In The Upper Country by Kai Thomas

In The Upper Country is a masterful debut novel by Kai Thomas about the role Canada played in the history of enslavement. 

In The Upper Country by Kai Thomas

In The Upper Country is set in 1859, deep in the forests of Canada, in a town called Dunmore. Here, an elderly woman sits behind bars for killing an American bounty hunter after escaping enslavement via the Underground Railroad. Now the fragile peace of Dunmore, a town settled by people fleeing the American South, hangs by a thread. Sinda Martin, a young reporter, wants to gather the woman’s testimony before she can be condemned, but the old woman is not interested in confessions. She instead comes up with a proposal: a story for a story. As the women swap stories, Sinda must face her past. And it seems the old woman may carry a secret that could shape Sinda’s destiny. 

In The Upper Country is a powerful novel that is alive with history, lyrical prose, and imaginative power. Thomas’s exploration of the less widely-known history of slavery is especially commendable. In The Upper Country offers an interesting examination of Canada’s role as a refuge for runaway slaves and the towns, like the fictional town of Dunmore, that would be entirely made up of runaway slaves. Thomas also looks at other parts of enslavement that are not part of the mainstream school curriculum, such as the intertwined history of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada. It was particularly fascinating here to hear of the way in which Black and Indigenous peoples formed relationships to combat slavery, forging their two communities together in a stand of unity. 

Furthermore, the format of the novel works incredibly well. Thomas uses the format of oral storytelling as Sinda and the old woman exchange stories with each other. In this sense, we get stories within stories, allowing us to meet numerous characters, all of whom had their own fascinating tales and journeys. Although the novel takes place in a jail cell, this mode of storytelling made the book feel like a sprawling epic, packed with a rich history of characters and places, spanning a lengthy timeline. This format also felt authentic and appropriate for the subject matter here, as Thomas reinforces the importance of oral storytelling in keeping the history of slavery alive. Without oral storytelling, much of the history of slavery would be lost, as the majority of slaves were unable to read or write. 

All in all, In The Upper Country is an eye-opening novel about the history of enslavement and the importance of storytelling across generations. 

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