In Eleanor Shearer’s eloquent debut novel, “River Sing Me Home,” Rachel, along with the other enslaved people on Providence Plantation in Barbados, has just heard the joyous news that they are now free. Except they’re not. While the British parliament has passed the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, they must continue to work six more years as unpaid “apprentices” before their freedom takes legal effect.
Still, this hint of freedom, this promise, is enough to fire the spark in Rachel that has lain dormant for years. She decides to search for her five adult children, who were taken from her and sold over the years to plantations across the British Caribbean.
Micah. Mary Grace. Thomas Augustus, Cherry Jane, Mercy.
“We whisper the names of the ones we love like the words of a song. That was the taste of freedom to us, those names on our lips,” Shearer writes.
The author draws us into the journey, as Rachel leaves behind not only a world of sugar cane fields and savage dogs, but also her own insignificance. On the run, she follows the river and doesn’t stop until she catches her first glimpse of the sea. Viewing its vastness, she feels life spreading out before her. The sea will form part of the great heart of her story. The river will be its arteries, flowing both to and from it.
Mama B, a free black woman, finds her there and divines her purpose: “Me see it in your face. Your pickney. You want to find them.”
While some parts of the novel’s dialogue are written in the vernacular, the manner in which this is handled is one of the most admirable things in the book. Dialect is used not to define but to elucidate character. No one would get the impression that because Shearer dispenses with nouns or uses words like “pickney” for “children” that we are dealing with anything less than strength. The meaning always comes across. And the people expressing themselves in this manner are treated not with condescension but with respect.
The trail that Rachel embarks on will take her not only to the far reaches of the Caribbean but on an inward journey that will see her grow beyond the view she has been taught to have of herself. She will come to recognize and then deeply appreciate her own competence and strength.
Shearer’s gift is to show us that Rachel’s story is our story. We all want to construct a place to call home. We all want to constitute (or, in Rachel’s case, re-constitute) a family. The journey toward this safe place called “home” can take many forms, and does, but the longing itself is universal.
“Rachel was reminded of when a stone dropped into water and the ripples fanned outward, their bands distorting but never quite escaping the original shape of the splash that created them.”
Hers will not, of course, be an easy undertaking. Few life-altering journeys are. But what is so hope-filled about Rachel’s quest is the way she expands to meet the world as it expands around her. She will encounter good white men and bad ones. Good Black men and those who despise their own race. She will learn to know the Indigenous Carib peoples who inhabited the islands and grew prosperous well before the arrival of Europeans or enslaved Africans. She will master new skills. She will find herself – and this discovery will be a revelation.
Some of the situations she encounters will be fraught and some of them better than she expected. But none of them turn out to be exactly as she anticipated when she looked out through the lens of slavery on Providence Plantation.
This another reason Rachel’s story, her quest, is so universal. We grow. And as we do, the world grows around us, shifting and changing as we walk through it.
Toward the end of the novel, at the moment of what appears to be the greatest danger, as she is pulled swiftly through raging waters, Rachel finds herself thinking, “Could it be? They had plunged unthinkingly into the river. Had it really brought them where they wanted to go?” To freedom. To family. To home. And once she realizes this, she starts singing. “It was a song Rachel recognized. … An Akan song, a song of their ancestors, a song with a melody that vibrated in Rachel’s bones, where it had been sung once before, long ago.”
And, in the end, it is following that river of freedom that has sung her home.