“I was born before cars. I was born before the War Between the States … I have seen babies born, I have seen death and I have walked the Trail of Tears – Nunna daul Isunyi – the Trail Where We Cried. I have been a slave and I have been free. This is my story, the story of my family, the good and the bad of it.”
If I remember only one thing about Sharon Ewell Foster’s historical fiction Abraham’s Well, it will be Armentia’s voice. This part-Cherokee, part-Negro slave tells her story in first person. It is the story of an actual historical event – the forced removal, in 1838, of Indians and mixed race people from their homes in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky, to Oklahoma. Armentia and her family walk, with thousands of others, 1,000 miles from North Carolina to the Oklahoma Indian Territory. Armentia then takes us with her to the plantations and farms of her various owners. Finally after emancipation, we return home with her to a mixed-blessing freedom.
The book is an interesting study of a developing character. Armentia’s childhood memories are vivid and good. When the Trail of Tears brings that idyllic time to an end, we see an impish child become cowed and silenced by things like the Gestapo-like soldiers shooting an old woman because she won’t stop singing. After the family reaches its destination, life hands Armentia more cruel surprises and she becomes an expert at denying her feelings, even to herself. However, these trials mature her. By the end of the story, she looks back on her life with a stoic acceptance that is not marred by bitterness.
A host of other characters make their way through the story. Many of them are family members – her mother, father, and brother Abraham are key. A few are actual people from history. Though none stays with Armentia to the end, they keep resurfacing in her memory as people who are still with her in some way.
Besides character, this book majors on themes. A main one is comprised in slavery and its flip side, freedom. It is interesting to note how enslavement affects people in the story differently. Some are debilitated and paralyzed by it. It enrages others. In still others it fuels a flickering but stubborn hope that tomorrow will be better.
Armentia’s parents are in that last category. Hope is nourished in Armentia’s mother, especially through her Christian faith, as evidenced by the Negro Spirituals she sings. Though Armentia suppresses this optimism throughout her youth, the seeds sown by her parents do finally bear fruit. Despite much of the story being gloomy, that ever-present hope keeps it from becoming depressing.
Foster’s writing ability shines in the captivating and the archetypal wise-old-woman voice of Armentia. She taps into the Cherokee side of Armentia’s heritage, giving her words a poetic lilt that make her seem kin to natural things:
- But years ago, before fences and wires, when people lived to be old, it was quiet. It was quiet enough to hear the frogs croaking, to hear a bird’s wings flapping and to know what kind it was. It was quiet enough to hear that there was water nearby, quiet enough to hear the wind talk.
Cherokee words sprinkled here and there and God referred to as the “Great One” add authenticity. Not surprisingly, natural things like water and birds, and ancient things like wells keep reappearing till they have amassed the weight of symbols.
Abraham’s Well will introduce you to a character you won’t soon forget. The little known historic event it portrays will open your eyes to an ugly episode in American history. But by book’s end, like Armentia you will be stronger and wiser for having taken the journey.