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Caryl Phillips: Crossing the River

Phillips has made much of his career writing about the slave trade and this is one of his best-known novels on the issue. Its starts with an African man selling his three children (two boys and a girl) into slavery, as his crops had failed. We follow their stories in this novel.

The first story concerns Nash Williams. He had been sold to a slave owner, Edward Williams, but Williams was a man who has doubts about slavery and freed his slaves, including Nash. Nash, with his former owner’s support, had gone off to Liberia, specifically to convert the natives to Christianity. While most other immigrants had stayed in and around Monrovia, he had moved out into the country and had had, apparently, extraordinary success in his conversions. The section on Nash consist of letters Nash has written to Edward Williams, though we learn that Edward Williams has heard from another former slave, Madison Williams, that Nash seems to have disappeared. Edward decides to make the journey to Liberia himself, though he is getting on in years and we learn of his often very difficult journey. Meanwhile, Nash is still writing and recounting both his successes but also the problems, primarily the weather and the incidence of fever, leading to the death of his wife and children, as well as of others. Indeed, he is encouraged to leave the country area and return to Monrovia. We also learn that he asks Edward Williams for assistance – money, equipment, seed, etc. – but, apparently, he is not getting a reply. (We learn the reason for this later on.) But it is apparent that Nash is changing, going native. He acquires extra wives and abandons his mission. Edward, who is now tired, does track Nash down but the situation is not good.

The second story concerns Martha. She had been a slave and she, too, had obtained her freedom but by escaping from her owners who were planning to sell her. While a slave, she had a daughter, Eliza Mae, but when her owner died, he sold her husband, her daughter and Martha to different owners and she never saw them again. Naturally, she was keen to track down her daughter. Now, an old woman, she hears about a wagon train, consisting only of black people, heading out West, where things are apparently better for the blacks. She persuades them to take her and she will act as a cook and nurse. But we know from the beginning of her story that things have not worked out, as she seems to have been abandoned in a street in a Western town, as is indeed the case.

The story moves on to give a ship’s log of a trading ship (with a few letters from the captain to his wife). The ship is mainly buying and trading for slaves and the captain, in a matter of fact manner, describes the difficulty in obtaining quality adult slaves and the increasing cost of them. Right at the end, we learn that he has acquired 2 strong man-boys, and a proud girl, presumably Nash, Martha and Travis.

The final section does indeed concern Travis but is set in World War II. The small sections are given a date though they are not told in strict chronological order. The story is told by a white woman, called Joyce, who lives in a village in Yorkshire. She works in a factory, has a fling with an actor and gets pregnant. He disappears and though she tracks him down, he escapes again, so she has an abortion. Eventually, to her mother’s disgust, she marries Len and they run a small shop. Joyce is not happy in her marriage. Len is not in good health so cannot join the army, so they continue in their shop but Len has been running a black market operation and is arrested and sent to prison. He comes back but Joyce wants nothing more to do with him and he leaves. At this time, she meets a US army soldier, Travis, and they have a brief fling. Of course, she becomes pregnant by him. She tries to contact him in Italy but cannot do so and she is left to make a decision about their child.

Phillips, of course, is showing the situation of the blacks through the ages, the struggle to survive and the struggle to know where they belong, both key themes in his work. Does Nash belong in the US or Liberia and, if so, is he American with its values or African with its values? Martha has struggled to find her place. Most of all she has struggled to find her daughter, cruelly snatched away from her. Travis is in a foreign country, yet finds more solace with a foreign white woman than with his own kind, where he is seemingly not well treated. It is a poignant and fascinating tale, even if a bit fragmented.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Bloomsbury