the north and to freedom. Only they can choose to take the risk and Bergman requests that if they choose not to, that they tell no one. He asks them to meet him at Carson's Corner in ten days. Can Will and his friends and Phoebe trust that the white man is telling the truth? Will they have the courage to grasp this chance at freedom? And will Shad discover the truth of slavery before it's too late?


The Gospel of Truth is told in free verse by six narrators: the slaves Phoebe, Shad and Will as well as Master Duncan and his daughter Tessa Duncan and the abolitionist, Dr. Bergman. The novel is set in 1858, only two years before the election of Abraham Lincoln and three years before the start of the American Civil War. In 1858 America, slavery was ubiquitous in the south where plantation owners used black slaves to work crops of hemp, tobacco and cotton. Slavery had been essentially abolished in the northern states by 1804, but with many plantations in the south switching over to growing cotton, the use of slave labour was firmly entrenched. There were millions of black slaves living in the southern United States by 1958. However, the movement to abolish slavery altogether began to grow rapidly after 1830. At this time free blacks and white abolitionists began actively helping slaves to escape to the northern states or into Canada. The route of safe houses and those willing to help became known as the Underground Railroad.  At this time the southern states were beginning to face an economic crisis as the land began to fail. Those living in the southern United States saw the northern state's abolitionist views as an attack on their way of life. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, seven southern states left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. This secession eventually led to the beginning of the Civil War and ultimately to the war becoming about the issue of slavery.

The use of verse to tell the story of courageous men and women who risked everything to escape slavery is an effective means of storytelling because it pares the narrative down to its essentials and focuses on the humanity of the slaves. Pignat does touch on many of the realities of institutionalized slavery: the brutal beatings, whippings and torture undertaken to "break" slaves, the selling of mothers away from their children and children from their mothers, the rape of slave girls by their masters and the use of slave women as concubines.  In The Gospel Truth, Phoebe, Will and the other slaves must overcome their conditioning by their white master to accept their fate and their fear of the white man to realize the truth written in their hearts that she belongs to no one and that "owning people is wrong."  The white plantation owners deliberately keep their black slaves ignorant, unable to read or write, meaning they were completely dependent upon their owners. Phoebe secretly learns to read in the hopes that she can learn what happened to her mother.

Pignat also demonstrates that the racist view of the slaves was part of white family life and passed from generation to generation of Americans. For  example, when Miss Tessa is out birding with Dr. Bergman  they witness the brutal beating of a girl whose fallen behind the line. Tessa tells Dr. Bergman,
"We buy, breed, feed, clothe, house, and train them,"
Miss Tess parrot.
"And if need be, we sell them.
But we take good care of our property."

"Your people," he say.

"Oh, Doctor," she roll her eyes,
and say what master always say,
"they're not people...

they're Negroes."

She attempts to explain that her belief is supported by the Bible to which Dr. Bergman suggests that "...some people misinterpret even God's truth."

Readers also see the effect of slavery on families and marriages. The use of slaves as concubines undermined many marriages. Master Duncan's rape of Ruthie, Phoebe's mother and the birth of Phoebe destroy the Duncan's marriage as Missus Duncan refuses her husband afterwards. This results in Arnold Duncan having no male heir for his plantation.

The theme of truth is woven throughout the novel. When Phoebe is taunted by Ella Mae Bea tells Phoebe that the reason Ella Mae hates her is because Phoebe's father is a white man, Master Duncan.  She tells Phoebe that "I've been protecting you for ten years no. But I see I can't protect you from everything...'Specially not the truth." Bea tells Phoebe it's time she knows the truth.

Later on Shadrach finds the bag containing the items Dr. Bergman gave Will for his escape as well as Phoebe's journal in the hollow tree. Shad tells Phoebe that he thinks Will is going to try to escape again but that he has prevented this by taking the bag and he has given her journal to Master Duncan so he can find out "who been leading my brother astray."  This terrifies Phoebe who tells herself that she cannot run from the truth, she can't hide the truth that she knows how to read and write. Shad is horrified when he learns the truth about the journal - that it belongs to Phoebe who knows how to read and write. As Shad struggles to uncover the truth of what is going on, he is forced to choose between Phoebe who wants to run to freedom and Master Duncan who promises to make him overseer. Phoebe finds her voice to tell Shad the truth of why she's running:
"I ain't Master's shame," she say,
eyes puddled up with tears.
"I ain't Tessa's toy,
or even your girl, Shad."
She shrug.
"I's Phoebe. Just Phoebe. I belong to no one."

She tells Shad,
"--owning people is wrong.
shameful wrong, Shad.
And that's the gospel truth."

In the end Phoebe states that
"It takes courage
                to see truths
                that we'd rather not."

There is plenty of symbolism to explore in this novel particularly around the yellow bird that Phoebe finds injured at the beginning of the novel. She takes the bird, which has a broken wing, home and places it in a cage. Phoebe believes that

"sometimes the safest place to be is 
in a cage."

This is a truth for Phoebe. However as time passes, the bird languishes, refusing to eat or sing. Phoebe returns to where she found the yellow bird and watches the same birds who are free, discovering that they eat worms and bugs. When she brings home a worm, the yellow bird responds and finally moves in the cage. Phoebe comes to understand that although the yellow bird's wing has mended its heart is broken. Miss Tessa wonders why the yellow bird won't sing and makes the connection that like Phoebe, it is mute. However she fails to understand why this might be. When Phoebe plans to run and take Will's bag containing the items he will need to escape to him at Carter's Corner, she remembers to free the yellow bird. She recognizes that although the bird is safe in the cage, it is not living the life it was meant to.
"Sure, I keep her alive,
but I's keeping her
from living like a yellow bird should."

Phoebe also understands how being caged has affected the yellow bird.
"Miss Tessa said the bird is tame.
Tame is just another word for broke.
Her wing is long healed.
But numbed by what life she knows behind these bars,
Yellowbird stopped hoping for one beyond them.
Truth is,
that cage is hurting her in ways I can't fix.
I keep her alive,
but she's living half-dead.

So Phoebe does what she has to - "I throw her at the dark and all its dangers."  She sets the yellow bird free and when free, the bird sings "like a yellow bird should."

The yellow bird represents Phoebe who as a slave, is living in a cage called Whitehaven, unable to leave and unable to live her life as she is meant to. Like the yellow bird, she and Will and the others must flee into the "dark and all its dangers" to escape their cage of slavery. And Phoebe herself, once she makes the choice to escape, finds her voice to tell Shad why it is that she must go. On the verge of freedom she speaks, just as the yellow bird once free, begins to sing again.

The Gospel Truth is a wonderfully crafted novel with a remarkable heroine as its focus. Winner of the 2015 Governor General Award, The Gospel Truth represents historical fiction at its best, capturing the era in a realistic manner with believable characters. Caroline Pignat is a Canadian author whose novel Greener Grass won the 2009 Governor General Award. Pignat is an English teacher in Ottawa.

Book Details:

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat
Brighton, Massachusetts: Red Deer Press    2014
327 pp.

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